What you need to know about Singapore's Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill

The bill seeks to provide the police with 'special powers' to deal with large-scale public disorder in situations that 'seriously threaten public safety'. — Najeer Yusof/TODAY pic
The bill seeks to provide the police with 'special powers' to deal with large-scale public disorder in situations that 'seriously threaten public safety'. — Najeer Yusof/TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Feb 28 — Yesterday, the Ministry of Home Affairs tabled Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill which will, among other things, give police more powers during “serious incidents” such as terrorist attacks to stop the public and the media from sharing information about ongoing security operations via a “communications stop order”.

The proposed law seeks to protect the secrecy of tactical operations.

If passed, the Bill will replace the existing Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA) enacted in 1958, which provided for special police powers during large-scale public disorders, such as communal riots.

Here is what the public needs to know about the Bill:

1. What is a communications stop order?

The order forbids the “making, exhibiting or communicating” of information in all forms — including taking videos, pictures, audio-recordings, or text messages — about ongoing security operations. It can be invoked by the Commissioner of Police, with authorisation from the Minister of Home Affairs, and will only be used when the security situation calls for it, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said.

2. Who could be liable?

The public, including the media, must abide by the order. Anyone found to have flouted the order during the time it is in place, and may have endangered the safety of law enforcement officers or members of the public, could be liable for an offence. An offence is also committed if a person does not comply with a police officer’s directions which can include surrendering the pictures, recordings or messages for example, or immediately destroying them.

If convicted, a person could be jailed up to two years and/or fined up to S$20,000 (RM59,284).

Police officers and other law enforcement officers authorised by the Commissioner are exempted from the order.

3. What is the purpose of the Bill?

It seeks to provide the police with “special powers” to deal with large-scale public disorder in situations that “seriously threaten public safety”, the MHA said.

It is part of a raft of new laws aimed at enhancing Singapore’s ability to respond to the terrorist threat, the ministry added.

To authorise it, the Home Affairs Minister must be of the opinion that a serious incident has occurred, or there is a threat of such an incident, and that the special powers are necessary to prevent it, reduce its impact, or control, restore or maintain public order.

The communications stop order is one of the “special powers” that can be invoked to prevent leakage of strategic information to suspected terrorists.

The MHA cited terror attacks on Mumbai and Paris, in 2008 and 2015 respectively, as cases where live broadcasts had compromised police operations.

4. What are examples of “serious incidents” where the new law could be invoked? Examples provided by the MHA include:

A bomb has exploded in a shopping area during business hours. A manhunt is on to capture the bomber, who is evading the authorities.

Gunmen have launched multiple coordinated attacks at a concert hall during a performance attended by a large audience, and at several other crowded locations.

A group of protestors have gathered along the street and is growing in size. The protestors start to destroy nearby vehicles and throw projectiles.

An individual or group has hijacked the rapid transit system and is putting the safety of the train, or any passengers or crew on board or outside the train, at risk.

A sit-down demonstration has grown in size over a week, and demonstrators are starting to occupy publicly accessible paths and other open spaces in the Central Business District. Their presence is impending the flow of traffic and interfering with trade and business activities in the area.

5. What other special powers can be given to law enforcers?

Apart from the communications stop order, the police can also be empowered to direct building owners to take certain actions — such as closing their premises, restricting entry and exit, or providing officers with information such as floor plans — to facilitate security operations.

The Bill also allows the police to demand information from individuals in proximity of the incident. In the case of a manhunt, for instance, bystanders are obliged to provide information on the identity and movements of the suspects that they may be privy to, if asked by the police.

The proposed law also allows the police to rope in civilians to assist in their operations, such as by imposing a cordon, closing roads, controlling individuals’ movements, removing vehicles, or giving directions to premise owners. — TODAY

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