Thursday, September 08, 2005

White Elephants

Singapore tabloid "Today" reported that growing public reaction over the authorities' investigation into the "white elephants" episode has compelled the police to justify their ongoing actions. What is significant here is the comparative lack of public reaction over the overwhelming police response to the 4 person protest held outside the CPF building recently.

In a statement issued yesterday, 7th September 2005, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) said "the Police must be fair and transparent at all times and not investigate cases selectively".

Idle since 2003 - Buangkok StationThe statement went on to explain that because someone had called "999" to complain about the animal cut-outs displayed on July 28 outside the Buangkok MRT station, the police had to determine whether any offence had been committed under the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act.

The placards, stuck along the road divider outside the train station operated by SBS Transit, were taken down on the very same day — after Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan visited the Punggol South constituency and caught the implicit message that residents would like to see Buangkok station open after two years of waiting. Commented Dr Balakrishnan, "Let me say that your message is taken, you don't need to convince me. I understand your wish to have the station open, I understand your frustration -- the thing is ready and yet the gate is not open but the PM has said two or three years, Mr Yeo Cheow Tong has said that once you have 2,000 units. It's just a matter of time."

Transport Minister Mr Yeo showed how the fine line is drawn in policy making: "I have said that when the number of units there reaches 2,000 to 3,000, we would open it. Today, within the 400m radius, there are only something like 600 units. So, it's well below. But, of course, if you extend the radius to 500 metres, we get close to 2,000. So I have asked the LTA, 'between 400 to 500 metres, is the cut-off so precise? What happens if we pull the line to 500 metres?'"

The minister seem to be blissfully ignorant of the Marina Bay Station operating at the end of the North South line in desolate Marina South, with nary a housing unit in sight. Completed in 2003, Buangkok Station is still not operational, the official reasoning being that there are not enough commercial or residential developments within 400 metres of the area.

Since the police began doing their job, several Singaporeans have written in to express their surprise at the police's decision to conduct a full-fledged investigation as a result of just one caller's complaint. The police action at the CPF building was also initiated by a phone call to the police.

More than 10 people, including residents and grassroots leaders, have been questioned since the police started their investigations last week, sources told Today.

If the police do determine that a crime has been committed, they may refer the case to the Attorney-General's Chambers, which guides law enforcement agencies on their investigations besides prosecuting criminal matters in court.

Under the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act gazetted in 2001, entertainment accessible to the public should not be carried out in a manner that is indecent, immoral, offensive, subversive or improper.

In addition, exhibits may not be put up in public without a permit. The offence carries a maximum fine of $10,000.

It should be pointed out that, as Presidential hopeful Andrew Kuan found to his chagrin when he reported a case of forgery, when a matter has been brought to the attention of the police, latter may, after investigating, close the case without persecution and no explanation given to parties involved.

Punggol South MP Charles Chong ventured further to predict that a feedback forum may be in order as soon as the case is closed so that residents can air their views on the issue. He appeared highly conversant about how the system works.

Chong said that complaints from residents tapered off in 2003, but flared up again recently when the transport fare hike was announced.

Said Mr Chong, "The bus fare went up, ERP gantries went up -- it sort of resurrected a lot of their frustrations … Every day when they see the site and not being able to use it and incurring higher transport costs for a station that's further away, I think this has irritated quite a lot of them."

For a parliamentarian of many years' standing, Chong had a curious perspective of law and order in the well disciplined city: "Throughout this whole experience, there are some who feel the letter of the law should be observed. Others feel there can be some easing of rules."

In a statement to the media on Oct 6th, the police said that while the investigation into the "white-elephants" incident established that there was an infringement of the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act, it noted that "the placards did not cause public annoyance or nuisance". Under the Act, an offender can be fined for up to $10,000 for putting up exhibits in public without a permit. After "considering the circumstances", the police decided to issue a "stern warning" to the offender.

Grassroots leader Sunny LeowUnperturbed by the admonishment, Sunny Leow, 54, who chairs the Punggol South Citizens' Consultative Constituency, challenged the 999-caller who complained about the cut-outs to come forward. "We want to know why he was offended and say sorry," he was quoted as saying. His MP Charles Chong told the press his "insurgents" will gather in Bangkok for their annual retreat where, as he quipped, "white elephants are revered."

Recently, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, who helms Singapore's Home Affairs Ministry, had made it clear that the law cannot be selective: "We cannot apply the law to some and turn a blind eye to others. If we do, then the law becomes the real white elephant."