Do Singaporeans not have a right to question the police?

OCTOBER 18 — Every year on the eve of Deepavali, I go to Little India with my family. This has long been a family tradition — where we take in the sights, sounds and songs of a joyful, boisterous people celebrating their biggest festival.

The most enthusiastic celebrants are invariably the nameless, voiceless foreign workers who toil sun, rain and haze to build our city.

But the message, as the increased police presence in Little India shows, is that their unwinding amongst us is unsafe, unpleasant and unwanted.

So, watching this segment of our population enjoying themselves on Deepavali eve by laughing and dancing with their peers and the rest of us is heartening.

Last year — a little after midnight, after all the festivities of confetti guns and aerosol foam had settled, my family and I sat at the corner of Norris Road and Serangoon Road at a tandoori restaurant for supper.

After we had placed our orders and leaned back, I noticed that across from us — a group of police officers were busily yanking these foreign workers off the streets as they went by.

With a torch in some of their faces, the officers were demanding identification, checking to see if the men had been drinking, asking them where they were going etc.

Policemen on a street in Singapore’s Little India. — Picture by AFP
Policemen on a street in Singapore’s Little India. — Picture by AFP

Now, it is very important I make this clear: not a single one of these men had been misbehaving in any way that was visibly illegal, to the best of my knowledge.

A couple had been dancing, a few singing perhaps and yet here were officers subduing them and turning a light-hearted happening into something dark and troubling.

No other community in Singapore would be treated like this in the midst of their main celebration.

As my mother protested, I stood up walked across and asked the first officer if he could let me know why they were doing this.

And the response I got was to put it succinctly: aggressive. The officer took a step closer to my face and demanded to know why I was asking. Then another one came around and asked for my identification card.

I tried to bring the conversation back to my initial query and the original petite policeman continued to growl at me.

His companion jotted down my details on a blank piece of white paper folded into a neat square and there must have been half a dozen police officers around me but nobody ever answered my question.

Finally an older policeman walked over and insisted I write to their public affairs department if I wanted some information. I returned to my supper with no answer and zero appetite.

Now, nearly a year later – I see a Facebook post being shared by a Singaporean man named PJ Wong (link here}who experienced his own share of frustrating behaviour by a Singaporean police officer.

For him, it was at Changi Airport during a routine baggage security check which escalated into the threat of detainment when Mr Wong chose to enquire why he had been singled out for the security screening.

Since the post went up, it has been shared over 400 times with thousands of likes and a robust debate discussing if Mr Wong is justified in his complaint.

Popular local news website ran a poll to see which side most people aligned with and an overwhelming 90 per cent of their readers believed the ICA officer was just doing his job.

Now I agree that airport security is a serious matter. However, if Mr Wong is to be believed, he was met with an immediate, aggressive response simply for asking a question.

The officer’s motivation in this case then would be vindictiveness, not security. He was — if the report is correct — trying to teach Wong a lesson for questioning his authority.

This is simply wrong; the police are public servants and while we as the public are obliged to co-operate with them, they are equally obliged to treat us with respect and to answer (reasonable) questions we have politely.

They should also, at all times, operate within the parameters of the law — Wong alleges the officer in Changi illegally attempted to grab his phone.

Again, if true, this is a basic breach of the social contract and while I appreciate that the Singapore Police aren’t mowing us down with firearms like the police force of a certain super power — excesses, abuse and harassment are unacceptable in any degree.

The police aren’t here to teach us lessons in respect but to enforce the law. When they breach that mandate, I think the public has a right and duty to bring their behaviour to light and to question why it happened.

And these questions should be answered.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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