Whenever a politician goes on the attack, saying others have been trafficking in “falsehoods”, one has to be alert to the possibility that amidst the smoke and thunder, some more important questions are being avoided. This appears to be the case when the law minister K Shanmugam finally addressed the Benjamin Lim case.
The apparent suicide of 14-year-old Benjamin, hours after being hauled to a police station on 26 January 2016 and interrogated for three-and-a-half hours without lawyer or even parent present is, in itself, troubling enough. That it also shines a light on the lack of rights even if the accused were an adult is why this case is doubly significant.
Addressing Parliament, Shanmugam accused The Online Citizen of stating or suggesting unsubstantiated claims as fact:
The overall narrative and impression conveyed by the articles put up by TOC was that the police were lying, the police intimidated Benjamin and they put pressure on him to confess to a crime that he did not commit.
These are allegations, implications which are false, noted Mr Shanmugam, adding that this led people to conclude that as a result of this, Benjamin committed suicide.
— Today, 1 March 2016, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam hits out at TOC, LawSoc president for putting out ‘falsehoods’
He also accused Thio Shen Yi, president of the Law Society, of similar disregard of “facts”.
The minister also criticised how LawSoc president Thio Shen Yi weighed in on the case, expressing his surprise that “even a lawyer” had made comments which should not have been made.
Last month, LawSoc’s official monthly newsletter, Singapore Law Gazette, published Mr Thio’s commentary that said the police should have taken a “less intimidating way” of approaching the investigation, among other things.
Mr Shanmugam said Mr Thio’s statements effectively imply that Benjamin killed himself because of police intimidation.
Mr Thio has a duty to be fair to the police officers involved, he said before adding that Mr Thio need only refer to the police statement on Feb 1 to know he “got his facts wrong”.
Without knowing anything about Benjamin, his mental make-up or his family background, Mr Shanmugam said one cannot reach such conclusions that the boy was intimidated and as a result, took his life.
I find the last line noteworthy, and a fine example of politics-speak. Shanmugam is trying to put distance between the actions of the police and the boy deciding to jump from his high-rise flat. He does so by reducing the comments by detractors to a claim that the police intimidated the boy, and then says that no such conclusion could be reached. The synaptic leap is that therefore the police were not responsible for the boy’s death; the authorities cannot be held culpable in any way.
We should not fall for such greased logic.
The timeline cannot be ignored. Being taken from school to a police station, interrogated alone for hours, held alone in a holding room, and (as Shanmugam said in Parliament) admitting to an offence of touching an 11-year-old girl inappropriately, is a tectonic life moment for a teenager. Sure, the possibility exists that there were other proximate causes for his decision to take his own life, e.g. he could have become angry at losing at his videogame, or he was in pain from constipation, but to dismiss or minimise the preceding police events because they are not proven, is disingenuous.
It is particularly offensive, and just as irresponsible and unsubstantiated as whatever allegations he accused The Online Citizen of, to suggest that the parents themselves, or family dysfunction, might in some way be a factor (when Shanmugam referred to “family background”).
The other thing to note is that intimidation has a subjective element. Shanmugam is trying to use the word to mean a certain kind of aggressive behaviour on the part of police officers. But we all know that what is intimidating to one person may not be to another, depending on that subject person’s life experiences, response-skills and most importantly, power position, vis-à-vis the “intimidator”. Thus, denying that the police used aggressive behaviour does not mean that Benjamin did not feel intimidated. Mobsters after all, have been known for dressing smartly, calling politely and using suave, allusive language in order to extort: “Sir, as we all know, flowers enjoy the sunlight; they bloom and thrive from the blessings of heaven. But they share their bounty with the bees. Such is the order of nature. And bees help in pollination. Without sharing with bees, the plants might have no offspring.”
So, Shanmugam’s strenuous denial that there was no intimidation may only be true in a very narrow sense. We need to be alert to politics-speak.
The wider issue
Singapore would be poorer for it if we do not take this opportunity to look at the bigger picture of the rights of accused persons. An article in the Asian Correspondent succinctly listed the shortcomings. (Singapore: The legal rights we don’t have, 28 Feb 2016, by Carlton Tan). Key points from there:
- … the police may prevent [an accused person] from consulting a lawyer for as long as they deem necessary or “reasonable”.
- Even after the suspect has engaged legal counsel, the police is still not required to let counsel be present during subsequent interviews. This means that he can be questioned without his lawyer.
- Any incriminating statements that he gives can then be used to convict him, regardless of whether or not the statements were obtained unfairly.
- In fact, even if he chooses to remain silent on the grounds that he is waiting for his lawyer, his silence can be used against him. The judge may make what is called an adverse inference from his silence.
- In addition, the suspect has no right to contact third parties to discover and ask about into his right to counsel, and he has no right to contact family and friends to ask about the legal consequences of his arrest.
Instead of addressing these wider issues, what we have seen so far, reiterated by Shanmugam in Parliament, is that
The police will review their procedure for interviewing young persons.
Mr Shanmugam said the review will take in three broad points: what happened in Benjamin’s case, the type of young persons who are picked up, and how to reduce the risk of officers flouting procedure.
— Straits Times, 1 March 2016, Shanmugam lays out facts on schoolboy Benjamin Lim’s case, says police followed procedures
This is very, very narrow. Firstly, it is an internal review. The police are reviewing their own actions and procedures. There always exists in such circumstances an incentive to minimise self-blame. Secondly, it is tightly referenced to this particular case itself and similar cases involving young persons.
Significantly, what is left totally unsaid is this: What is the yardstick for review? Without setting up an objective standard to measure by, reviews (especially internal ones) are little more than shadow puppetry. The yardstick should be developed-country standards for the rights of accused persons. And once this yardstick is recognised, it becomes obvious that the scope should be broadened to include adult accused persons.
Moreover, it would be a lot more credible if independent lawyers and human rights monitors are part of the review panel, and if members of the public have an avenue for input.
The Law Society has been calling for earlier access to counsel. In this connection, it is interesting that Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng told Parliament:
… that the Ministry of Education will participate in the review of police practices and protocols following Benjamin’s death.
School processes will be adapted and refined where needed, he added, to align them with the recommendations arising from the review such as requiring a school staff to act as an “appropriate adult” at the police station.
— Today, 1 Mar 2016, Ng Chee Meng addresses public concerns on students under investigation
I think he has just thrown a spanner into the works, probably unwittingly. While Shanmugam’s stance seemed to be to not question or influence what the review panel may recommend, as seen from his silence about what he’d like to see as outcome, Ng Chee Meng, by the above words, has already flagged what his own ministry wants the review panel to do.
But if the ministry wants an “appropriate adult” to accompany a schoolkid to the police station, this will surely beg the question why this person (probably a teacher) should have right of presence or access when a parent does not. Which in turn will raise the question: Why not a lawyer?
This is the kind of muddle-headed nonsense we see from our government. They are driven by contradictory impulses: to avoid the whole question of human rights and the public scrutiny these may bring onto them and their executive actions, while at the same time assuaging criticism of their most egregiously callous behaviour. Their response is typically, and in a completely arbitrary way, to give a little bit but at the same time to guillotine discussion of the whole, all the while reserving total discretion (as to what to give) to itself.
I will not use the words “cover up”, because it is in no way one. But the government’s response is clearly a determined attempt to evade the full panoply of questions about the rights and treatment of accused persons that logically arise from this case.