Police should not be used as political tools or scapegoats: Shanmugam

Home Affairs and Law Minister thanks public for strong trust with police, warns against allowing such relationship to turn adversarial

Singapore's Law Minister K. Shanmugam speaks to Reuters in Singapore July 31, 2019.
Singapore's Law Minister K. Shanmugam speaks to Reuters in Singapore July 31, 2019 (PHOTO:REUTERS/Edgar Su)

SINGAPORE — The Singapore Police Force (SPF) is still trusted by the community. Still, it's important not to take this for granted and let the relationship between the police and the community turn adversarial.

This was emphasised by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam in a speech at the Police Workplan Seminar and Exhibition at the Singapore Expo on Friday (12 May).

He warned that other countries have experienced situations where the police are viewed as enemies instead of protectors of the community.

Using the example of the Capitol Hill riot on 6 January 2021, he explained that the police were caught in the political chaos during the riot and were the target of hostility from some members of the public.

Despite over 140 police officers being injured during the riot, and more than 1,000 people being arrested, certain individuals in the media and politics attempted to downplay the event for their gains.

Shanmugam also cited a Fox News report that used security footage from the riot that was shared by the Speaker of the House, with a commentator from the news network accusing the Democrats of lying to the American public about the events.

The minister said political tussles for power could drag the police into political debates, where certain groups or individuals use the police as a scapegoat or collateral damage to make political points.

"The Police should not, and cannot, be used as a tool for politics, or as scapegoats by political leadership," he stressed.

"We try and avoid this, and support the Police to be neutral and independent, not to be used for political purposes. Neither should the Police be made a victim of politicking. The responsibility lies with the elected leadership, political leadership, and it must stay this way."

Laws will impact police officers' mindset

The minister also discussed the impact of laws on the way police officers handle day-to-day situations, citing the example of the gun ownership situation in the US.

He said that he does not believe Americans are more or less prone to violence compared to people from other countries, including Singapore. However, due to the high rate of police officers being killed by firearms in the US, it affects the officers' mindset and makes them more cautious.

"If there are four million guns out there, for our 3.6 million citizen population, I think our officers will have a very different mindset. You will attend each incident with fear. And the slightest suspicion might trigger an instinctive reaction – to shoot or be shot," said Shanmugam.

"It is a vicious cycle. And it is not just this. This is the reason why we try and keep crime low across the rest of the society, because you need to create a certain culture and approach for reducing crime.

"That is why we take such a tough approach on drugs as well. Every time we allow one side to move, it affects the entire society and the way we will police."

Defending the defenders

Shamugam also called for the right remuneration for police officers in his speech on Friday.

He said that policing is a demanding job, and officers face a higher risk of getting injured while on duty, working shifts, and being on duty during public holidays.

Therefore, if the conditions of service are not good, the SPF will not be able to attract and retain good people for this tough job.

The minister also stressed the importance of standing up for officers and quickly debunking falsehoods when they are unfairly attacked. He cited the case of a police officer falsely accused of bullying an elderly woman in Yishun in 2021, which resulted in invoking the fake news law.

"These attacks will only get more complex, with deepfakes and artificial intelligence," he warned.

"To counter such attacks, it is crucial to put out the truth swiftly and accurately, set them out publicly and openly... There is some political cost but it is more important to protect the institution.

"Our officers know that when there are false or unfair allegations, we will act quickly and decisively to tell the truth and stand by the officers."

Shamugam also emphasised that, in cases of wrongdoings by police officers, firm action has been and will be taken to preserve the public's trust in the police force.

Gratitude for strong public trust

The minister expressed his gratitude for the public's trust in SPF, with 87 per cent of respondents in a 2020 survey by the Institute of Policy Studies stating that they were confident or very confident in the SPF.

The minister noted that this is the highest level of trust among state institutions in Singapore and the highest among police forces globally. This positive view was also reflected in the 2022 Gallup Global Law and Order report that found 93 per cent of Singapore respondents were confident in the police.

"It is the trust that enables the Police to first, prevent crimes – they keep crime rate low in the first place – and to solve crimes, when they do take place," he said.

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