SINGAPORE — The swift arrest of a couple who were captured on a video clip using offensive language and force against an elderly man at a Toa Payoh hawker centre was praised by many on social media.
Experts and observers interviewed yesterday said the police were duty-bound to act as the video clip clearly showed an offence being committed — never mind that it was a relatively minor dispute. However, they warned against a lynch-mob mentality and urged the public to leave the police to their work, even as they encouraged the public’s use of social media to bring offences to light.
The incident happened last Friday at Toa Payoh Lorong 8 Market & Hawker Centre. The police arrested the 46-year-old man and 39-year-old woman on Tuesday for an offence of public nuisance, after it received reports on Sunday.
Lawyer Amolat Singh said: “If the situation is so blatant, and the police ignored it and did nothing, that would be a blatant disregard of the law.”
But he stressed the police should not be compelled to act on every viral video of alleged offences. They should only take action when they feel there is sufficient evidence, Mr Singh said.
Agreeing, lawyer Lee Ee Yang, managing director at Covenant Chambers LLC, said: “The police definitely have the discretion to weigh what has been done (via footage), and whether it warrants further investigation. If (the video) discloses an offence, then the police should take further action.”
The lawyers noted that such footage has proved useful in tackling road rage, so much so that the traffic police are encouraging video submissions of traffic violations by the public.
But by relying on footage provided by netizens, are the authorities encouraging online vigilantism?
Nee Soon GRC Member of Parliament Louis Ng, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee (Law and Home Affairs), felt that a balance needs to be struck. “It is positive that citizens want to get involved and ... do the right thing, but I think we have to ... let the authorities step in and investigate,” said Mr Ng.
The couple was initially identified by netizens as staff of UOB’s Toa Payoh branch but the bank later clarified that they were not. Noting how cyber sleuths also identified the wrong driver who ran over a dog at Pasir Ris Farmway 3 last year, Mr Ng said: “Too many times now, online vigilantes took over and identified someone who is really not the perpetrator, and the poor person has to take the brunt of it.”
In the latest Toa Payoh hawker centre case, lawyers noted that it was serious enough to be dealt with by the police — instead of, say, community mediation which is generally meant for complaints where parties involved are known to each other. “Community mediation generally revolves around families and neighbours who have differences and conflicts. In this case, it is a criminal wrong, so the police are in a better position to address and prosecute,” said lawyer Rajan Supramaniam from Hilborne Law.
However, National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser felt there was scope for the community to resolve such incidents and prevent them from escalating to the extent where police intervention is required.
“Someone respectable and seen as a neutral party, if available, could have stepped in to resolve the conflict, and nudge the offending party to apologise to the one receiving the bad treatment,” he said. However, he noted that the norm in Singapore “seems to be that only the authority of the state could resolve” such incidents.
Mr Ng urged bystanders to not just film such incidents, but step in and defuse the situation where appropriate. “I hope we don’t progress to the stage where we all just film and nobody helps the person who needs help,” he said.
The observers reiterated that with the rise of social media, it is inevitable that more and more of such clips would surface even though this could prove a challenge for the police, which are grappling with limited resources, including a manpower crunch.
Mr Singh said: “In Singapore, we are not a disciplined society, but a tamed society, just like lions in a circus that are tamed. So the moment the ringmaster cracks its whip, people behave.”