Published: 04 January 2021
1. Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, on behalf of the Minister for Home Affairs, I beg to move, “That the Bill be now read a second time.”
2. Singapore has consistently been ranked as one of the safest countries in the world. In the most recent Gallup Global Law and Order Report 2020, we were ranked first, for the 7th year running. People feel safe walking alone at night; violent crimes involving weapons are few and far between; and attacks involving guns and explosives are extremely rare.
3. This did not happen by chance. Our highly safe and secure environment is, in large part, attributable to the stringent laws that we have put in place to regulate dangerous activities involving articles such as guns, explosives and other weapons, and the criminalising of unlawful actions involving these items.
4. The Arms and Explosives Act (or AEA) is the primary Act for regulating the handling of guns, explosives, explosive precursors, certain other weapons like swords, daggers and spears, and noxious substances. For simplicity, I shall refer to these items collectively henceforth as ‘GEW’ (Guns, Explosives, Weapons). In addition, for drafting reasons, from here on, by “weapons”, I shall be referring only to those weapons scheduled in the AEA or the Bill like swords, spears and daggers, and not guns or explosives which I shall treat them as separate items.
5.Four other Acts, namely, the Arms Offences Act, Explosives Substances Act, Corrosive and Explosives Substances and Offensive Weapons Act, and Dangerous Fireworks Act, also deal with GEW-related crimes.
6. We cannot take our safety and security situation for granted.
7. First, the threat of an extremist attack remains very real. There have been serious incidents in countries with strict gun and weapon laws. Many of these incidents were not carried out by military organisations or state-sponsored activists, but individuals with extremist views and sentiments, using guns or knives. Among others, the series of religiously-motivated terrorist attacks and the beheading of a school teacher in France late last year, as well as the Christchurch mass shootings in 2019 by a gunman, where 51 individuals lost their lives and 40 were injured.
8. We must not presume that these attacks cannot happen here in Singapore. Recently, 37 individuals were investigated by ISD and the Police for inciting violence, stoking communal unrest, or making derogatory remarks against Muslims. One of them was eventually arrested under the Internal Security Act. He had bought foldable knives in Singapore, which he claimed he would use for attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh.
9. Second, technology is posing an increasing challenge to effective enforcement against GEW-related crimes. The Internet has significantly facilitated the trafficking and manufacture of GEW. One can easily get online and access materials and instructions to manufacture GEW. There are lethal forms of GEW that can be purchased over the Internet.
10. Third, we need to optimise our enforcement resources to better regulate a growing industry. The AEA was last amended in 2007 to introduce regulation for explosive precursors. Since then, the total number of GEW licences has more than doubled, from around 2,000 in 2010 to more than 4,000 in 2020. Every licence requires resources to vet the licensee, and to conduct inspections. The Police, who are currently the regulators under the AEA, need to be able to regulate this growing pool of licensees effectively. Otherwise, there is a risk of lapses going undetected, potentially resulting in disastrous safety or security consequences, such as the recent explosion that happened in Beirut, which killed more than 200 people.
Overview of key amendments
11. The Guns, Explosives and Weapons Control Bill before this House seeks to replace the Arms and Explosives Act, the Explosive Substances Act and the Dangerous Fireworks Act, and make consequential amendments to other GEW-related Acts. The Bill reinforces the Government’s position that any handling of GEW is a privilege that is conditioned on the overriding need to ensure that we meet the objective of public safety and security, and that strict controls are required to achieve this objective.
12. In particular, the Bill will strive to achieve two objections. First, to strengthen our levers to promote safe and secure GEW handling and further minimise the risks posed by GEW, and second, to ensure a more calibrated and coherent enforcement framework for these items.
13. We have, in the process, consulted industry stakeholders to explain the amendments and also obtained their feedback. Let me now explain some of the key amendments.
Key Objective 1: Strengthen levers to promote safe and secure GEW handling and
further minimise the risks posed by GEW
14. We intend to achieve our first objective of strengthening levers to promote safe, secure and responsible GEW handling and further minimise the risks posed by GEW in two ways.
Further tighten controls on high-risk GEW
15. First, by further tightening controls over high-risk GEW.
16. Today, the maximum fines for unlicensed activities involving explosive precursors (EPs) are $100,000 for entities and $50,000 for individuals. However, the maximum fine for arms and explosives is only $10,000, even though the degree of harm that can be caused is comparable to that of EPs. The Bill therefore raises the maximum fines for guns and explosives to match those for EPs.
17. In addition, the Bill also allows Minister for Home Affairs to prescribe items as prohibited GEW, offences related to which will attract even higher fines of up to $100,000 for persons, and $200,000 for entities. These are items which are identified as particularly dangerous or may be more readily concealed and would be particularly suited for unlawful use. For example, certain types of automatic gun commonly used by terrorists, which are highly dangerous and clearly have no legitimate use. No licence will be granted for the handling of these items.
18. Next, the Bill criminalises the unauthorised possession of digital blueprints of guns.
19. Today, a person could easily find on the Internet, materials for gun making, and manufacture a fully workable gun using a 3D printer and a gun blueprint taken from the Internet. As a case in point, in 2019, a shooter in Germany had brought along guns with components that were manufactured using 3D printing. Those guns were eventually not used to carry out the attack, but were his backup arsenal.
20. Clause 13 provides that a person who wants to make a 3D-printed gun or major part of a gun by an additive manufacturing process using a 3D printer or electronic milling machine will need a licence. Without a licence, the mere possession of a digital blueprint of a gun or gun part will be an offence.
21. In this context, ‘possession’ includes the scenario where a person in Singapore physically possesses a storage device containing such a blueprint, as well as the scenario where a person in Singapore stores a blueprint outside Singapore, such as in an overseas cloud storage device.
22. To be clear, the intent is not to target persons who genuinely have no knowledge and could not reasonably be expected to have known, that he or she possessed the digital blueprint for making a gun. For example, a person who merely browses out of curiosity and finds on the Internet a gun blueprint, and the blueprint is only temporarily stored in the browser cache.
23. Next, we have the threat posed by drones laden with GEW. This is a real and serious threat. In 2018, explosives-laden drones were used during an attack on Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuela President, when he was making a public speech. Several members of the Bolivarian National Guard were injured.
24. GEW-laden drones can circumvent conventional physical security measures, such as physical fences and CCTVs.
25. Clause 5 addresses the threat by making it clear that a person who has control over or operates a vessel or vehicle carrying GEW, even if via remote control, is treated as possessing the GEW.
26. The Bill reinforces the 2015 amendment to the Air Navigation Act, which makes it an offence if a person operates an unmanned aircraft and the unmanned aircraft carries a prohibited item, which can be any weapon.
27. The Bill also introduces powers for Licensing Officers to authorise third parties to do low-risk compliance checks, to allow the regulator to focus on high-risk GEW.
28. Currently, all licensing compliance checks are performed by Police officers regardless of the risk posed by the GEW. There is scope to use our limited Police resources more optimally.
29. Our intent is to delegate checks on low-risk items, such as weapons and air guns, to qualified persons.
30. Clause 80 therefore allows the Licensing Officer (or LO), with the approval of the Minister for Home Affairs, to appoint Compliance Officers to exercise certain powers of the LO, such as the powers of inspection.
Improve compliance and enhance Police’s operational effectiveness
31. Next, while the vast majority of the GEW industry are compliant, we continue to encounter episodes of lapse among licensees. Some happened because the licensees wanted to save costs, or wanted to make compliance more convenient for themselves, but in so doing, they compromised safety and security.
32. Any lapse or breach involving GEW can result in catastrophic consequences. MHA has identified areas where we can further improve compliance and enhance regulatory effectiveness.
33. First, the Bill requires specific periodic reporting of GEWs by licensees and allows for inspections by regulators. There are risks to the community when guns, explosives or lethal weapons are not accounted for.
34. Clauses 59, 60 and 61 require licensees to update the Licensing Officer on changes to their management and to periodically report on their conduct of the regulated activities.
35. Clauses 70 to 72 grant the Licensing Officer and authorised officers additional powers, such as powers of inspection and powers to order the production of documents, to determine whether information given to the regulators is correct or whether regulatory action needs to be taken.
36. Second, the Bill expands the scope of regulation to cover GEW-related activities and items more comprehensively, in a calibrated manner. In particular, the Bill introduces a class licensing regime for low or moderate-risk users and activities.
37. Currently, the AEA requires all persons conducting GEW-related activities to be either individually licensed, or to be exempted, which means they will fall outside the Act. But there are certain low- or moderate-risk GEW-related activities which warrant some regulatory control, just not to the extent of individual licensing. For example, students who handle air guns as part of their co-curricular activities in schools, generally do so in the campus compound, which is a relatively secure setting, but some safety and security measures are still needed to prevent misuse or mishandling.
38. Therefore, clauses 56 to 58 introduce a class licence system that will work in lieu of individual licences. Under these clauses, a person who meets certain criteria, which will be set out in subsidiary legislation, such as being a member of a school air gun club, is automatically treated as licensed and allowed to carry out a GEW regulated activity, subject to the conditions. With class licensing, the person need not be put through security clearance, and need not apply for or renew periodically an individual licence.
39. Conversely, under clause 66, the Licensing Officer has the power to suspend or disapply the class licence with respect to a specific class licensee if the LO is satisfied that, inter alia, the class licensee has contravened class licence conditions, is convicted of an offence under a GEW-related Act, or if it is in the public interest or national security of Singapore to do so.
40. To elaborate, public interest grounds include considerations relating to public order as well as public security and safety. For example, if an air gun class licensee is found to be a gang member, Police can then disapply this person from continuing to handle GEW.
41. Next, the Bill also revises our regulatory approach towards weapons and gun accessories. Today, ‘arms,’ as defined under the AEA, covers guns and major gun parts and five specified weapons (i.e. swords, bayonets, daggers, spears and spearheads).
42. This definition has two issues. First, the controls and penalties are not calibrated according to the risk posed by the item. The specified weapons pose lower risks than guns and major gun parts. But the way “arms” is defined now, means that these lower-risk items require the same controls, and offences involving these items carry the same penalties as offences involving guns. Second, other weapons which may pose equal or higher risk as the five specified weapons, such as machetes, are not regulated.
43. Our policy intent is to have a regime that comprehensively controls GEW, and in a manner which is commensurate with their risk. Clauses 29 to 35 create and set out a distinct set of controls, offences and penalties for the specified weapons, to reflect the lower risk they pose vis-à-vis guns and major gun parts.
44. The expanded list of specified weapons to be regulated is reflected in the First Schedule, and will include other dangerous weapons like throwing stars and knuckledusters, which are very unlikely to have common day-to-day uses.
45. In addition, the Bill expands the scope of regulation to cover gun accessories, such as flash suppressors and silencers, which can be used to enhance the performance of guns. However, the penalties for gun accessories are lower than those for guns as they pose a lower risk.
46. The Bill also allows shooting range operations to be regulated, to ensure safety at the range. Today, operating a shooting range is not an activity that needs to be licensed. However, we want to be able to ensure that safety and security measures at shooting ranges are adequate. For example, the Licensing Officer may need to impose requirements for the deployment of a range safety officer or installation of robust perimeter fencing. Clause 19 therefore makes it an offence to operate a shooting range or paintball range without a licence.
47. The Bill also confers on the Licensing Officer (or LO) greater operational flexibility, to act swiftly where necessary to deal with new dangers or where there are increased risks.
48. First, the LO may change the licensing conditions during the tenure of the licence. Today, the LO cannot do so. If the LO needs to impose tighter conditions on the licensee, for example, to deal with changes in the operating environment, the LO must first revoke and then reissue the license. Also, the LO cannot impose tighter conditions on an errant licensee whose breach may not warrant licence suspension or revocation. Clause 54 allows the LO to add, delete or modify conditions during the tenure of a licence, subject to due process.
49. Second, there will be a new power for the Minister for Home Affairs to issue security directions. Sometimes, a security situation requires a more expedient response than what modifying licensing conditions allows, given the need to provide for due process when licensing conditions are changed. If there is imminent threat to life or property, for instance, clause 64 allows the Minister to direct licensees, class licensees and even exempted persons to immediately put in place enhanced measures, or to temporarily suspend, cease or scale down their activities for a period of time. This is called a security direction. It is non-appealable and is time-limited to 6 months. Non-compliance is an offence.
Key Objective 2: Ensure a more calibrated and coherent enforcement framework
50. The other key objective of this Bill is to ensure a more calibrated and coherent enforcement framework for GEW.
51. In developing this Bill, we took the opportunity to rationalise the offences and penalties across the various GEW-related laws to achieve greater coherence, consistency and clarity.
52. There are currently some inconsistencies in penalties for offences with similar offence elements. For example, section 3 of the Arms Offences Act (or AOA) criminalises unlawful possession of arms or ammunition, and the penalties include caning. Section 13 of the AEA similarly criminalises unlicensed possession of arms, but the penalties are lighter and they do not include caning.
53. In addition, certain offences have similar penalties, even though the egregiousness of the offences differ. For example, under the AEA, the offence of conducting an activity without a licence attracts similar penalties as a breach of licensing conditions, even though the latter is considered less severe.
54. Moving forward, regulatory breaches like non-compliance with licence conditions or unlicensed activities will be criminalised under the Bill, whereas actions with criminal intent will be offences under the other Acts and will carry heavier punishments.
55. To this end, clauses 93 and 94 amend the AOA and the Corrosive and Explosives Substances and Offensive Weapons Act (or CESOWA) to clarify that offences made out under these Acts involve criminal intent and therefore attract heavier punishment and penalties, thus distinguishing them from offences under the AEA.
56. The Bill also repeals the Explosive Substances Act, as there are similar offences relating to explosive substances in the CESOWA, such as possession and use of explosive substances with criminal intent.
57. Even as penalties are being raised, the penalties are also calibrated to match the egregiousness of the offence. For example, the penalty for the offence of unlicensed possession of explosives for individuals is higher than that for breach of licensing conditions involving explosives, as the former is considered more egregious.
58. This is a fairer approach, to ensure that the penalties are proportional to the offence, while maintaining our tough stance against misuse of GEW.
59. The Bill also streamlines the regulatory approach for dangerous fireworks. Currently, dangerous fireworks are prohibited under the Dangerous Fireworks Act (or DFA). However, fireworks are explosives as well, and ought to be regulated as such under a single law. Clause 98 therefore repeals the DFA. All activities involving fireworks including discharge, transportation and storage will be regulated as explosives under this Bill.
60. Last but not least, the Bill contains provisions that put on firmer footing some existing practices which remain relevant in our new security environment.
61. One of these practices is the current security clearance regime, and which the Bill will apply to licensees and their management, and certain key personnel engaging in regulated activities (called special workers).
62. Screening requirements, which serve to mitigate the risks associated with GEW, are presently imposed through the ‘fit and proper’ criteria for licensees, or mandated through licensing conditions for workers. This has shortcomings as there is no consistency and direct link between the validity of security clearances and the authorisation to engage in the regulated activities.
63. To lend greater clarity to the industry, clauses 41 to 46 set out the security clearance process and considerations for granting, suspending or revoking the security clearance of an individual. For example, the individual’s physical or mental health and participation in criminal activity are material factors in screening.
64. The Bill will also make clear the obligations of the licensee and the worker. In particular, Clause 47 makes it an offence if a licensee allows a worker who is not security cleared to handle GEW. At the same time, a special worker of a licensee, who handles GEW knowingly, or with reckless disregard, that his or her security clearance is not valid, will be committing an offence.
65. To guard against persons who are not licensees but may have significant influence over an entity engaged in GEW regulated activities, clause 48 makes it an offence if a licensee fails to inform the LO within 7 days of a person becoming a close associate.
66. Let me conclude. I cannot emphasise enough that the safety and security that we currently enjoy in Singapore should never be taken for granted.
67. In this regard, the Bill seeks to ensure that our regulatory framework remains robust to deter and prevent the misuse and mishandling of GEW, which can have very serious consequences for our safety and security, while respecting the need to allow legitimate uses for some GEW.
68. Mr Deputy Speaker, I beg to move.