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TraceTogether and the law: How the truth was prised out through the right probing questions

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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A Parliament session meant to elaborate on the importance of getting more Singaporeans to use TraceTogether in the fight against Covid-19 ended up with ministers having to work overtime to explain what was going on. The government had to scramble up new legislation identifying the serious offences for which TraceTogether can be used for police investigations.

All because Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Minister overseeing the SmartNation effort, had declared sometime back that the TT will be used only for the purpose of Covid-19 contact tracing. We now know that is not quite true. Rookie Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan told Parliament that under Section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), the police have the power to order anyone to produce any data, including TraceTogether data, for the purposes of a criminal investigation. That set off a flurry of questions and answers in Parliament in a debate originally meant to persuade more Singaporeans to use the TT token but which saw some apparent pushback against the national drive by a number of worried Singaporeans. Unfortunate.

What was the TT controversy really all about?

Is it about the police not being given powers to do their work properly? No, which right-minded citizens would object to the upcoming new laws allowing the police to use the TT data to investigate offences related to terrorism, drug trafficking, murder, kidnapping and serious sexual offences such as rape.

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The question is whether criminals would be so naive to make life easier for the police. One online comment puts it simply: “Don’t think criminals are so stupid to wear tokens when they strike.” Of course not. But, if the police need these weapons to do their job better, let them have them.

Is the TT hoo-ha about the issue of privacy? I would say maybe. Only maybe because in today’s brave new Big Brother world, absolute untouchable privacy is surely a mirage. Unless you want to be a genuine “sovereign” who is pretty much a recluse or a person living somewhere in the boondocks in a corner of the world disconnected from any modern facility or even society.

Big Brother has your data, one way or other. That is the price you have to pay. It’s entirely up to you to protect your privacy the best way you can – making sure you don’t make it easy for others to access your every data and activity. Or making sure you elect the right government into power which respects individual rights. Yes, how many people want to use only the virtual private network (VPN) for communication?

Is the TT controversy about a possible lack of coordination at Cabinet level on how they should sell the TT to the public, given the concerns about lack of privacy?  I think so.

Has the public been taken for granted – once again? So confident has everyone been about the “success” of the government’s Covid-19 effort that selling the TT willy-nilly was regarded as a cinch, a walkover? Put on your best face and say what everyone wants to hear and that’s it. Unfortunately, that’s not it at all.

I have this sneaky feeling that Desmond Tan, who is still new to politics, did not cover all his bases. The Minister of State probably never even remembered that Dr Balakrishnan had publicly pledged that the TT was solely for Covid-19 contact tracing. Maybe army generals (he was an SAF Brigadier-General) do not read newspapers, who knows. His statement about the CPC must have caught the SmartNation minister – and Tan’s boss Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam? — off guard.

The CPC revelation has forced the government to go on a back-pedalling move to plug the holes — tightening the law and procedures — to convince  members of the public the TraceTogether is vital in handling Covid-19. Especially as the local programme sees an opening up with more interactions where unrelenting monitoring can make a big difference in dealing with new surges and new variants of the viruses or even new viruses.

Singaporeans have to trust the government and whatever it says in the months ahead.

No one likes to see egg on anyone’s faces.

The biggest lesson out of the mini-fiasco, as far as I’m concerned, is that it shows once again very clearly the importance of questioning government policies.

If questions have not been asked or pursued and that there are not all these clarifications and tightening up of the law, we will end up with a cynical public which will never bother about or believe what the government is saying.

Trust must never be taken for granted. It has to be constantly earned with new generations of Singaporeans. Don’t erode it through complacency or over-confidence.

Finally, the most important lesson is that the system cannot work if MPs do not ask the right questions. So kudos to Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC, Workers’ Party) and Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, PAP) for asking the questions.

 

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer  with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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