Human rights group MARUAH held a forum on Feb 12 to discuss the hastily-tabled Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill.
The Bill will be discussed in parliament next Monday, Feb 17.
The civil rights group raised some issues of concern: possibility of abuse in implementation, relevance of creating a new Public Order Bill, the effect on local businesses and the loss of a recreational area for migrant workers.
The Bill allows the police to conduct strip searches, dispose of liquor and ban those who are deemed a public threat from the area.
However Dr Kevin Tan, a law professor of National University of Singapore, highlighted that the police must satisfy specific criteria before using the search powers granted by the Bill. According to Tan, the police must have “a reasonable suspicion” that a person is carrying alcohol before they can strip-search him or her.
“What are the chances of abuse? When you use phrases like, ‘if they think it is necessary or in the best interest of everyone’ there is the danger the Bill will become very subjective,” he added.
Tan further questioned if the existing framework is not adequate to prevent another riot from taking place.
“One reason I suspect is they are afraid that it is too difficult to police the area. Rather than wait until something is likely to go wrong and then act, you just prevent things from going on so you do not have to act,” he said.
Tan also said that the Bill has an “underlying assumption” that alcohol was the primary cause of the Little India riot. He added that it is problematic to talk about this as the official Committee of Inquiry’s work is not over. “It could be multiple causes…The danger of this Bill is that you end up targeting a wider range of people who may have no connection with any of the causal links that led to the riot,” he said.
Also a panelist at the forum, journalism student Prabhu Silvam, who independently took pictures and wrote stories of those who witnessed the riot, said that many who sold alcohol in the district were losing money.
About 20 shop owners and other businesses in the special zone, who did not identify themselves, turned up for the forum. Already feeling the pinch from rental costs, employee wages and dwindling weekend crowds, all reacted with dismay to the restrictive aspects of the proposed Bill.
Panellst T. Satisharan said some shop owners were resigned to the eventuality of some businesses moving out of the area. The co-founder of the Inter-Cultural Theatre Institute recounted how a liquor shop owner in Little India for the last 20 years told him that he would have to move out of the area because he has already incurred losses of $40,000 since the alcohol ban was announced.
Apart from businesses, MARUAH also raised the worry about the well-being of the foreign workers.
The civil group asked: Where can South Asian foreign workers hang out during the weekends if such the Bill becomes law? Apart from Little India, where can this group of people go to, where is that place that feels like home?
WATCH THIS for more on foreign workers and alcohol: