National Registration (Amendment) Bill – Speech by Leon Perera

(Delivered in Parliament on 10 November 2016)


Madam Speaker, the National Registration Amendment Bill seeks to make changes to the law governing the national register and NRICs in light of current realities and technology developments. I do not oppose the thrust of the bill, but I have a number of queries about the context for the amendments and a few requests for clarification and assurance on how these provisions will be implemented.

Firstly, under the amendments to Section 19 under Clause 13, the punishment for destruction of an identity card is $3,000, although the imprisonment term can be up to 2 years and can be implemented together with the $3,000 fine. Furthermore, the existing rules are that replacing a lost NRIC costs $100 for the first loss and $300 for the second loss. These penalties are relevant to low-income, multi-problem households.

Madam, I am sure many of us in this House have encountered low-income residents who sought to appeal for a reduction or waiver of those NRIC replacement costs on compassionate grounds. As an FSC volunteer in the past I met a number of low-income Singaporeans who had long lost their NRICs and who were deterred from seeking help from social work agencies and government agencies by the prospect of having to pay for replacing their NRICs, or worse yet charged with an offence. They and their families would suffer as a result.

An NRIC is crucial to interact with government agencies to exercise the rights and responsibilities of a citizen.

Rather than risk deterring at-risk persons from coming forward to ask for help, would the ICA consider adopting a similar approach to that taken by our public healthcare institutions – that no one would be denied medical help because they cannot pay. Similarly can the ICA say that while certain penalties may apply, no one will be denied an NRIC replacement because they cannot pay.

Next, I would like to speak about Clause 5, which places some limitations on what names can be registered.

One of these rules is that the name cannot exceed the number of characters permitted by the electronic form of the national register. The SMS has clarified that the character limit is 66. As a matter of practical reality, most persons and families would not choose names that are longer than 66 characters. But there would be a few who do.

If a family wants to give their child a name that is too long, or someone wants to do a deed poll to the same effect, would they be given sufficient time to consider how to abbreviate their officially registered name? I think back to the British colonial period when registration officers would often mis-record people’s names because they did not understand the language of the person whose name they were recording, resulting in names that were worded in strange ways that were at odds with the intention of the parents. In those days people had to live with the results of that. I hope that parents and individuals doing deed polls who find themselves on the wrong side of these new rules would have enough time and space to discuss alternatives with the registration officer rather than being pressured to agree to an officially approved version of their name “on the spot”, as it were.

Also on Clause 5, I would like to ask for some contextual information. Since every act of legislation should be a response to a real world problem or a problem that is likely to happen, my question is – have there been a significant and increasing number of cases of persons wanting to register names that might be deemed to contain an impermissible reference to a rank or award, or to be offensive or contrary to the national interest?

I would also like to question the terms “offensive” and “contrary to the public interest.” These are broad, sweeping terms that would give the ICA very broad latitude in denying the registration of a name, setting up a tension with the right of individuals choose their names and their childrens’ names.

Can the Ministry cite some examples of names that would be contrary to the national interest that it has encountered, or at least indicate broadly what types of names these would be? Would these be names containing expletives for example?

Clause 14 allows the Minister to collect new personal identifiers such as an iris scan, which reflects developments in personal identification technology. I would like to confirm with the SMS that the intent of the government is to collect iris scan information from all Singaporeans and PRs eventually. I would also like to ask what would be the process and schedule for collecting such information from persons outside of the NRIC and passport application and renewal processes.

Next, Section 3(4)(c) allows the employee of a prescribed institution to act as a registration officer. This opens the way for private corporations to perform national registration tasks on contract.

Would national registration officers working with private contractors, as with their public sector counterparts, be asked to sign the usual undertakings under the Official Secrets Act regarding safeguarding of official information? Also, and here I return to an issue I have raised in this House in other contexts, would the Ministry conduct a Privacy Impact Assessment or PIA before outsourcing national registration functions to companies, given the highly sensitive nature of personal identifier information and how highly sought after such data would be by criminal syndicates?

Also, the Bill does not expressly deal with contracts with the outsourcing contractors themselves. Unlike private organizations, the government isn’t bound by the Personal Data Protection Act (“PDPA”). In previous Parliamentary debates over the PDPA, the government has said that it is bound by its own internal rules.

The PDPA requires private organizations to ensure that organizations which process data on their behalf (“data intermediaries”) comply with PDPA protection and retention obligations.
To ensure a minimum standard of protection and reduce the compliance complexity for its outsourcers, I would like to suggest that MHA should at a minimum treat ALL organizations it is contracting with for the purpose of national registration like data intermediaries under the PDPA.  Terms and conditions in its tenders should also take into account the PDPC’s guidelines on this issue for private organizations.

Next, the Amendment to Section 16(2A) allows a national registration officer to break open property, forcefully remove obstruction and take possession of documents found during a search. This gives search, seizure, and use of force powers to national registration officers, extending police powers to another group of personnel, which the SMS has confirmed would include only ICA officers. I would like to record my concern on this point.

Is this extension of police powers necessary or desirable? Can police officers simply perform these tasks on behalf of national registration agencies?

Lastly, I have a technical question. The explanatory note states that no extra financial expenditure will be entailed by this bill. If iris scanning technology is to be purchased and deployed on a considerable scale, would this not result in a significant increase in financial expenditure?

Thank you.