Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. George Floyd.
These are but merely a few names among the many victims of systemic police brutality in the United States. Unfortunately, it is likely that they won’t be the last.
In the face of a deteriorating law enforcement system, American citizens have taken to the streets to protest police violence against certain minority groups and to seek justice for those who have ceased to have a voice. They are not alone in their anger. Whole communities in various parts of the world have joined what is an escalating Black Lives Matter social movement. Their aim? To bring awareness to the tragic outcomes of police brutality and to fight the gross acts of misconduct along racial lines.
It must be acknowledged that the issue of police brutality is not uniquely American. It is becoming clear that many countries are also facing a similar challenge, including those in Asia. Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, and more recently Hong Kong all face accusations of police brutality. In Singapore, however, there seems to be a relative lack of such a problem—police brutality is by and large not an issue in Singapore. The island city is known to have many success stories and perhaps this is another one of them. But the question remains—how did Singapore avoid the police brutality trap?
How has Singapore’s Police Force (SPF) fared in its conduct?
So far, the SPF has performed rather well in its conduct. This has not gone unrecognised by the general public. In a 2016 public perception survey conducted by the police, 92% of the 4,800 Singaporeans and Permanent Residents rated safety here as “good” or “very good”. Respondents cited low crime rates, increased police presence and fast response to crimes as reasons for their high levels of trust towards the police force.
While there have been several allegations of police brutality in Singapore – including one by the SMRT strikers from 2012 – they are far and few between.
There is a distinction to be made here, between enforcement and the policies being enforced. While opposition parties often criticise the government for its heavy handed and possibly authoritarian policies, we don’t really see them complain about the way they are enforced. Overall, the Singapore Police Force seems to be a respected and trusted national institution.
But why is this so?
Deescalation and strict guidelines
According to Section 75(2) of the 1955 Criminal Procedure Code (as amended), if a subject “forcibly resists or tries to evade arrest, the police officer or other person may use all reasonable means necessary to make the arrest.” It is also mentioned that the arrested subject “must not be restrained more than is necessary to prevent his escape”.
Section 63(2) further states:
a police officer may act in any manner (including doing anything likely to cause the death of, or grievous hurt to, any person) if the police officer has reasonable grounds to believe that —
(a) the person (whether acting alone or in concert with any other person) is doing or about to do, something which may amount to a terrorist act; and
(b) such act by the police officer is necessary to apprehend the person.
Additional powers are conferred by the 2018 Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act. Section 18(8) authorises a police officer to utilise “such force as is reasonably necessary, including the use of lethal weapons”
(a) to prevent an individual, or a driver or other person in charge of a vehicle or vessel, from entering or attempting to enter a cordoned area…; or
(b) to remove an individual or a vehicle or vessel from or away from a cordoned area, as the case may be.
Interestingly, these powers are not in compliance with the international law and standards on the police’s use of force.
In Singapore, police officers are taught to assess the circumstances and to only use the appropriate amount of force required to diffuse the situation. There are strict guidelines when it comes to the use of tasers and guns in the force. For instance, they are only to be considered for use when subjects are physically violent or armed with dangerous weapons that can potentially cause serious harm to officers or members of the public. As such, cases of police shootings are extremely rare in Singapore.
In the past 20 years, Singapore’s policemen have only opened fire to subdue subjects in just six reported cases, of which three deaths have occurred. In all three cases of death, the police shootings were found to be justified by the state coroner.
Police National Service (PNS) and representation
When conscription was first introduced in Singapore in 1967, its only purpose was to help build up the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Threats to sovereignty and the British Army’s withdrawal from Singapore in 1971, necessitated the creation of a competent fighting force. In contrast, there was little urgency for the police force to increase its overall manpower.
That changed in 1974, when four armed terrorists from the Japanese Red Army attacked the Shell oil refinery on Pulau Bukom and later hijacked the ferryboat Laju. The Laju incident, as it is called now, directly contributed to the establishment of full-time National Service for the Singapore Police Force in 1975. Referred to as Police National Service (PNS), the program aimed to beef up the size of the police force in the event of another terrorist attack on vital installations.
Today, approximately 1 out of 3 active duty policemen are full-time Police National Servicemen (PNSF). Some leadership positions are also occupied by PNSFs who go through a 32-week Officer Cadets Course. Both factors have inadvertently led to a few positive social outcomes.
In a polyglot, heterogeneous society like Singapore’s, conscription ensures the military and police force is representative of the population. This certainly isn’t the case in countries like America. In a 2013 analysis conducted by Governing, it was reported that minorities were underrepresented in almost every local American law enforcement agency serving at least 100,000 residents. The events of the past few weeks have shown the types of race-based tensions that this can cause. Representation in the police force is imperative to avoid racist policing, or at least accusations of such.
Conscription also prevents the creation of an “us against them” mentality when dealing with police officers. Currently in America, public pressure to defund law enforcement agencies is mounting – public trust in these institutions are low, and rightfully so. Interestingly, the inverse is true as well. Police officers don’t trust the communities that they are policing, and have formed a “siege” mentality of sorts. “We’re seeing policing becoming a very psychologically isolating profession,” said Radley Balko, an American author and blogger.
In Singapore, since a sizable proportion of the police force consists of citizen-officers whose main identity is as citizens and not as professional policemen and whose “loyalty lies with home and community,” you prevent the creation of two distinct groups of people: the career law enforcement officers and the communities being policed.
The intersectionality of both these groups has probably helped to reduce the instances of unjustified force. The police officer is likely to identify with the people he is policing and the policed might be less hostile considering that they might know someone – a brother, a father, or a cousin – who was conscripted into the force as well.
While the community good-will gained by conscription might be incidental, the Singapore Police Force has recognised the importance of community-oriented policing. In the early 1990s, inspired by the Japanese Koban policing system, the SPF started implementing the Neighbourhood Police Post (NPP) system. The idea was to integrate police posts with neighbourhoods, scattering more police officers across residential estates, instead of concentrating them in large police stations. Neighbourhood Police Centres (NPC) were kept small enough to be personal, but big enough to project confidence and assurance. From these centres, police officers were expected to conduct high visibility patrols, house visits to build rapport with residents, and take part in community engagement. By doing this, it was hoped that the population would start seeing police officers as part of their community as well – thereby preventing that “use against them” mentality we talked about earlier.
To a great extent, it seemed as if these goals were achieved. Surveys conducted by the force before and after the created of the NPCs confirmed that they led to:
– Increased citizen-assisted arrests
– More and closer contact with the public
– Increased confidence of the public in the police
– A positive impact on the image of the police
These community ties are important as both police officers and the members of the community would be more vary of escalating situations or interactions.