Published: 29 February 2016
1. Mdm Speaker, I would like to thank Mr Ang Wei Neng, Mr Christopher De Souza and Ms Sylvia Lim for their support of the Bill. All of them have raised a couple of questions which I will address.
HOW THE PROPOSED AMENDMENTS TIE IN WITH SINGAPORE'S EXISTING INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION EFFORTS
2. Mdm, Mr Ang asked how the RCA amendments would complement existing working arrangements we have with other countries. Let me first set the context for how international cooperation in criminal matters is carried out today.
3. Singapore relies on a combination of formal and informal cooperation channels to exchange information with our foreign counterparts.
4. The Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act (MACMA) provides a formal channel under which our law enforcement agencies may render legal assistance to foreign law enforcement agencies in respect of any criminal matter. For instance, under MACMA, you can ask for the collection of evidence, search and seizure, freezing of accounts, arrangement for witnesses to be made available in a particular jurisdiction etc.
5. Beyond the MACMA framework for formal assistance, our law enforcement agencies can also render assistance informally either through INTERPOL, which most countries are members of, or directly with our foreign counterparts through Police-to-Police contacts.
6. Currently, any request for register information has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis for public interest. This Bill will clarify that register information can be shared for specific purposes. This will enable us to act more quickly and effectively. For instance, register information can be shared to help identify suspects in time-critical investigations. The Bill also expressly allows register information to be shared as a precursor to a request for formal assistance under the MACMA. In other words, it complements the MACMA process and strengthens our fight against transnational crime.
WHEN WOULD SINGAPORE SHARE CRIMINAL RECORDS?
7. Mdm, members also asked about the mechanics of sharing register information with foreign counterparts.
8. Under the proposed amendments, a foreign law enforcement agency may request for register information for certain purposes specified in the Act. One of which is to compare the register information with information held by the foreign law enforcement agency to identify suspects involved in the investigation of a matter.
9. Exchange of information can also be made to prevent crime. Depending on the arrangement between Singapore and the foreign law enforcement agency, the Singapore designated authority, or the head of CRO, may be able to share register information pursuant to the arrangement even in the absence of a specific request for the transmission of register information. A Singapore designated authority may share such information to assist a foreign law enforcement agency in investigating or prosecuting foreign offences, particularly serious criminal or terrorist offences. Even then, register information will be shared on a limited basis. Foreign law enforcement agencies will not get unfettered access to all of Singapore's records.
10. With regard to the transmission of register information in relation to an investigation of a foreign offence or an investigation to prevent the commission of a foreign offence, I should highlight that the Bill provides for a definition of a "foreign offence". A foreign offence is defined to mean an offence against the law of the foreign country, which if the conduct constituting the foreign offence had occurred in Singapore, would amount to an offence against the law of Singapore punishable with imprisonment for a term exceeding 12 months. This is to ensure that information is not disclosed for non-serious matters.
11. I would also like to assure Mr Ang that the register information to be shared will not include spent criminal records.
HOW WILL THE INFORMATION BE SHARED (SAFEGUARDS)?
12. Now, I come to Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Ang's concerns about safeguards to be imposed, and whether our counterparts could adhere to the conditions they have agreed to undertake and vice versa. Before I go into the details, it is important to recognise the balance that we need to have. On the one hand, we are concerned about confidentiality but equally of concern is the need for law enforcement agencies around the world to get up to pace in terms of international cooperation. Crimes know no boundaries and borders are relatively porous. Transnational organised crimes are sometimes challenging to local and foreign law enforcement agencies. So cooperation is essential. Otherwise, we will fall behind the curve.
13. Mdm, Mr Ang and Ms Lim raised challenges regarding the sharing of information or data on certain shared platforms, such as the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS). We are mindful of this and are careful to ensure that procedures and infrastructure of all parties protect the confidentiality of the information transmitted. We will not deposit register information on such shared platforms.
14. The Ministry understands the privacy concerns associated with the sharing of information or data with foreign jurisdictions. We would like to assure members of the House that the Bill will reduce the potential for misuse of information, and Singapore will not take any breach of confidentiality lightly. I had earlier highlighted the key safeguards. Now, let me elaborate on the relevant provisions.
15. First, in order to allow the sharing of register information between Singapore and a foreign law enforcement agency, the foreign law enforcement agency must give an appropriate undertaking to use the information disclosed only for a specified purpose that is listed under the Act. Requests that are made in a broad or tenuous manner, or "fishing expeditions", will not be acceded to.
16. To be clear, we will not accede to any request for information to be disclosed for any purpose that is unrelated to the prevention and combating of crime and terrorism, such as for employment screening purposes. Foreign law enforcement agencies should also never use our criminal records for such irrelevant purposes. Should they do so or breach any of the terms of the undertaking, there will be consequences, as I will explain shortly.
17. Members asked whether a past criminal record of petty crime would expose a Singaporean to undue security checks at overseas border checkpoints. The answer is no. A criminal record does not automatically result in enhanced checks at checkpoints. Every country, including Singapore, has its own entry requirements to prevent, deter and detect undesirable individuals entering their country. Singaporeans seeking to enter a foreign country must meet the country's entry requirements, which may include holding a valid passport or entry visa. Ultimately, a foreign country retains the right to impose conditions or refuse entry to immigrants at the checkpoint.
18. Second, the foreign law enforcement agency is also required to undertake to protect the confidentiality of information by ensuring that the information is kept and maintained using methods and technologies that ensure that unauthorised persons cannot access the information. A Singapore designated authority will be able to refuse further transmission of register information to a foreign law enforcement agency if the Singapore designated authority is of the opinion that the foreign law enforcement agency has breached any undertaking and does not take steps to rectify the non-compliance.
19. Third, the foreign law enforcement agency must be able to comply with conditions prescribed for the transmission of register information under the Act, and any other conditions that the Singapore designated authority may impose specially in relation to the transmission. This includes complying with any request by Singapore to delete or update the records if a criminal conviction has been rendered spent.
20. These safeguards will ensure that any exchange of information is limited to countries that ensure the confidentiality of information exchanged and prevent its unauthorised use.
21. Ms Lim noted all these safeguards, but her concerns were about how we ensure, on a practical basis, that these safeguards are met. She also mentioned that members of INTERPOL cover much of the globe who are parties to this international cooperation arrangement for law enforcement. Now while the Act does appear to allow us to share information with all these countries, the reality is that we need to strike a balance between cooperation and confidentiality. Singapore will conduct its due diligence in working out arrangements to ensure that undertaking is made. This cannot be done overnight. It involves agencies knowing and meeting each other, and having discussions about the safeguards to be put in place, in order to ensure the level of trust, to allow us to share information expeditiously. Criminals will not wait for you. Sharing of information quickly will help us to deter, prevent and ultimately to solve crimes.
22. Mr De Souza asked about the taking of photographs and fingerprints of persons accused of crimes. We seek to amend the Bill to expand the scope to include persons who are on bail or are given personal bond. Members understand the necessity of having this mechanism. Mr De Souza's concern is what if a person's case has been put in abeyance for some time or if the trial is particularly long, or has been set far in the future. Is it fair that the data is kept in the Register? If you look at Section 4 of the Act, it states that the register of the criminal is kept for person who is convicted of crimes. While the fingerprints and photographs may have been taken at the point of arrest and on bail, they will not be recorded in the Register. It will only be recorded when the case has been completed or has been tried for conviction. If there is subsequent acquittal or when a conviction is rendered spent, then the record will be deleted. This will not unduly compromise person whose trial takes a longer time.
23. Mdm Speaker, in conclusion, the threats of transnational crime and terrorism will continue to grow. To be effective against such threats, we must have greater cooperation and information exchange between law enforcement agencies. This Bill will improve Singapore's ability to cooperate with our international partners, while ensuring that appropriate safeguards are in place.