Singaporean police accused of abusing their powers
When political activist Teo Soh Lung presented herself at police headquarters on June 1, she was expecting a tedious but short interview. What she got, instead, were hours of questioning, then a raid on her home.
In late May, Singapore’s Elections Department announced it had lodged police reports against Ms Teo, 33-year-old blogger Roy Ngerng, and the alternative news website The Independent Singapore.
The authorities accused them of having breached laws banning electoral advertising on the eve of a by-election — known as cooling-off day — and on the day of the election itself. As individuals, Ms Teo and Mr Ngerng’s “crimes” involved publishing Facebook posts in support of the opposition candidate, Chee Soon Juan.
The police swiftly swung into action, sending letters requiring Ms Teo and Mr Ngerng to be questioned separately.
It was not their first run-in with law enforcement — Mr Ngerng was famously sued for defamation by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last year while Ms Teo was detained without trial in 1987 after being accused of being part of a “Marxist conspiracy” to overthrow the state. Ms Teo was released in 1990. None of the detainees were charged in court.
“I took the investigations seriously and was prepared to be arrested and locked up for 48 hours under the law and charged, not because I had committed any offence but because I know that the police are capable of such acts,” she told the ABC after her latest brush with the law.
Despite their past experiences, both Ms Teo and Mr Ngerng were surprised when the police announced their homes would be searched and their electronic devices seized.
“Before I was brought home, I saw Soh Lung’s lawyer at the waiting area and tried to speak to her to know my rights. When the police did not allow me to, I felt lost and did not know my rights and as such, gave up resisting,” Mr Ngerng said.
The police seized his laptop, hard drives, memory cards and mobile phone.
No warrants were produced during the process.
Apart from Ms Teo and Mr Ngerng, the editor and publisher of The Independent Singapore were also questioned. Their homes and offices were also searched, and their electronic devices seized.
“These investigations have brought to light how much power the police have,” said Kokila Annamalai, an organiser of a forum this month examining due process in Singapore.
“They don’t need a warrant to search property, seize communication devices, and confiscate data, as long as the alleged offence is arrestable. These are very strong measures, with strong potential to intimidate.”
‘Reasonable time’ law fraught with ambiguity
Other issues related to police investigations have come under scrutiny in the past. For instance, under Singapore law, an accused person is allowed access to legal counsel within a “reasonable time” — a vague definition that means interrogation and taking statements can be done without a lawyer present.
The issue was highlighted earlier this year after the suicide of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim.
He had been investigated by the police for an alleged “outrage of modesty” offence and was questioned without a lawyer or legal guardian present, as is permitted by Singaporean law.
He was found dead under the public housing block in which his family lives just hours after his release.
A coronial inquiry is still underway, but police have already said they would review their procedures relating to investigations involving young people.
The matter of early access to legal counsel has stirred the normally reserved Law Society of Singapore.
“The practical application of ‘reasonable’ is fraught with ambiguity. There is inherent elasticity in the idea,” said Thio Shen Yi, president of the Law Society.
“We appreciate that we must balance the rights of the accused with the ability of the police to do their jobs effectively. On the other hand, an accused may be detained for days, or even weeks, without access to a lawyer.
“We need to re-evaluate whether this is fair or desirable.”
ABC News sent questions to the Singapore Police asking how offences were classified as arrestable or otherwise. Police were also asked to detail their checks and balances to ensure their powers were not abused.
They are yet to respond.
“It is in the interest of all Singaporeans, as well as the responsibility of all Singaporeans, to ensure that police action against any individual or group is fair, proportional and consistent,” Mr Annamalai said.
“The systems we’ve put in place as a society need regular scrutiny. They cannot be assumed to be infallible or be allowed to contravene human rights with impunity.”