Published: 19 August 2023
Members of the PSC
Scholarship recipients, educators, families
Home Team colleagues
1. This is always a happy occasion. Congratulations to our new scholars.
2. You join a highly committed team, charged with keeping Singapore safe and secure.
3. Keeping any urban environment safe is extremely complex in today’s world, whether in Singapore, or elsewhere.
4. I thought the best I can do, is to show you three examples from other countries to illustrate what I mean, through the lens of the Police Force and policing, and then share some reflections on why it is, and why we hope it will continue to be, different in Singapore.
Cautionary Tales From Abroad
5. The first example is Hong Kong.
6. The Hong Kong Police were once called “Asia’s Finest”.
7. They were well-trained, effective, respected. I still think they are an extremely effective force – well trained.
8. But what happened in 2019, was that various protests broke out over a proposed extradition law.
9. They built on existing tensions already within the society in Hong Kong – some socio-political issues related to housing and other unmet needs.
10. And, there were structural issues as well, because their legal framework was not equipped to deal with, for example, falsehoods, and their laws allowed protests – you cannot take action until protests actually get violent. And often, it is too late because there are agent provocateurs, saboteurs, who have infiltrated the protests.
11. So, by the time the police were called to step in to maintain law and order – to do their duty – it was too late.
12. And, every police action was painted by the media as an attack on democracy activists.
13. The police force was accused of brutality, wanton arrests, and so on.
14. On the other hand, protestors who were violent – those who burnt and destroyed property, who attacked the police – were celebrated as pro-democracy activists. It was completely biased. What all of this did, was that public perception changed very quickly. It became a people-versus-police situation.
15. The Hong Kong Police Force quickly went from being “Asia’s Finest” to being the subject of a lot of anger.
16. And since then, they have struggled to recruit and retain good officers.
17. This could potentially have deep, and long-term implications, though they have now changed the way they work and how they handle these issues.
18. The second example that I wanted to give, is France. Riots broke out after the police shot a young man, and he died. He was of Algerian descent.
19. Once again, there were underlying socio-economic issues; also, perceptions of discriminatory policing.
20. We are sometimes told that we should be like the French, not distinguishing by ethnicity. In France, everyone is a Frenchman.
21. But our approach has always been to recognise that there are differences, and then try and work together. So, unlike France, we have the Ethnic Integration Policy – you are required to live together in housing estates. You have schools which are integrated, as well as workplaces, and National Service. So, these are far-reaching policies that really put our society together. While we recognise that we cannot pretend that everyone is the same, but we put them together, recognise their differences, and we work towards making sure that every community has equal opportunities.
22. In France, meanwhile, the rise of the Far Right and their ideas of what it means to be “truly” French, has made the divide and the resentment worse.
23. So, during these protests, after this young man was killed, over 5,600 cars were torched and 2,500 buildings were damaged, including 250 police stations.
24. A key slogan of the protests was, “We do not forget, we do not forgive”.
25. The staying power of this kind of rhetoric really prevents healing and reconciliation.
26. If a society becomes riven with mistrust and division, how does any law enforcement agency go in, and after that, try to keep law and order?
27. Tough measures might be necessary, but these will come at a very high cost to public trust and organisational image. So, it is really a situation of – damned if the police take tough actions, because it is their duty; damned if they do not.
28. The third example is the United States. Law enforcement has, in recent times been the victim of intense politicisation. So, you have ‘Black Lives Matter’ pitted against ‘Blue Lives Matter’, with politicians feeding both with oxygen.
29. This has now led to calls to defund the police. In cities like Seattle, which is a peaceful, prosperous, united city – people are trying to burn down police stations, to demand defunding.
30. Some places have attempted defunding, like San Francisco. And what happens? No prizes for guessing – crime rates go up, they are soaring.
31. At the same time, as part of the push for decriminalisation, there is lax enforcement, and because prisons are overcrowded, places like California also greatly reduced prosecutions for offences, like theft.
So, you can imagine what happens. Big retailers leave the cities, because people just come in and help themselves. The Police are not going to do anything, so that makes businesses unviable.
32. The safety and security of some cities in the US today is quite different from what some of us might remember just a decade or two ago.
33. What are some lessons we can draw or have drawn from these examples?
34. First, the Government has the primary responsibility to deal with socioeconomic issues.
35. For example, housing in Hong Kong. And socio-economic issues need to be largely dealt with.
36. If economic conditions are poor, and people’s living conditions are bad, then if people go out and protest, become violent – it will be hard for the police to do its duty.
37. Related to that, also – do not politicise the police.
38. The second lesson is that there needs to be the right legal framework for the Police to be effective. And again, thankfully in Singapore, our first and second generation leaders gave a lot of thought to this. And the framework is very effective. For instance, our drug laws are very strict, so we do not have a lot of drug related crime, which is the primary mover for a lot of crime.
39. And, the laws give the Police the powers to intervene very early. For example, unlike Hong Kong, here, you cannot have 10,000 people coming together. So, we are very strict – you want to protest, you go to Hong Lim.
40. The third is making sure that our Police force is adequately resourced, also in terms of technology. I am very happy to see quite a lot of officers joining HTX.
41. We are facing a manpower crunch, I have to be honest – and that is not because we are not recruiting. It’s simply that Singapore has less babies, less people, and less people for the different sectors. And that is something that is occupying our mindshare. So, we will try our best to resource adequately.
42. Let me move to the next point, having made the point that our socio-economic framework is different, our legal framework is different – tough laws, but tough laws built on strong economic growth and strong economic policies, and that allows you to do your job.
Applicability of Foreign Perspectives to Singapore
43. Some of you will be studying abroad.
44. I would ask you to take the opportunity to understand developments like those I mentioned – to go beyond the headlines and think through what that means, and reflect on issues six months or so later, to see how it is doing. And look at the state of law enforcement and other agencies, the policies, the social compact, the results and consequences. I am not saying France is wrong, we are right – but every choice we make has a certain consequence. The idea may be noble, but the question is the practicality.
45. Even here in Singapore, in the course of your studies, you will be exposed to different perspectives, that you should reflect deeply about.
46. For example, intellectual movements like Critical Race Theory from the United States, which some have tried to put into Singapore’s context as Chinese privilege.
47. I think I will say, think about this, try and understand what is meant by ‘white privilege’ – it refers to an entire system of laws and structures which were meant to keep white people on top of the African Americans, in a system that developed as slave owner and slaves, where one person owned another human being. We do not have their history. The minorities were not slaves of the majority. We all came here, we have a different historical context.
48. But at the same time, recognise also that no one can deny that in any society, there are distinct advantages as part of the majority race. So, there can be a Chinese advantage, but that is not the same as Chinese privilege. And ask yourself – is it institutionalised, is it systemic?
49. Proponents of Critical Race Theory say that there is structural discrimination against certain minorities in the US, and that these structures allow white Americans greater privilege, and perpetuate racial injustice.
50. What do we have in Singapore?
51. We have:
(a) The Group Representation Constituency system to ensure that we always have adequate minority representation in Parliament;
(b) Structures like the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, chaired by the Chief Justice and of which I am a member, to ensure that our laws are not unfair to our minorities;
(c) Policies in housing and schools, to ensure racial mixing, and not segregation; and
(d) Laws and norms against inflammatory speech, hate speech, racial politics, and so on.
52. These structures were put in to balance, harmonise, protect – rather than exacerbate or cement natural advantages.
53. So, listen carefully to what is being taught, be inquisitive, open your minds. Learn widely and deeply, so that you can use your knowledge to help your fellow Singaporeans when you return to start work.
54. And, at the same time, be discerning, contextualise and filter your experiences to our situation and circumstances. Particularly, as you are joining the Home Team, which is the core of providing internal security, and maintaining a stable and secure Singapore.
55. There is nothing inherent about Singapore that assures us of the stability and prosperity we have today.
56. And that is why it is important that the Home Team continues to attract good, talented people, who are committed to making Singapore a better place.
57. We also recognise that there are capable, promising students who may only become clearer about their career choices while they are in university. Some may only develop an interest in a Home Team career at that point.
58. So, starting next year, we will introduce mid-term scholarships for the Singapore Police Force Scholarship, and the Singapore Merit Scholarship.
59. This year, the Home Team is awarding scholarships to 34 individuals.
60. Two are recipients of the Singapore Police Force Scholarship, which is awarded by the Public Service Commission to individuals with outstanding academic performance, who have demonstrated leadership qualities, and who have a strong desire to serve in the Police.
61. Congratulations to Edison Chua and Chen Hong Wen!
62. To all the scholarship recipients here today, receiving your scholarship is only the first step.
63. We will follow through to train and develop you; we will nurture your leadership skills, once you start work.
64. And in time, you will grow in your career, and you will handle very serious responsibilities to keep Singapore safe and secure.
65. Thank you to the families and educators here today, for your role in nurturing these bright, outstanding young people.
66. And to our new scholars, a warm welcome to the Home Team.