DEBATE ON INFORMATION, SAFEGUARDS

Opposition lawmakers Dennis Tan (WP-Hougang) and PSP Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai asked MHA to clarify the circumstances under which the ministry was prepared to stop extending the detention powers.

Mr Tan said the WP was “in cautious support” of the Bill, but maintained its objections to amendments to the Act made in 2018, when it voted against the extension.

He recalled that in 2018, the WP had expressed concerns about amendments giving the Minister for Home Affairs the final say on whether detention is necessary.

The WP had also expressed concerns about the insertion of a schedule of criminal activities covered by the Act which “may allow the ministers to bypass” questions about the severity of the cases or the possibility of prosecution in court; and the expansion of the minister’s powers to criminal activities conducted overseas, he said.

Mr Tan noted that the present Bill did not seek to amend the Act, that the WP had supported the extension before the 2018 amendments, and that it accepted “the uncomfortable compromise that this law entails on the constitutional right to freedom”.

The WP lawmaker also asked for information on the use of the detention provision, such as a breakdown of detention and police supervision orders by criminal activity, and whether any public prosecutor has withheld consent for an order.

Dr Faishal replied that MHA generally does not release information about the use of the Act as it must “balance the call for transparency against the need to prevent prejudice to investigations and to keep witnesses safe”.

When Mr Tan asked if such information could be provided to MPs confidentially as they debate the Act every five years, Dr Faishal said MHA had to be “very careful” about what it shares given the complexity of organised and transnational crime.

PSP’s Mr Leong proposed additional safeguards for MHA to require sitting Supreme Court judges to be on the advisory committees that review detainees’ cases. This is currently the practice, but is not written into law, he said.

He also suggested giving the President discretionary powers in the making or extension of a detention or police supervision order. The President currently acts on the advice of the Cabinet in these matters.

Mr Leong also wanted to know if the Public Defender’s Office – set up in 2022 – can represent detainees under the Act. Dr Faishal said detainees are not assigned counsel by the state, but can find their own lawyer.

Dr Faishal said the current safeguards were carefully considered and worked for Singapore. He said it seemed that the PSP was “not able to point to any abuse of the system”, and urged the NCMP to “stop pursuing theory” and focus on whether the law has worked.

Dr Faishal also said that the responsibility for law and order lies with the government rather than the President, and MHA therefore disagreed with Mr Leong’s suggestion.

Mr Leong later pointed out that the President currently holds discretionary powers under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which also provides for detention without trial.

Under the Constitution, if the government disagrees with an advisory board’s recommendation that an ISA detainee be released, the President’s concurrence is required for continued detention.

In response, Dr Faishal reiterated that the detention provision has worked in its current form.

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