That Little Big Thing in Parliament

singapore parliament house
 
Something important is going to come up in parliament this week - and I'm not talking questions that ask about fair hiring practices, women serving national service or cooling measures on housing and vehicle pricing, although these bread and butter issues have been on the lips of many Singaporeans of late.
 
That something is the tabling  of a bill to renew the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act for another 5 years. It's a law most of you have probably never heard of. 
 
Why is that you may ask - that's because the most recent times the CLTPA was invoked was twice within the last year: when the SMRT drivers went on strike last year and when the football match fixers were arrested recently.
 
The CLTPA is kind of like the Internal Security Act that you've heard many of our bloggers, activists and opposition politicians rail against: The CLTPA also allows for detention of prisoners without trial. Except that it is primarily a law that was designed to help the G fight crime: It is used mainly against criminal elements such as secret societies, gangs, drug trafficking and loansharking syndicates. 
 
The law originated back in 1955, during a bygone time when Chinese triads terrorized society and fear reigned as people were too cowed to testify against triad bosses. Yes, it basically sounds like a premise for many period gangster movie but remember: fiction is often modeled on real life.
 
Anyway back to the present: The triads of Singapore have been stamped out but our G still considers the law relevant to apply it against other dangerous elements that have filled the void left behind by the triads. Some recent examples of criminals arrested thanks to the CLTPA are: Human trafficking kingpin Wu Feng Xia was nabbed under the CLTPA back in 2011. As were the six gang members behind the Eunos Crescent slashing attack of 2007. It's even been used against the drug trafficking syndicate that Yong Vui Kong was a part of.
 
Foreign criminal syndicates were singled out as another threat to Singapore that necessitated the bill's continued existence back when it was up for renewal in 2009. The reason? The opening of the integrated resort and the lure of free flowing money presented crime bosses with an incentive to open operations here for money laundering, loansharking and other illegal activities. In short, the G was taking a preventative measure to prevent Singapore from turning into a real sin city.
 
In the case of the SMRT strikers, the G invoked the CLTPA because the law has a provision that allows the G to take action against those who disrupt "essential" services with strikes. It is a bit of a mystery why the act was used on the football match fixers though because it does seem not that obvious that betting syndicates are dangerous enough to intimidate potential witnesses from testifying against them.
 
The odds that the CLTPA will be renewed without opposition is pretty much a sure thing. Why? Because the PAP has a parliamentary super majority within the house. All the G needs to do, is bring up the much publicized crime wave that Malaysia is currently going through - and how our neighbor has reinstated it's own laws on detention without trial to combat it's own criminal scourge. It's pretty obvious that the G will say that it needs to do something to prevent the flow of crime to coming down to us.
 
If it's not obvious from before then it should already dawn upon you that the nature of the CLTPA should make it unpopular amongst human rights groups. Offenders detained under the law can be detained without trial for 12-month periods, subject to annual reviews. Their cases do not make it into open court and you only hear blurbs about them in media reports. All these raises the issue on whether there has been anyone arrested and detained under arbitrary conditions. Our crusading human rights activists also never talk about CLTPA detentions, they seem more fixated on the ISA being used on would be politicians than on would be criminals. 
 
To be fair, the G has consistently taken great pains to reiterate that the law is used sparingly and there are several layers of checks with advisory committees, lawyers and the President playing their part within oversight roles. It still does not negate the fact that this is an opaque process. Even more so than the Internal Security Act, which at least makes public who has been arrested and why they were charged. Once again with the CLTPA, the G is basically serenading us with the same tired old song: hey you can trust us to always do the right thing.
 
This upcoming tabling of the CLTPA is the 13th time that it is up for renewal. It's high time more questions are asked in Parliament about it. We need more people in the house to ask on our behalf and to query about its use. The last person to do so was Ms. Sylvia Lim back when she was a NCMP in 2010.
 
The first question that should be asked: Just how big is the CLTPA population today?
 
The latest figure for people detained found upon reviewing the Hansard says that it's 73 people on average per year.  Other figures that were raised in Parliament: 1,260 in 1988, compared to 463 in 1998, and 290 in 2008. Which has showed a downward trend over a period of 10 years. 
 
ST reported last month that a Home Affairs ministry spokesman said that an average of 37 new detention orders and eight new police supervision orders were issued each year from 2009 to last year related to the law. The unfortunate problem is using average figures is that they do not give us much insight into how the law has been applied, how many inmates were released nor does it give us any idea on inmate population fluctuations. 
 
To be honest, do not expect much debate over the CLTPA today. That's because the bill is basically up for a first reading, which is meant to give MPs some time to read over the proposed bill and riddle it with whatever questions they might have. The real debate will come when the bill is up for its second reading, which knowing how parliament operates could be during the house's next sitting in November. 
 
Until then we owe it to ourselves to continue closely monitoring the debate over the renewal of this law. Why? Because we owe it to ourselves to at least know about the laws of our society, especially how they affect the individual and the powers that the executive branch of government wields over us.
 
We should be speaking to our elected representatives and asking them to robustly debate the law in the house and have the G add some transparency to it's CLTPA detentions. We owe it to ourselves to look after our own unalienable rights and ensure that we do not forsake our rights and our freedoms during our fevered sleep of apathy.
 

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