Parliament’s new drinking law not steady on its feet

Drinking-related shenanigans have got to go, but this new law makes no sense to me. I am all for an end to the disamenities and crime caused by public drinking. After all, I live within 200m of a popular drinking area, and some people do get a little unruly on the weekends. I’ve even had some of my property damaged by drunks. Yet I believe that this new law is a terrible way to tackle the issue.

linked from singapore.coconuts.co

Purpose

According to Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran, this law was passed to “tamp down liquor-related disamenities and preserve public order, in response to feedback.”

Which disamenities? The rioting? The affray? The public drunkenness? The vomiting? The littering? We have laws for these already, and are apparently not enforcing them properly (since so many people seem to still be breaking them). There’s even an existing law against being drunk and incapable in public – why not use what we already have? What is this new law going to add to our police’s ability to keep the peace, and at what cost?

We now have lost the freedom to drink peacefully in public and in return we may not get what we want at all, simply because nobody is putting boots on the ground. People who are daring enough to break one law will have no qualms about breaking two. If the Ministry of Home Affairs can show that its officers are effectively policing existing laws, but that they need more laws to keep people on the straight and narrow, then we can take the Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) law more seriously.

The privacy issue

Foreign worker dormitories are considered public places for this law. This is a disturbing invasion of the privacy of private spaces, when a law can be passed to make it count as public space.

MP Hri Kumar Nair is on the record asking about how this “could unnecessarily single out foreign workers.” This is a sentiment that worries me too.

Iswaran counterclaimed that “workers can continue to drink in their private quarters according to whatever rules they have in their dorms… And they can also continue to drink in the beer gardens in their dorms, until such time as it is allowed under the licence. So it will not unduly constrain foreign workers in the dorms.”

You mean that an argument of ‘Oh, they already have some curbs, some private rules, this doesn’t change their life much. Let’s just pass this law to invade their privacy since they already have very little of it’ is considered robust? You mean this isn’t a strong hint that we are, basically, trampling on foreign workers’ rights? It’s like passing a law that says that it is legal to chop off the missing limbs of amputees. No practical implications, but inhuman, foolish and potentially dangerous nonetheless.

Unenforced – a mockery of a law

CNA clarifies that “The new law is to encourage responsible drinking and considerate behaviour. As long as members of the public act in an appropriate behaviour and are not rowdy, the police will not step in and instead, focus on the more problematic areas.” Iswaran says as much himself.

Did he actually say that Parliament passed a new law but that the Government wouldn’t enforce it in its entirety? Then why pass it in its entirety? One application of the law for one group and another application of the law for another group is just going to be a big mess. Not to mention that it is unjust, inequitable, and shakes the foundations of why we have laws in the first place.

Iswaran also “emphasised that the intent is not to penalise the mere possession of alcohol.” Well, if the house doesn’t intend to penalise the mere possession of alcohol, then why pass a law that penalises the mere possession of alcohol? The loose logic baffles me.

Grey areas – impossible to police

The existence of grey areas is another sign that this law is going to be problematic. It will either result in people getting away with breaking the law, or result in abuse of the interpretation by the police. Perhaps both.

This letter to TODAY spells out some of these grey areas.

Changing behaviour – no statistics

Okay, so there are all these people getting drunk and then committing crimes. They drink past 10:30pm (most drinkers do). Nobody has presented any data on whether they were drinking in public or in private before the incidents happened. Other than the littering and noise, how many of the other crimes and offences were caused by persons drinking in public (vs private)? Isn’t it a classic case that people get liquored up INSIDE and then take their drunken grouses OUTSIDE (in public) to get settled? How much of this sort of behaviour can be attributed to actual public drinking after 10:30pm?

Without the data, how can we be sure that change will be seen? Iswaran makes a big deal about having a national ban because without islandwide curbs, he believes that the problem “will only push the problem to other areas

Never mind that this was not the case with the Little India riots. The drinking ban there did not simply move riots to other parts of Singapore.

If Iswaran is worried about the problem being pushed to other areas, doesn’t he realise that these “other areas” will include indoor areas as well? Won’t people get off the streets, get into the bars, and then come out and commit their crimes as they always do?

A bad trade

It seems we have traded a lot of freedoms for comparatively few concrete or guaranteed benefits. Moreover, we have traded in a lot of freedoms for marginal gains in our enforcement arsenal. Either that, or we are slowly making a mockery of our legal system by making laws that are not evenly enforced.

What are our MPs doing?

Other than Hri Kumar Nair’s objection to the invasion of foreign workers’ privacy (a point that was brushed off), few other MPs questioned the law in depth. Tin Pei Ling challenged the asymmetircal strip-search powers of police to no effect. Only NCMP Lina Chiam roundly opposed the law and also managed to squeak out a vague point about a lack of consultation.  Few others raised the pertinent questions listed above (or at least I haven’t read any published in the news).

Consultation isn’t the biggest problem here, even though it is a problem. The problem is why our elected representatives are not asking the right questions, or are not getting the right answers, and how a law that seems to be so flawed was passed so easily.

MDA’s licensing scheme gone mushy

There I was, a parliamentary noob, (unless you count TV), watching from the public gallery with interest as a series of questions was put to Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim about the controversial and, honestly, horrendously thought-out licensing scheme for “news websites” in Singapore.

To begin with, all internet content providers (anyone with a web page, or even a Facebook page) are automatically under a class license. The new individual licensing only differs in TWO aspects – a $50,000 performance bond and a 24-hour takedown rule. Dr Yaacob managed to make an even greater mockery out of the new licensing scheme by saying in parliament that the $50,000 bond is negotiable and flexible… and so is the 24-hour takedown rule.

Seriously, if a new licensing regime is so ineffective and vague, why implement it in the first place? What does the new scheme offer that the old one does not? Dr Yaacob’s answer to that (repeated to death in and out of parliament) – “higher standards” for online reporting. Parity.

Dr Yaacob did, however, categorically state that the state ownership rule will not be applied to online news websites. Cheers to that, but it also makes the “parity” argument go down the drain.

I’m all for higher standards of online reporting. I’m all for silencing untruths. If this licensing scheme could achieve these objectives without a major fallout, I’d throw my weight behind it. But it does not.

Sir, do you not realise that NOTHING in the licensing effectively makes anyone or any news entity any more responsible, any more beholden to the truth, any more on par with our print media (not that THAT would necessarily be desirable either)? The licensing scheme is a dream, the muddled and fantastical origins and objectives of which are so bizarre that I cannot even begin to fathom what was going on in someone’s mind when they thought it up. Is there a secret (and legal) supply of mind-altering drugs somewhere that might help me?

That the minister was repeating himself over and over (and never really answering the real questions) was a clear sign to me that he hoped to barrel through the whole thing by fiat. Google and other industry players worried? No, no, no. Everything is fine. Free My Internet group raises some questions? No, no, no. Everything is fine. NCMP Lina Chiam raises some excellent questions? No, no, no. Everything is fine. Netizens in an uproar? No, no, no. Everything is fine.

NCMP Lina Chiam, on the other hand, delivered a succinct adjournment motion, in spite of her slightly unsteady speech. I suspect some in the room might have been tittering at how she stumbled over her words, but it is substance that matters and she had plenty where Dr Yaacob was forced to regurgitate his old, decimated defences for the scheme.

Backbenchers’ wishlist

The most interesting feature at this year’s Budget debate is probably the attention given by the media to alternative policies and pathways raised by backbenchers.

Here are some of the ideas reported in the media.

Janil Puthucheary (PAP) recommended that free public transport rides be given at off peak hours to try and change commuter behaviour and reduce peak load.

Liang Eng Hwa (PAP) agreed and called for a freeze on public transport fares until there is a significant improvement in service quality. He also expressed his frustration with trying to get PTOs to raise standards.

Lee Li Lian (WP) asked that flexi-work become part of legislation, and asked for a waiver of the FDW levy for certain groups.

Inderjit Singh (PAP) called for a minimum wage of $1,500 to be implemented over five years.  NMP Laurence Lien also thought a minimum wage would be a good idea. Labour chief Lim Swee Say said “no” for the umpteenth time, again without a clear explanation.

Irene Ng (PAP) asked that respect for all people be shown by recognising a “living wage” level at which a wage is considered fair.

Christopher de Souza (PAP) asked for the preschool sector to be nationalised, pushing against the tide of the G trying to privatise everything.

Eugene Tan (NMP) asked if Singapore should consider dual citizenship, now that 40% of Singaporeans marry foreigners. DPM Teo rejected the idea.

Ang Wei Neng, Sitoh Yih Pin and Fatima Lahteef (all PAP) asked for ten citizen assentors to be required for every application for citizenship. DPM Teo said he would consider the idea.

In that vein, Zainal Sapari (PAP) suggested that there also be a citizenship test.

Hri Kumar Nair (PAP) also said that integration efforts needed to be re-evaluated and strengthened. He plugged his National Defence Duty idea again.

Sylvia Lim (WP) called for additional tax brackets for the super-rich.

Lee Bee Wah (PAP), Pritam Singh (WP) and Teo Siong Seng (NMP) spoke out against the drastic curbs on car loans.

Ong Teng Koon, Teo Ho Pin, Lee Bee Wah (all PAP)  and Lina Chiam (NCMP, SPP) were just a few of many who thought that the government could do better for restructuring and productivity than what the Wage Credit Scheme and Productivity Innovation Credits offered.

Finally, Sitoh Yih Pin (PAP) asked that the G be more upfront with bad news, manage expectations and communicate better.

Heng Chee How flubs WP numbers

As Senior Minister of State Heng Chee How asked for the retirement age to be extended to 67, I was looking for a glimmer of hope for SMEs. Instead he happily delivered the following (quoting from the article):

Earlier in his speech, Mr Heng also rebutted the Workers’ Party’s argument of allowing 10,000 new citizens a year versus the White Paper’s proposal of 15,000 to 25,000 per year.

He said there are about 18,000 deaths among the population each year. Hence, the Workers’ Party’s proposal would not be enough to even make up for those who pass away.

It will also make the opposition party’s own hope of achieving one per cent growth in Singapore’s citizen workforce between now and 2020 harder to achieve, he added.

I had mentioned this to a friend in the PAP before, when this silly argument was first circulating as a rebuttal of WP’s 10,000 new citizens a year idea. That logic, which Mr Heng has embraced in public, overlooks a very simple statistic – WP is talking about immigrant citizens, not children born to Singaporeans.

Our current birth rate hangs at about 40,000 a year, with thousands more in a Dragon year (though that effect is waning). With death rates at 18,000 and new immigrants at 10,000, we have a manageable 32,000 net growth in numbers. I can hardly imagine the WP proposes for us to throw 30,000 babies a year into the longkang, Pharoah style, so that figure is obviously about new immigrants. Mr Heng should have just focused on his plan to keep older citizens employed for longer, instead of drinking the Kool Aid and trying to score political cheap shots.