Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Why good governance is key to maintaining public order: Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam

Unrest will happen without good governance
Shanmugam uses Hong Kong protests to show Singapore's approach of designating place for demonstrations is right one
Excerpt of Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam's speech at the Committee of Supply Debate 2020 on good governance if law enforcement is to be effective
The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2020

Safety and security are not just the responsibility of law enforcers. I want to move away from the usual COS (Committee of Supply) speech to say something a little bit more philosophical, maybe even reflective.

And this comes from some of the points made by MPs who questioned about the street protests that have taken place around the world. What are the lessons for us? Where do we go from here? Can it happen here? And I think it comes back to this point. You can have the best police force in the world; but you cannot deal with riots unless there are other things that are taken care of as well.

You've had riots across the world - in Chile, Europe, Hong Kong, of course, and other places. Street protests have escalated to violence, they have disrupted the lives of ordinary citizens, and destroyed public and private infrastructure. You have had Lebanon where several months of protests have caused a lot of damage. In Santiago, as I mentioned, demonstrators were enraged by hikes in public transport fares. They looted stores, and set fires to vehicles and properties.


We saw Hong Kong, seven months of protest. Mr Gan Thiam Poh asked what can we learn from these protests. I will take this opportunity to discuss Hong Kong, and the others, and what are the lessons for us.

You have seen hundreds of thousands of people on the streets in Hong Kong. Some of them have engaged in extremely violent, disruptive behaviour, with the whole purpose of crippling the government, and inflicted severe damage to the economy, and to the reputation of the city.

It obviously caused very severe challenges for the Hong Kong Police Force. Before this latest period of unrest, the Hong Kong Police Force was considered one of the finest in Asia. The Singapore Police Force and the Hong Kong Police Force were two very highly regarded forces in Asia - disciplined, professional, well respected by local residents.

But since the protests started, the Hong Kong police have been caught between the need to uphold public order, and protesters who resorted to increasingly violent tactics just to attack the police and instigate them. That has, I would say, severely damaged the relationship between the police and the public.

This is not helped by the one-sided portrayal of the situation in the media, in particular the international media, which often focused on criticising only the police force. The demonstrators were always titled pro-democracy protesters, while the police always were mentioned with reference to their brutality, and their brutal response.

The first time a police officer fired a live round, the media depicted the incident as an example of police brutality, and the picture went around the world. But, all the events leading up to that point were ignored. Protesters, as I said, were often portrayed in a positive light. That the police were being attacked, their lives were frequently in danger, their families were being exposed - all that was ignored.

The protesters were not just violent towards the police. Hong Kong residents who went to try and clean up were set upon by the protesters. In one instance, a man was hit over the head with a drain cover by a masked assailant while clearing the roadblocks. Today, just before the Covid-19 situation, the Hong Kong Police Force was seriously stretched. It faced persistent criticism both domestically and internationally. Even when they were off duty, they had to fend off protesters targeting their families and their loved ones. Morale was obviously affected.


So what are the lessons for us? I think one key lesson is, the actions of a disaffected few should not be allowed to threaten the rights of the majority to live in a stable, peaceful society.

And, really, there has to be a zero-tolerance approach to illegal demonstrations and protests. We already have the Public Order Act. We take a zero-tolerance approach. So it is an offence to organise or participate in a public assembly in Singapore without a police permit. But where Singaporeans want to protest or demonstrate about issues that concern them, there is the Speakers' Corner - no permit is needed.

Now, here is a balance. Some countries have traditionally said that the freedom to protest is part of the freedom of expression and should not be clamped down. But when it comes to the crunch, they all take different steps.

For example, in 2009, Copenhagen hosted a United Nations climate conference. They anticipated widespread protests... so Danish law enforcement constructed a holding facility. We don't do this in Singapore. They set up 36 steel cages that could hold more than 350 persons. So anyone who protested would find themselves in there.

In London, climate activists calling themselves the Extinction Rebellion mounted non-violent protests for two weeks last year. They conducted marches, blockaded roads, disrupted train services. More than 1,800 were arrested. In one protest, an activist climbed onto the roof of a train during the morning rush hour. Commuters were suitably frustrated; they dragged him off the roof and assaulted him. We don't recommend that in Singapore. But the Metropolitan Police then banned the Extinction Rebellion protests across London.

We have been criticised for disallowing protests outside of Speakers' Corner, even if it was just one person. But where do we draw the line? One, two, three, 30, 50, 100, 200, 5,000? How many protesters are acceptable? How do we tell what will be a peaceful protest and what will escalate into violence?

Part of the issue in Hong Kong is that protests are allowed; while the police are allowed to intervene only when it turns violent. So by the time you have 50,000 people on the streets, and some people go in there, let's say 500 who are deliberately intent on creating violence, how do the police handle this?

This sets up the police for failure and sets up the police to be the fall guys. It is far better to say, allow protests only in specific places and no protests in other places, because you really want to strike a balance between competing interests.

Sometimes, people want to protest, say, at iconic places, Orchard Road or Tanglin or places like that, where there is a lot of commercial activity. Primarily because of the disturbance it will cause to everyone else, therefore their cause will get noticed. So, on the one side is the desire of the protesters to get themselves noticed, on the other side is the disamenity to the rest of the community.

Why should one be favoured and why should the rest of the community just accept it? So that is the first lesson. I think our approach was the correct one, of being strict about where you can protest. Otherwise, the best police force in the world would still not be able to handle it.


The second lesson is, it cannot be seen purely as a law and order issue. If you seek to deal with protests, and your approach to protests is simply to have tough laws and enforce them, it's not going to work, because underlying it is, what's your social order?

What's your level of inequality? What's your social justice? How do people feel in your society? Is it a fair society? Do people want to support the system? Do they by and large believe that they benefit from the system?

If a large majority of your people feel that it is a fair system, that they have opportunities, that the government and the system are set up to help the largest majority possible, then people have faith in the system, and the people who want to break the laws will be a minority. Then your police can handle it.

But if a significant section of your population believes that the system is fundamentally unfair, that the social economic system and the benefits are fundamentally unfair, and that it is set up to benefit a few at the expense of the majority, at the expense of the many, then no amount of strict policing and strict laws are going to keep people off the streets. Why should they support a system that is fundamentally unfair?

So the first-order point of importance for any government, and for us, as a lesson, is really the socio-economic, political structure. It must deliver good governance. It must deliver to the majority, then your police force can go and deal with those who break the law, and the rest of the population will say, "Yes, we support it; these people ought not to be breaking the law."

So, law and order, yes, but it's not possible without good governance. None of these concepts are new. All these different approaches have been tried.

Those who are familiar with Chinese history will understand. Legalism, going back to the Qin dynasty, during the Warring States period; that was the preferred way of bringing order to a chaotic, fractious society. The emperor's rule was based on strict laws, harsh enforcement and collective punishments.

But such a system cannot carry on for long. People often misunderstand and think that our approach is based on very strict punishments.

Now, it's first and foremost based on making sure that the majority progresses and that the system is fair. Strict punishments can only be built on such a system. The Qin emperor's rule, as people will know, collapsed because the approach actually worsened people's social and economic lives.

You move forward to the Han Dynasty - China's emperors tried to follow Confucianism, which depended solely or primarily on the leaders setting the example and inspiring people to be like them - family and social harmony, a responsible government with the moral duty to promote harmony.

Confucianism appealed to people because they enjoyed internal peace and stability, and under it, the country experienced remarkable progress.

But it had its limitations as well, because in every society, a large majority of people can be inspired to be good, to be noble, to do the right thing, following the example of leaders - assuming you have leaders who can inspire that kind of confidence.

But you will always have a group that will want to challenge your laws, that will want to break them and that will want to destabilise. You will need to deal with them through a system of laws which can be enforced. What framework, how strict, what you allow, and what you don't allow, must be for each society to decide.

So you have to build it on a basis of fairness, upholding moral responsibility on the part of the leadership, proper governance - an approach of upright, virtuous governance which inspires people, and bring that across to the people as a whole, and then deal with the law-breakers in a way that makes it clear to everybody, that the laws will be applied fairly, evenly, and law-breaking will be dealt with.

If there is good governance and people benefit, you can always deal with a small number who want to disrupt.

Shanmugam: People's trust in Govt crucial for strong security agencies
A police force can succeed only if it operates in a well-governed, functioning society, he says
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2020

Singapore's security agencies can only be as strong as the government in power, Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said yesterday, as he spoke on how proper governance must underpin peace and order.

Singaporeans also have to trust that the political, economic and social systems are fair and will benefit them, so that they will support the police force, he told Parliament.

Street protests had flared up around the world last year, erupting into violence in places such as Hong Kong, Santiago in Chile, and Lebanon.

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), citing global risk consultancy Maplecroft, said it is estimated that nearly 40 per cent of the world's 195 countries will experience civil unrest this year, while Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) wanted to know if the Home Team was prepared to prevent such unrest in Singapore.

They were among MPs who asked what lessons Singapore can draw against this backdrop, during the debate on the Home Affairs Ministry's budget.

Mr Shanmugam said one important lesson is that it is critical to get the fundamental politics and policies right. If they are unsound, he added, no amount of policing can turn the situation around.

He said safety and security is not just the responsibility of law enforcers, and the seven months of social unrest that battered Hong Kong were never just about security.

Instead, he added, it is good governance that is key to maintaining the effectiveness of the security forces.

A police force can succeed only if it operates in a well-governed, functioning society, where people trust that the government will do what is best for them, he said.

"You can have the best police force in the world; but you cannot deal with riots unless there are other things that are taken care of as well."

Elaborating, he said government leaders must be attuned to people's needs and be accountable to the public, and they must also develop policies based on sound principles and create a fair and honest system.

Strict laws alone will not be enough, he added.

Referring to Singapore, he said people often misunderstand that it is all about strict punishment, but underlying that is a system that strives to ensure progress for as many as possible.

When the majority benefit from such a system and feel it is fair, they will naturally support the police in dealing with the minority who choose to break the law, he added.

"But if a significant section of your population believes that the system is fundamentally unfair... and that it is set up to benefit a few at the expense of the majority, at the expense of the many, then no amount of strict policing and strict laws, are going to keep people off the streets," he said.

During his speech, Mr Shanmugam also said the police in Hong Kong had been set up for failure - to be the "fall guys" of a system which allows people to protest in droves, then expects the police to step in when violence breaks out.

This approach to maintaining public order is bound to fail because it becomes impossible to keep order when there are hundreds and thousands out in the streets and some among them intent on causing violence, he added.

"The actions of a disaffected few should not be allowed to threaten the right of the majority to live in a stable, peaceful society," said Mr Shanmugam, drawing lesson two.

This is why Singapore takes a zero-tolerance approach to illegal demonstrations and protests under the Public Order Act, he added. Instead, such activities are allowed at Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park.

Noting that Singapore has been criticised for this approach, he said there was a balance to be struck between the competing interests of providing adequate space for political expression while protecting the country's hard-earned peace and stability.

Also, he added, even countries that have traditionally upheld freedom of speech have clamped down on protests. He cited Denmark, where the police constructed 36 steel cages to hold protesters during a United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, and Britain, where police had banned the Extinction Rebellion climate protests last year and arrested 1,800 people after roads were blockaded and train services disrupted.

Said Mr Shanmugam: "The approach we took was the correct one of being strict about where you can protest. Otherwise, the best police force in the world would still not be able to handle it." He added that ultimately, "what you allow, and what you don't allow, must be for each society to decide".

He lamented that demonstrations in Hong Kong have severely damaged the relationship between the people and the police, once considered one of the finest and most-well-respected forces in Asia.

Even as the police tried to uphold public order, they had to deal with the increasingly violent tactics of protesters who set out to attack and provoke them, he added.

He said the one-sided portrayal of the situation in the international media - with the depiction of police as brutal and protesters as champions of democracy - has not helped.

"That the police were being attacked, their lives were frequently in danger, their families were being exposed - all that was ignored," added Mr Shanmugam.

Mr Teo Ser Luck (Pasir RisPunggol GRC), asked about trust in the police in the age of social media, with online posts usually showing half the picture or even purveying fake news.

Acknowledging that maintaining the public's trust is crucial, Mr Shanmugam said the Home Team has been doing well on this count.

In a recent public perception survey, 91 per cent of respondents agreed that the Home Team is fulfilling its mission of keeping Singapore safe and secure, and 90 per cent said they trust Home Team officers to do their duties objectively and with integrity, he noted.

He said this trust is reflected in people's daily lives, with 94 per cent of people in Singapore indicating in a Gallup Global Law and Order Index last year that they feel safe walking alone at night, more than in any other place in the world.

He added that the police had achieved this with a lean force - the ratio of police officers to population here is 0.23 per cent, compared with London at 0.34 per cent and Hong Kong at 0.39 per cent.

That the police have achieved good outcomes without heavy policing is a testament to Singapore's law and order framework and people's support of it, he said, adding that this has allowed taxpayers' funds to be put to use efficiently.

"A whole attitude that is supportive of a law and order framework, shared by a vast majority of the population, has meant that people who want to break the laws are a very small minority," he added.

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