Delivered in Parliament on 10 May 2021
In recent months, several of my residents have been killed or maimed as a result of irresponsible driving by others. These tragic accidents could have been easily avoided. I thus agree with the overall rationale underlying this Bill to enhance safety on our roads, as well as to strengthen security on our public transport. That said, I have some queries and concerns about the provisions relating to illegal car racing, giving of false information to police and the expanded powers of search on bus and train commuters.
Enhanced Punishment for Speed Trials
Clause 22 of this Bill will increase the penalties for the offence of conducting illegal competitions or trials of speed involving vehicles, in short, racing. Minister of State for MHA highlighted an increased incidence of such offences. In recent months, the public focus has been on the fatal crash at Tanjong Pagar that claimed five young lives. Based on questions from other Members of this House, illegal car races may be taking place in our neighbourhoods. Anecdotally, I have also received significant feedback from residents about vehicles racing at high speeds within Aljunied GRC – such as along Tampines Road, the Upper Serangoon Road viaduct, and Lorong Ah Soo, several times a week. I have been liaising with the Traffic Police and the Land Transport Authority for several months over such threats to public safety.
This Bill proposes to significantly increase the punishment for the offence of illegal racing, by doubling the maximum imprisonment and more than doubling the maximum fines. While such an enhanced punishment will send a stronger deterrent signal to would-be offenders, I believe those seeking such thrills will still try their luck unless there is a greater certainty of being caught. Earlier the Minister of State mentioned that there are 300 cameras nationwide to detect such offences. To this end, could the Ministry confirm if law enforcement is stepping up further its capacity and operations to increase the likelihood of detecting illegal racing on our roads?
Giving False Information
Clause 20 of the Bill proposes to change the law regarding the offence of giving of false information to police about the identity of the driver who committed an offence. We are aware of such cases where a vehicle owner falsely tells police that another person was driving the vehicle, in order that the owner escape punishment for a traffic offence.
I agree with the proposed Section 81(3A) which will make it an explicit offence for that other person to pretend or falsely represent that he was the driver. He too will be liable for possible imprisonment. Hopefully this will make it more difficult for vehicle owners to find fall guys to take the rap and thereby pervert the course of justice.
Clause 20 also proposes to increase the punishment for this offence, in particular the maximum fine. It is now proposed to raise the maximum fine to $10,000. I note that just four years, the maximum fine had been raised from $1,000 to $5,000, a fivefold increase. Now it is being doubled. Could the Ministry clarify why there is a need to do so, in particular is there any indication that drivers are not deterred by the current levels of fines?
Searches of Bus and Train Passengers
Clauses 24 and 31 of the Bill provide for security screening of passengers upon entry into buses, bus interchanges, and trains and premises of the MRT and LRT. Although powers of search already exist in the Road Traffic Act and Rapid Transit Systems Act, these powers covered only passengers’ belongings but not searches of the passengers themselves. This Bill will expand these powers to cover frisk searches of passengers. Given the evolving security situation including the threat from self-radicalisation, I do appreciate the rationale for this expanded power.
I do not expect the power to do frisk searches to be widely used. I hope I am not wrong. Nevertheless, I have a particular concern about these provisions.
The term “frisk search” is defined in the Bill as “a search of an individual by quickly running the hands over the individual’s outer clothing”. Frisk searches thus involve physical contact with the person being searched. My main concern revolves around the persons empowered to conduct frisk searches.
To explain the basis of my concern, allow me to briefly describe the various actors in our security landscape. In our security ecosystem, we have SPF officers, auxiliary police, unarmed security and other lay enforcement personnel. The levels of training of these groups are vastly different. Compulsory training of SPF officers requires six to nine months of residential training, while auxiliary police do residential training of 8 to 9 weeks (less than 3 months). Unarmed security training can be completed in
about a week or two. I assume outsourced enforcement officers also undergo less intensive training.
The nature of deployments for these different actors has typically been deliberately calibrated with these differences in mind. Those with less training typically handle more routine tasks, such as controlling entry to premises, guarding installations or manning security equipment. On the other hand, the SPF officers are expected to handle trickier situations involving the exercise of judgment and discretion, and working with the community. Of course, over the years, there has been some convergence and overlap, as the training of APOs and unarmed security has been enhanced to enable them to perform more tasks than before. But the need to draw a line is still solid and sound.
The Bill proposes that frisk searches may be conducted by police officers and those defined as “senior approved persons”. “Senior approved persons” are in turn defined to include members of the auxiliary police, security officers engaged by the public transport operator, and outsourced enforcement officers. It is not clear to me that there is any requirement of seniority in the categories mentioned, so the term “senior approved persons” may, in fact, be a misnomer.
More importantly, is enabling non-SPF actors to conduct frisk searches by force appropriate? For comparison, let us look at another piece of legislation. In the Public Order Act, Part III on Special Events Security reserves the power to search persons entering a special event area to SPF officers only; others such as auxiliary police and private security are empowered to do less-intrusive forms of security checks such as checking bags and manning scanners. This sensible demarcation is a recognition that a bodily search is an intimate security check which should only be performed by highly-trained persons. This Bill today marks a departure from that approach.
Concerns naturally arise. Are auxiliary police, security officers and the outsourced enforcement officers suitable to perform frisk searches? Do they have the requisite training, not only on how to perform the physical act, but also to handle any confrontations that may arise? Another concern would be about searches on female commuters – where are the precautions on how searches on women should be conducted, in order to have strict regard to decency?
Finally, the Bill provides that it is an offence for commuters not to comply with any request or order of a police officer or approved person, on pain of punishment of a fine of up to $1,000. Since commuters have to comply, it is only reasonable that officers be easily identifiable. Clauses 24 and 31 provide that a police officer in plainclothes or an approved person must declare his office to the person before he or
she is required to comply. The only category of officers who are required to produce identification cards to the public are outsourced enforcement officers.
May I ask why it is not provided that all police officers and approved persons must show their warrant cards or identification cards if asked by the public? This Bill seems to be a lowering of standards set by the RTA itself, as Section 128 of the RTA currently requires police officers not in uniform to produce the identification card to the public when asked. In my opinion, requiring plainclothes officers to merely declare their office is not sufficient, and cases of impersonation of police officers happen all the time. I am concerned about what these provisions mean for safeguards for the commuter.
As I stated at the start of my speech, I am supportive of the goal of enhancing safety on our roads and strengthening security on our public transport. Nevertheless, it is important that the provisions are coupled with strong capacities to detect offences. It is also critical to ensure that the risk of misuse of search powers on commuters is minimised.