Singapore Police Force (SPF) Workplan Seminar 2023 - Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 12 May 2023

Acting Commissioner, Jerry See

Police and Home Team Colleagues

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

1.   Good morning. In these workplan seminars, we can talk about many things, and the Police do a very good job of showcasing what they are going to do, what they are doing, and their technology. I am going to talk about one topic that is fundamental, and that is trust. There are various factors of trust but I want to talk about five factors that go towards trust, specifically trust in the Police, which is relevant for us.

2.   Without trust, Police cannot operate the way they have been doing in Singapore, with a lean force, a tremendous amount of confidence from the public, and at the same time, extremely effective. It is three different aspects – a very lean force, tremendous amount of confidence, and at the same time, far more efficient and effective with excellent results on the ground.

3.   It is the trust that enables the Police to first, prevent crimes – they keep crime rate low in the first place – and to solve crimes, when they do take place.

4.   And if the public trusts the Police and Police investigations, that allows the Police to work better.

5.   In Singapore, the trust levels are high.

6.   If you look at the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, at the level of trust in the Government, we were the 4th highest in the world.

7.   Specifically, if you look at the Police, the Institute of Policy Studies World Values Survey 2020 found that 87% of respondents, nearly nine in 10, were confident or very confident in the SPF, which is the highest among state institutions in Singapore, and globally, it is the best in the world.

8.   If you look at the 2022 Gallup Global Law and Order report, it found that 93% of Singaporeans had trust and confidence in the Police force, and 95% felt safe walking home alone at night.

9.   If you compare this with other developed countries: The 2022 Eurofound survey found that trust in the Police fell across the European Union compared to two years ago. In the UK, an index showed that in both 2021 and 2022, only 63% of the population felt that the Police would tell the truth. And it has steadily declined from 76% in 2019, to 71% in 2020, and now 63%.

10.   In the United States, Gallup found that in 2022, only 45% have confidence in the Police. So more than one in two have no confidence in the Police force. We see calls to defund the Police. We see movements on Blue Lives Matter being pitted against Black Lives Matter.

11.   When the relationship between the Police and community reaches that stage, then the Police are seen primarily as the enemy, the adversary, rather than the protector of the community. It is more difficult for the Police to do their job, and these are particularly acute in multi-racial societies. We are a multi-racial society, so it is quite tremendous, what the Police have achieved.

12.   We have to look at these trends and draw lessons on what has happened, because these are excellent Police forces – the US, UK, and European Union. We are constantly told that we ought to learn from them, but here we ought to see what has happened, and what we should avoid.

13.   I will share, as I have said, five points which I think are relevant.

Lesson 1: Police and Politics

14.   First, Police and politics. The Police should not, and cannot, be used as a tool for politics, or as scapegoats by political leadership.

15.   If you look at the United States, after former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, thousands of rioters stormed Capitol Hill. They had weapons, they had stun guns, pepper spray, and baseball bats. Congressional offices were attacked and vandalised. Windows were broken. Senators and congressmen were chased around. More than 140 Police officers were injured – head wounds, cracked ribs, and so on. One officer passed away the day after he was allegedly sprayed with some “chemical substance”.

16.   Clearly, and there is no question, that it is a violent protest, unacceptable by any measure. The Police arrested over one thousand people for assaulting Police officers, trespassing, disrupting Congress, theft, and other property crimes. Many of you have seen photographs of them sitting on the various chairs for the Congressmen. This is a case where you expect the political leadership to come together on all sides and condemn it. Because regardless of whether you are a democrat or a republican, the Police are the Police. They serve all Americans, and they serve all elected officers as well.

17.   But the situation is so politicised – Fox News ran a story earlier this year, using some security footage that was shared by the Speaker of the House. For those who are not aware, he is 2nd in the line of succession for the Presidency. After the President and the Vice-President, Speaker of the House becomes President if anything should happen to the President and Vice-President. He is a Republican. What did he share, the US Capitol Police did not know at first; they only learnt about the sharing from the media.

18.   So what did they report? If you look at this one-minute video from Fox News.

19.   The US is a great democracy of the world. In this video, Fox News described them as peaceful, neat “sightseers” who queued up in “neat little lines”. Why then were more than a thousand of them arrested, several hundred officers injured, and one died?

20.   So, the next time people want to stand in “neat little lines” to go and take souvenirs from the Istana, should the Police allow it? On grounds that they “love” Singapore, and therefore they want to go in there and take whatever they like that shows their “love” for their country, so the Police should just move away?

21.   The commentator said the Democrats lied to the Americans about the events.

22.   Former President Trump said this is evidence that rioters have been wrongly accused, which means the Police were lying. The Speaker of the House shares this, which means, again, the Police are not telling the truth. That means all the people who were arrested and charged – those were politically motivated actions.

23.   You know what actually happened. There are other photos which will show that. What this really does is it puts the Police in the middle of political debates. It can happen in any country. Because in a tussle for power, groups of people can always use the Police because they are frontline within society. The Police become collateral damage in making political points.

24.   So, we try and avoid this, and support the Police to be neutral and independent, not to be used for political purposes. Neither should the Police be made a victim of politicking.

25.   The responsibility lies with the elected leadership, political leadership, and it must stay this way.

Lesson 2: Gun Ownership

26.   Second is the lesson on gun ownership. Our laws affect the way the Police have to engage with the public.

27.   Let’s look at gun ownership.

28.   In the US, estimates are that there are about 400 million firearms in civilian possession, more than the total number of Americans. In 26 of the States, you can generally carry concealed weapons in most public places without any permit.

29.   That affects the psychology of Police officers – how they handle day-to-day situations.

30.   In a study that was published in 2021 by the University of Texas at Austin, the researcher recorded that he was shadowing officers on routine traffic stops. He noticed how the officers would touch the boot of every car they pulled over. He asked them why – why do they plan on touching the boot of every car? They told him it was to make sure that the boot was closed, because at any point, a gunman could jump out and ambush them.

31.   That is the psychology. You don’t know when you are going to get shot. You don’t know what is going to happen to you. That is the operational reality of Police forces in the United States.

32.   Look at what Police officers there say. This is a Police officer with 34 years of distinguished service. He says: “It’s urban warfare. Psychologically, when people have all this armament that changes who you are and that changes your response to calls.” Obviously, because you could die any time.

33.   Another officer, former Chief of Police in Vermont: “We tell officers that a knife or a shard of glass is always a lethal threat and they should aggressively meet it with a lethal threat in return. Police academies have convinced officers that ‘the closer you are to a person who is a suspect, the more dangerous it is’, a mindset that leads to officers keeping their distance and using weapons more often.” Imagine if our Police officers behaved like that. It is a complete change from the way we do policing in Singapore today.

34.   An American Journal of Public Health Study in 2015 found that a 10% increase in firearm ownership rate would result in 10 more deaths of Police officers. 10% increase in guns, 10 additional deaths of Police officers.

35.   I don’t believe that Americans are more, or less, prone to violence compared with people from other countries including Singapore. I don’t think Americans are unique in that way. I think every population, including Singapore, is capable of being as violent or less violent. It all depends on the legal framework and the culture that you bring into the population. If you have an armed culture, then the Police will react in a different way. The entire environment changes.

36.   So when you are an officer, and you know that there are more guns than people, you know that 50-60 officers are killed by firearms every year, when you personally know colleagues who have been shot, when you don’t know whether you might get shot when attending to the next incident, and you don’t know whether you will go home safe – when you report for work each day, what will your mindset be?

37.   If there are 4 million guns out there, for our 3.6 million citizen population, I think our officers will have a very different mindset.

38.   You will attend each incident with fear. And the slightest suspicion might trigger an instinctive reaction – to shoot or be shot.

39.   It is a vicious cycle. And it is not just this. This is the reason why we try and keep crime low across the rest of the society, because you need to create a certain culture and approach for reducing crime. That is why we take such a tough approach on drugs as well. Every time we allow one side to move, it affects the entire society and the way we will police.

40.   Reducing crime and establishing order requires us to be very clear minded about what we should do, and what we should avoid, to keep crime and violence down, and help society be really free to go out there and enjoy the country. That is the ultimate most precious freedom for our children, for everyone, to be able to walk out and not worry that something is going to happen to them.

Lesson 3: Societal Issues Must Be Dealt With by the Government

41.   The third lesson is that as a Government, as a society, we must not let the Police be caught in social divides, such as race and religion, or in political issues.

42.   The Police have a one simple task, they must enforce the law.

43.   That means the obligation to deal with the fault lines in society have to be dealt with by the Government, and they have to be dealt with effectively, because when tensions escalate, public disorder breaks out, there are outcomes that the Police have no choice but to deal with.

44.   In doing so, if there are serious socio-political divides, the Police will then be seen as taking sides, attacking particular ethnicities or particular demographics (those in the protests).

45.   For example, in the Hong Kong protests in 2019, some socio-political issues were not resolved, which then set the stage for unhappiness among certain groups. I’m not saying those are the only causes – some suggest there was foreign activism and interference but I think there were socio-political causes as well. In this context, I am restricting my comments to the socio-political issues.

46.   In such a situation, if you have not resolved the underlying issues like housing and cost of living, and the Police are called to restore law and order, it becomes very difficult.

47.   When the Police did that in Hong Kong, they were accused of being partial and oppressive, and seen as part of the problem.

48.   A lot of unfair criticisms about how the Police handled the situation, and public perception changed.

49.   The Hong Kong Police Force went from being “Asia’s Finest” to being the subject of hatred and even disgust. So, never take for granted the current high levels of confidence. It is something that you have to keep working at.

50.   It then became a “people versus police” situation, leading to more law and order issues, and it is a vicious cycle

51.   If the Government does not do its job to deal with social fault lines, then the Police will bear the burden, because in the end, they will become law and order issues.

Lesson 4: Conditions of Service

52.   Fourth lesson is the framework and the conditions of service.

53.   Policing is a demanding and risky job. Officers do shift work when many of us enjoy the routine of regular office hours and working from home. Many of them are essentially on call 24 hours a day, weekends and public holidays.

54.   They also, while not so much in Singapore, face a higher risk of getting injured in the line of duty, and they risk being targeted.

55.   Therefore, if the conditions of service are not good – for example, if we don’t make sure officers are paid fairly – we won’t be able to attract good people and we won’t be able to retain good people.

56.   We have to ensure the right remuneration. This is always something that both the Government and Police leadership will have to bear in mind.

57.   Another key aspect in this context is standing up for the officers. We have to, at the HQ and at the political level, stand up for the officers. We have to deal with falsehoods swiftly and firmly debunk them when officers are attacked unfairly.

58.   Many of you are aware of our officer, Station Inspector Jeff, who was accused of abusing an old lady in Yishun, contrary to what had happened. He was trying to help her.

59.   We issued a clarification two years ago and that went to court. The court found that the Police were telling the truth. But the website comes back again, issued another false statement on the very same matter, now claiming that the camera footage showed that they were right. Completely false. We then responded, and issued a POFMA order, made them carry a statement that it was a falsehood so that when people read it, they know. And the Police will stand up for it, at least at MHQ, we were prepared to stand up for it. I signed the order requiring a POFMA order to be made.

60.   These attacks will only get more complex, with deepfakes and artificial intelligence (AI).

61.   Recently, in France, there was a photo of an elderly man being restrained violently by riot police. It went viral during the pension reform protests.

62.   This image was AI generated. It is fake. But you can imagine the kind of sentiment that will be generated, how angry people will get. Many alleged police violence and criticised the Police.

63.   To counter such attacks, it is crucial to put out the truth swiftly and accurately, set them out publicly and openly. We also have to have a legal framework to deal with such fakes. So here, unique amongst many countries, we have POFMA, we have other powers, we will put them out. There is some political cost but it is more important to protect the institution.

64.   Our officers know that when there are false or unfair allegations, we will act quickly and decisively to tell the truth and stand by the officers.

65.   And that starts with myself and the Permanent Secretary, and the entire Police leadership. We will stand by our officers and defend them.

Lesson 5: Deal Firmly With Wrongdoings

66.   The fifth lesson is the reverse of what I just said. When there are wrongdoings within the Force, we also have to act quickly. We have to deal with them firmly.

67.   Clearly, if we don’t take action where there are real allegations and concerns, the Police will quickly lose trust with the public.

68.   Looking again at the US, many of you might recall the case of George Floyd.

69.   Take a look at a video recorded by a bystander of what happened.

70.   The officer that you see in the video, Derrick Chauvin, has been charged and convicted. It was later reported that there were at least 15 conduct complaints against him before this incident. 15 complaints and he was still carrying on with his duties.

71.   Another example, the London Metropolitan Police, a highly professional outfit. We learn a lot from them, the world’s first modern Police force.

72.   However, they, too, had to contend with damaging wrongdoings in their ranks. Small minority, but when it is not dealt with, it damages the entire force.

73.   An independent review published in Mar 2023 said that the Met was “institutionally racist” and “institutionally sexist and misogynistic”.

74.   Some officers had shared highly disturbing messages with each other about beating up female partners,  rape, and “killing black children”.

75.   And there was public outcry. Trust in the Met took a big hit.

76.   It is important to stand by our officers when they are unfairly attacked. It is equally important to deal firmly when there are legitimate issues raised.

77.   I have spoken before about the framework in place in Singapore to ensure that our officers conduct themselves professionally and in accordance with the law.

78.   We investigate all allegations seriously. If any wrongdoing is uncovered, we are the first to take disciplinary action.

79.   If there are possible criminal offences, we recommend prosecution. And the courts take into account the Police officer’s duty to uphold the law so the punishment that the Police officer faces is usually harsher.

80.   We don’t shy away from this. I said in Parliament three months ago, in the past few years, we have initiated about 78 disciplinary proceedings a year, against potentially errant officers.

81.   As a percentage of our regular force, it is only 0.7%. Very tiny, but if you don’t deal with it, you know what will happen. First, the numbers will grow, and second, it will affect trust. Because word will travel that you are a Police officer and you are protected. We won’t allow that.

82.   That is why the majority of our officers are law-abiding, and you can go about your jobs and know that you are safe and protected. I regularly talk to my HQ officers and say that as trends change, some in the Police force might have had certain views in the past which were more acceptable to express, but norms are changing, and the Police force has to make sure that it is keeping with the current social mores and values. Misogyny, sexist remarks, sexual harassment – all these have to be stemmed out. A culture of tolerance and professionalism have to be seriously inculcated. I know that Police HQ is very aware of it.

Appreciation for Officers

83.   Because we have worked on these areas, together with the dedication, hard work and sacrifice of all of our officers, we are in a relatively good position today.

84.   We have to keep that in focus.

85.   Let me end by thanking all our Police officers, our partners, and the support that the population gives to you.

86.   I thank everyone and I am sure you will have a fruitful seminar.