Friday, January 16, 2009

Interview with DPM Wong Kan Seng

 A changing society, an evolving Home Team

[Excerpt from Interview with DPM Wong Kan Seng.]

LAST year, however, was a tumultuous one for the Home Team, with a series of lapses starting from Mas Selamat's escape in February.

In June, two robbery suspects made a bid to escape from police custody at the Subordinate Courts. That same month, a retiree got past immigration control at Changi Airport using his son's passport.

Mr Wong fully acknowledged these: 'In hindsight, looking at 2008, it was a very bad year for the Home Team with one incident after another.'

But he also called for 'a sense of proportion' in the public's reaction.

Many of his officers, he said, were 'demoralised and discouraged by the incessant public criticisms'.

They accepted that serious errors were made, said Mr Wong.

'What was disturbing was the unrealistic and unreasonable expectation dominating the public discussion that there cannot be any lapses whatsoever, without distinctions being made between clear negligence, and errors that arose as a result of a confluence of events - some of which were outside the officers' control.'

So the misclearance of a passport, for instance, cannot be viewed in the same way as Mas Selamat's escape, he said.

'We have to take it in perspective: that Mas Selamat's escape is different from the escape of two unconvicted prisoners - two unconvicted persons actually just awaiting bail.

'If somebody offered bail, the two guys would have walked out of the court cell. But they decided to run away early.

'And that incident is certainly also very different from a man who took his son's passport and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority officer, by profiling, let him through. Then the son called the press and said this is what happened - my father took my passport, ICA let him through!'

This led Mr Wong to his next point. He is perturbed by a 'troubling trend' - the reflex action of Singaporeans today to 'defy or even threaten the Home Team officer with bad press or a hostile Net opinion if the officer takes action against them'.

He tells the story of a police officer who stopped his vehicle behind a car to book the driver who parked on a double yellow line.

The driver's defiant response to the officer: 'You're also parked against the double yellow line!'

But isn't the reporting of such incidents in the media or on the Internet a sign that a healthy system of checks and balances is in place?

Mr Wong responded: 'I'm not saying that people should not criticise the police. When police officers do wrong, by all means do it. Criticise them. And if they offended the law, well, I would be the first to say that we don't need black sheep in the force.

'But if they do nothing wrong and people just simply want to put them up and ridicule them and lampoon them, I think over time the image of the officer, of law enforcement, will go down.'

The repercussions are serious: Public trust will diminish, morale among officers will decline, recruitment will get more difficult and a culture of avoiding risks will grow.

Said Mr Wong: 'The last thing we want to do to ourselves is to have the public lose its trust in the police. When that happens, then it is a vicious circle.

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