Published: 29 July 2020
My Home Team Colleagues,
Second Minister Josephine,
Minister of State Faishal, and
Minister of State Desmond
1. A warm welcome to Faishal who has just joined the Home Team, as well as Desmond, and we thank Xueling and Amrin who have helped us over the last five years.
2. This 55th National Day – it has been a difficult year for Singapore and for the entire world. COVID-19 has been, and is, our biggest crisis since independence. It’s a medical health crisis, but also - economies shattered, supply chains disrupted, countries around the world turning protectionist.
Our Efforts to Combat COVID-19
3. The Home Team has been part and parcel of the Government’s COVID-19 response. MHA chairs the Homefront Crisis Executive Group (HCEG) which supports the Multi-Ministry Task Force (MMTF) and the Home Team officers are involved in many areas of frontline work, in the fight against COVID-19.
4. For example, we are involved in contact tracing and taking swabs from highly infectious Singaporeans, many who returned on evacuation flights from Wuhan. We are helping to contain the outbreak in foreign worker dormitories. Our officers have been enforcing Stay-at-Home Notices and Safe Distancing Measures. Home Team officers have stepped forward to take part in the fight despite the risks. Eight of our officers have been infected. The operations have been going on for months, and it has taken a physical, mental toll on our officers and their families. But, our officers have persevered.
5. The fight against COVID-19 remains a very difficult one. We successfully controlled the first two waves of infection, mainly from overseas. The third wave was infections in the foreign worker community, in the dormitories. It’s more difficult, because of the nature of their living - communal, they live together, they eat together. Multiple contact points, very difficult to control. But despite their difficulties, because they are generally young and fit, so far only two amongst the foreign workers have passed away due to COVID-19, despite the very high infection numbers. And across Singapore, we have kept the mortality rate low. 27 fatalities, and today, there are no COVID-19 patients in ICU.
6. But the experience of Hong Kong, Seoul and other places show that we can easily have a new wave. So, no such thing as we have finished off the virus. This is a new virus, it is absolute, its activities are not clear yet, it’s evolving, and many have been finding it difficult - after they thought they had beaten it, find that it comes back with a vengeance, so we need to be very careful.
7. The Home Team’s efforts in fighting COVID-19 is of course in addition to our day-to-day responsibilities and the contingency operations, and it is a truism that there have been very strong outcomes over the years, in law and order, fire safety, drug control, and the other areas for which the Home Team is responsible. We remain one of the safest places in the world.
8. 2019 and 2020 provided many lessons to us from around the world. Upheavals, civil unrest, destabilised countries, disrupted lives, livelihoods.
9. Take for example, the protests in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is only one place of many where there have been protests in the last 12 months, 18 months. In Hong Kong, the protests started against a proposed Extradition Bill but then spiralled into a broader issue of “People versus the Police”, fuelled by perceptions of police brutality.
10. The Hong Kong Police Force, as we know, was known as one of the finest in Asia, and was and is a highly professional & disciplined force. So, what happened then? This question has to be looked at seriously. How did the perceptions change? And if it can happen to them, it can happen here in Singapore too.
11. During the MHA’s Committee of Supply (COS) debate, I spoke about the social and economic reasons, on the reasons for the protests in Hong Kong. But in addition, if you look at the process in Hong Kong, protests were allowed by default. The police may only intervene when violence occurs. And that, really in my view, creates an impossible situation for the police.
12. You have a large group of peaceful protestors - easy for a small group of instigators to infiltrate these mass or peaceful protests and orchestrate violence. So, you have hundreds of thousands of protestors, mostly peaceful, but a small group in that large crowd can engage in indiscriminate violence, and that puts the police in a very, very difficult situation.
13. And that in turn, is made worse by biased media reporting. Both foreign media and local Hong Kong media coverage were heavily skewed towards protestors. The media reports generally omitted violence against police officers. Usually, that would be the trigger. Instead, they focused primarily on the police responses and labelled them heavy-handed, extreme, disproportionate, and so on. And there was continuous coverage along these lines.
14. Many of us saw the photograph of a police officer who was surrounded, feared for his safety, and drew his gun. The picture went around the world, of the police officer drawing his gun - no context was given, nothing much was said about what led to that situation. This continuous biased coverage turned public sentiment against the police.
15. In May 2019, a poll was conducted in Hong Kong which showed relatively high trust in the Hong Kong Police Force. Less than 30% expressed distrust in the police and just 6.5% had zero trust. Within a few months, in October 2019, over 70% expressed distrust in the police and more than 50% had zero trust.
16. There are two important lessons for us here. First, on public order. In Singapore, freedom of assembly has to be exercised responsibly. Protests are allowed in Speaker’s Corner. It allows us to preserve public order in our streets, avoids disruption to our lives and livelihoods, while allowing expression of views in a public setting. Protests, assemblies allowed indoors is less threat to public order, and viewpoints can be expressed freely and streamed out.
Importance of Trust for the Home Team
17. The importance of trust is the second lesson. Trust is hard earned and is precious for any law enforcement agency. Trust is built up when people see that the system is fair and it works for them - the social economic system.
18. If people don’t have trust in the entire system, then no amount of police enforcement action can bring order to a society. Because the public has lost trust in the entire system, so why should they follow the rules?
19. The Black Lives Matter movement in the US is a wider manifestation of distrust of the police, after many years of perceived institutionalised racism & brutality. Significant sections of American community do not trust and they refuse to cooperate with the police.
20. In Singapore, we are thankful that the situation is different. Public perception surveys regularly show that 90% of our people trust our Police Force and a similar proportion felt SPF is well-respected by the community.
21. I think these results speak for themselves. We are fortunate to have high levels of public trust. The public view the Police Force as effective in keeping our population safe, and even-handed in enforcing our laws, without favour or prejudice to any group. And this is not just the SPF. SCDF, our other agencies, Prisons, CNB - every one of our agencies have very high levels of trust, because over the years, that has been earned.
22. But trust is hard earned, and easily lost. If we let this trust be eroded, the work of the Home Team across all our sectors becomes much more difficult. Maintaining trust depends, and starts from the political level - how the Ministers, office holders hold ourselves out - the examples we set, our behaviour. What do we do, what do we stand for, what do we represent, to our own officers and to the public. And second, down the line, how every Home Team officer, whether senior or junior, behaves, holds out and acts, whether responsibly or irresponsibly.
23. With that in mind, today, we reaffirm our commitment to our national pledge, and to keep Singapore safe and secure.
24. I take this occasion to recognise our award recipients who embody this commitment. This year, we are happy to introduce a new category for Home Team Partners. It recognises and honours exemplary contributions to organisations which work closely with the Home Team to keep Singapore safe & secure.
25. All our recipients, whether regular, or NS officers, volunteers, or members of the public - they have all stepped forward when we needed them, in times of need, in their own ways. And they are role models, heroes for all of us.
26. In these challenging times, together, let us hold steadfast to our shared commitment to keep Singapore safe, secure and peaceful.
27. Thank you, everyone, for your service to the Home Team and Singapore.
28. Happy National Day.