The TraceTogether saga was an unexpected focal point in this Parliament. Most of us were prepared for debates on the COVID-19 vaccine and Khoo Teck Phuat Hospital’s misdiagnosis case; not this saga. It also overshadowed the excitement coming from the long-awaited start of Parliament’s livestreaming.
Having experienced the debate first hand, I thought I should contribute my thinking and feelings over the whole saga.
Firstly, I continue to believe in the integrity of the Minister and the Government and I have no reason to doubt Minister Vivan Balakrishnan’s statement that “Frankly, I had not thought of the Criminal Procedure Code (“CPC”) when I spoke earlier (referring to his statement made at the virtual MTF Press Conference on 8 Jun 2020)”.
However, if it is a ‘genuine’ oversight, Minister Balakrishnan should have disclosed the information more promptly and more directly. He had “many weeks” of consideration, sleepless nights, and thought of asking his Cabinet colleagues to change the law. Instead of informing the public proactively, it took a parliamentary question that was answered by the Minister of State for Home Affairs for him to make his Clarification the next day.
Transparency relates not only to full and frank disclosure, but also to timeliness. This delay has reduced the value of his frank admission and damaged public trust.
Secondly, I believe the public trust can be restored if a proper process has taken place. I recommend the Government to do a more thorough review pertaining to the use of personal data collected for specific purposes in order to restore public confidence and trust.
Assuming that Singaporeans agree to retaining the police’s broad powers under the CPC, the Government can still put in place criteria before peoples’ personal data can be accessed by the Singapore Police Force (“SPF”) under the CPC. Using the TraceTogether programme as an example, as Minister Shanmugam has mentioned, the Government could enact the criteria that data access would only be for serious crimes and through the devices of the persons under investigation. Data access would not be done directly from the TraceTogether servers.
On that front, I will be putting up a parliamentary question to the Minister for Law to define the “very serious offences” under which the Singapore Police Force would be allowed to access data collected under the TraceTogether and SafeEntry programmes, and whether he would enshrine these data access requirements in legislation.
Lastly, I felt it is not right to say that the Government’s oversight in relation to the CPC or the broad powers given to the SPF under the CPC are acceptable because they have not affected the majority of our people. Democracy is about not neglecting the rights of the minority. In fact, it is specifically for that reason that democracy has enjoyed wide support because you never know when you fall into the minority.
There is, by and large, wide support amongst Singaporeans for strong government. Therefore, laws like the CPC and others that give the Government broad powers are inevitable by-products. However, one lesson we can draw from the TraceTogether saga is that Singaporeans also want these powers to be checked. A strong government must be accompanied by strong checks and balances, and the ultimate check and balance in our country is in Parliament.