Published: 07 February 2023
Mr Ang Wei Neng: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs in view of the recent finding of wrongful arrest by the High Court, whether the Police will consider reviewing its operating procedures to minimise such occurrences in the future.
Mr Saktiandi Supaat: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs in light of the recent court finding that an individual has been wrongly arrested by a Singapore Police Force (SPF) officer (a) whether a review of SPF’s procedures in relation to a person suspected to have a mental disorder has commenced; and (b) whether the incident and the results of any such review will be publicly addressed to maintain confidence in the SPF’s ability to deal with cases of suspected mental disorder.
Mr Leong Mun Wai: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs (a) what are the lapses involved in the case of a man who has been awarded $20,000 in damages for being wrongly imprisoned in 2017; (b) what has caused the case to drag on for so long; (c) whether any actions have been taken by the Singapore Police Force against the officers involved; (d) if so, what are these actions; and (e) what actions have been taken to prevent a recurrence of such incidents.
Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law:
1. Mr Speaker, may I have your permission to answer Parliamentary Questions 5 and 6 in today’s order paper? My response will also cover the matters raised in the question by Mr Leong Mun Wai, which is for written reply.
2. In the Mah Kiat Seng case, the High Court made a number of observations about the conduct of a specific police officer. The officer had detained a person under Section 7 of the Mental Health (Care & Treatment) Act (“MHCTA”). The subject was believed to be dangerous by reason of mental disorder. He was reported to have suddenly touched the head of a stranger’s four-year-old child, without having any reason to do so. He was also observed to have behaved erratically. In fact, it was the mother who gave the report.
3. We are studying the Judgment in this case. Our concern is that the Court’s findings may adversely impact the Police’s ability to detain persons under the provisions of the MHCTA, as they stand. AGC will be advising on whether we should file an application for permission to appeal, in respect of the Judgment.
4. Since an appeal may be filed, we usually refrain from commenting in detail on Court decisions – unless it is in the public interest that we do so. The Administration of Justice (Protection) Act provides for statements on pending court proceedings to be made, in such situations. In our view, this is one such case. But nevertheless, I will be careful in what I say, and will be quite constrained and circumscribed.
5. Before I comment on the case itself, let me give Members some perspective. Today, we are one of the safest countries in the world. Our level of safety and security is underpinned by the high levels of trust between the Government and the public, and a system of policing that is highly trusted and effective.
6. In the 2022 Gallup Law and Order Survey, 95% of Singapore residents said they felt safe walking alone on the streets at night. The SPF’s Public Perception Survey in 2021 showed that public trust in the SPF is at 96%. In the same survey, 98% of respondents said that they would provide assistance and information to the Police if there was a need.
7. This would not be possible without the high levels of trust in, and competence of the Singapore Police Force, built up over the years. The framework we have in place, to ensure that our officers behave in accordance with the law, has helped to maintain standards and trust.
8. I will mention the following:
9. First, the Police themselves are the first layer of check. There is a process to investigate any abuse of power. And we ourselves take action against errant officers. People know that we will do so. Patrol officers wear body-worn cameras. Officers’ actions can be assessed, and actions taken.
10. Second, where necessary, we can convene – and we have convened – the Independent Review Panel, or IRP. The IRP consists of former judges, former senior public officers, and other individuals with significant standing in society. It provides an independent assessment on whether the internal investigations were fair and thorough.
11. And third, if criminal offences are potentially disclosed, we recommend court prosecution and let the Courts deal with the matter. The Courts thus provide a third layer of safeguards. The supervision of the Courts is an integral part of ensuring that our system functions properly.
12. To give Members a sense: Over the past three years, an average of 78 police officers have been subject to disciplinary proceedings annually. And about 10 police officers have been charged in court each year, for the past three years, for criminal offences. We will not hesitate to take action when there is an infraction. That is essential to maintain trust with the public, and discipline within the Force.
13. At the same time, while we have to be strict about upholding the highest standards for Police, we have to ensure that our analysis of officers’ ground judgments is reasonable and fair. Police officers work in high-stress and dynamic environments. They often have to make split-second decisions and take decisive action, based on the limited information that they have. It would not be realistic to critique their every move with the benefit of hindsight, removed from the conditions on the ground.
14. The officers must be given sufficient latitude to make swift ground assessments and decisions, as long as they have acted in good faith. An environment in which Police actions are unfairly critiqued, will inevitably undermine public trust in the Police. It will also lead to defensive policing, where the ground officers will try to do the least possible. They will fear that everything they do will be over-analysed and picked apart unfairly. It would be easier, in such situations, to not do anything.
15. Defensive policing is, essentially, no policing. That can have a detrimental effect on our safety and security, and an unfair characterisation of the Force will eventually also lead to the public thinking of the Police as the enemy, and viewing the Police with suspicion. That has happened in other countries. We have, so far, avoided that situation. And we have to be careful to avoid that outcome.
16. On the specifics of this case, we do have some concerns about the judgment that has been delivered, in this respect. The Court found that the detained subject had “unusual” behaviour, but those did not qualify as symptoms of someone with a mental disorder. The Court also said that the officer took a dislike to the detained person, and that the officer had made up observations about him.
17. We are looking closely at the Court’s reasons for reaching these conclusions – Police tell me that they take a different view. Police and AGC will look at these points and decide whether the Court’s decision should be appealed. In deciding what to do, we have to bear in mind that decisions in individual cases – court decisions – can have a much larger and unintended effect of negatively impacting how officers react in future to such situations.
18. The Court also made some comments about several issues in law, such as what the word “danger” in the MHCTA must entail, on the ground, and whether powers for the Police to “apprehend” someone, under the MHCTA, and to “arrest” someone, under the CPC are the same. These comments might have an impact on how the Police can exercise their powers and may have adverse public safety implications.
19. We are studying the Court’s comments carefully. We will then decide whether to file an application for permission to appeal, or make changes to the law as necessary, to address any gaps that may have arisen between the policy intent, and the position in law.
20. If we reach the conclusion that the Court’s findings are, in fact, as advised by AGC, reasonable and correct, then we will have to internalise that, and make sure the key points are made clear to our officers, so that they can understand the situation better. Right now, the sense amongst the police officers is one of concern – on what liability may befall them, for actions which they may take in the discharge of their duties.
21. In summary, there are concerns with the judgment, and we are now considering the next steps.
22. Thank you, Sir.