Minister Shanmugam’s criticism of Thio Shen Yi contained a falsehood

Minister for Home Affairs, Minister Shanmugam, spoke in Parliament about the death of Benjamin Lim. In the speech, Minister presented the facts of the case from the perspective of the police, he talked about the police protocol for interviewing a young person, he criticised the falsehoods that he felt were deliberately spread by some people to blemish the police, and explained why he waited till now to make a statement about the whole incident.

About the falsehoods. Minister specifically identified TheOnlineCitizen. They have since responded. Minister also criticised Mr Thio Shen Yi, who is the President of the Law Society of Singapore, for what he wrote in the Law Gazette.

Minister said that that Mr Thio’s statements contained three falsehoods:

i) Five Police Officers spoke to Benjamin.  That is false.

ii)   And that the five officers took him to the Police Station.  That is also false.

iii) And that Police should have behaved in a less intimidating way.  He seems to make the assertion of intimidation, based on his other statements which are themselves false.

Minister felt that Thio’s statements “imply that Benjamin killed himself because of police intimidation.” Minister further asserted that Thio “needed only to have referred to the Police Statement of 1 February to know that many of his assertions he is making were untrue.” This part is false. Why?

So let’s check what the police statement on 1 February said:

In this case, a Police report was lodged about a molestation. Based on CCTV evidence, Police officers went to conduct enquiries at a school. To keep investigations discreet, the officers went in plainclothes and in unmarked cars. After discussions with the school officials, and the viewing of the CCTV records, Benjamin was identified as the boy in the CCTV records. He was brought to the Principal’s office by a school official and was spoken with in the presence of a Police officer. Before he was brought back to Ang Mo Kio Division, he contacted his mother to inform her of the Police’s investigations. The Police officer also spoke to the mother.

While at Ang Mo Kio Division, he was interviewed by one Investigation Officer at his workstation in an open plan office with other workstations. He was fully cooperative during the interview. He was then released on bail and went back with his mother.

The Police have been asked whether it should review the procedure to allow an appropriate adult to be present when a young person is interviewed. The Police will review and address this issue.

Police investigations have not been completed. A Coroner’s Inquiry will be held upon the conclusion of investigations, where all the relevant facts will be presented to the State Coroner. At the inquiry, the family will also be able to raise all questions that they may have.

Benjamin’s passing was tragic. The Police have expressed their deepest condolences to the family. They have met the family to address their questions on the case and provide clarifications on the actions of the Police officers during their interaction with Benjamin.

Looking at the statement by the police on 1 Feb, Thio could have only found that one of his “assertion” (that five police officers spoke to Benjamin in the Principal’s office) was false. Thio could not have concluded simply based on that police statement of 1 Feb that Benjamin wasn’t taken away by five policemen. Neither could Thio conclude simply based on that police statement of 1 Feb that the police officers interviewing Benjamin weren’t intimidating, or that Benjamin wasn’t intimidated by the police officers.

In other words, it is false to say that Thio could have known just by referring to the police statement of 1 Feb to know that “many” of his assertions were false. He could have only known that one of his assertions were false. And “one” is very different from “many”. So that statement by Minister is false. Or at least lacking in logic.

More importantly, I believe that to say that what Thio wrote amounted to implying that Benjamin committed suicide because of police intimidation, is really twisting Thio’s words.

No where in what Thio wrote implied that the police deliberately set out to intimidate Benjamin. What he did, was ask if the police could have approached the investigation in a less intimidating way. He did also specifically state that intimidation is often unintentional – i.e. someone can be intimidating and result in intimidation even if he had not intended to.

Now is that really possible? Can someone be intimidating without intending to to be? Of course. I have a friend who used to be a vice-principal of a school (he is retired now). He can be walking down the corridor of the school, happily minding his business, not paying particular attention to any students around him, and most of the students around him would still have been intimidated by him.

So it is possible that Benjamin felt intimidated by the police, by the whole situation of being hauled into a police station for questioning, even though the police officer didn’t intend to intimidate Benjamin. And that was the point that Thio was trying to make – unless you are a hardened criminal, being called up to be interviewed by the police can be a stressful process. Even if you know you aren’t the one that they are going after.

I know this because I’ve had friends who were called up to assist in an investigation. They weren’t the one to be charged. But some of them still found the process to be stressful. And this wasn’t because the police did anything wrong. It’s just that being summoned to the police station to be interviewed isn’t something that most people are used to. And there’s a certain… preconception of the process that predisposes people to be stressed by the process. This isn’t casting any aspersions on the police. It is just the way it is.

So it is clear, if we read what Thio wrote in its entirety, that Thio wasn’t accusing the police of doing anything wrong. Neither did he conclude or assert that Benjamin jumped as a result of police intimidation. In fact, Thio was emphatically clear that we will never know the truth about what motivated Benjamin to jump: “Why did he jump? Could his death have been prevented? We can never know for certain but that shouldn’t stop us from pursuing a deeper inquiry into what happened to Benjamin that day.”

It is clear that Thio was just asking whether things could have been done differently and whether that would have led to a different, less tragic outcome. Even if Benjamin felt intimidated by the police and the whole process (notwithstanding the fact that the police officer interviewing Benjamin didn’t intend to intimidate Benjamin), Benjamin probably didn’t commit suicide just because he felt intimidated by the police. I think it’s therefore reasonable to conclude that the police wasn’t the sole reason why Benjamin committed suicide.

But could whatever the police have said and/or done unwittingly contributed in part to Benjamin deciding to end his life? We will never know for certain. But even if nothing they said and/or done unwittingly contributed in part to Benjamin’s decision to end his life, could the police have done something that could have prevented Benjamin to decide to end his life?

For example, could the police officer, after Benjamin’s statements, spoke to him about the possible next steps in the process? Perhaps the police officer could have told Benjamin, in a reassuring tone, the same facts that Minister presented to Parliament – of the young persons who have assisted police for investigations, “7 out of 10 were either warned or placed on a Guidance Programme or had no further action taken against them”. Perhaps the police officer could also, in a reassuring tone, tell Benjamin that even if investigation concludes that he’s indeed guilty, he is young, he has a whole life ahead of him, he will be able to move beyond this youthful folly.

Doing all of those would have, I think, automatically made the police officer and the process a whole lot less intimidating. Would that have stopped Benjamin from taking his own life? No one will know for certain. But if the police could show that they have done that, I am sure that the public would be far less critical of the police.

Ok. Perhaps it is unfair to put the burden of counselling a young person on the police. Then perhaps there is a case to be made for putting in place a system where there is a trained counsellor to counsel the young person after the police is done with interviewing him/her. The counsellor can also talk to the parents and advise the parents about what to watch out for and what they should do to provide appropriate emotional support for the young person.

And I think that is the crux of Thio’s article in the Law Gazette – that we need to provide timely and sufficient support for the young person assisting in police investigations. I think the fact that Minister’s reaction completely missed the point of Thio’s article. In fact, that Minister reacted to Thio’s questions and suggestions so negatively and defensively says loads about our government – don’t criticise, we know best, what we are doing is the best possible option already.

But even if the police didn’t do anything wrong, didn’t contribute at all to Benjamin’s decision to take his own life, could they have done more to prevent this tragedy? Can the system be improved so that we minimise the chance of similar incidents from happening? Can we do better by our young persons?

I am convinced we can. I am convinced we must.

[Featured image: CNA file photo of Minister Shanmugam in Parliament]


One thought on “Minister Shanmugam’s criticism of Thio Shen Yi contained a falsehood

  1. ” Now is that really possible? Can someone be intimidating without intending to to be? Of course. I have a friend who used to be a vice-principal of a school (he is retired now). He can be walking down the corridor of the school, happily minding his business, not paying particular attention to any students around him, and most of the students around him would still have been intimidated by him. ”

    Absolutely agree from my own experience as a student.
    I was a student in a primary school some 50 odd years ago. The school principal ALWAYS carry a cane with him when he went on his rounds in the school. He is known and has been seen in action to be rather indiscriminate with his use if the cane, striking at any student he thought was misbehaving or rowdy. And children can be noisy sometimes in the middle of a table tennis game for instance. On one occasion he barged into the playing hall and without a word or warning he whacked any student within striking distance of his cane, as he deemed they were being rowdy, even though it is natural for boys cheering the players on. All the boys scattered like chicken in a coop from a fox. This actually happened as I was one of the boys but I escaped his cane by ducking under the table tennis table! Quick thinking! The principal, who swept in like a whirlwind was out of the hall, leaving in his wake scattering young boys some smarting where the cane found its targets.

    So when this principal was anywhere in the vicinity, often even the teachers themselves would warn his/her class that so and so is COMING down the corridor fronting the classrooms! The classrooms along the entire corridor would fall into a deathly quiet, very much like the disquiet that falls over the forest floor when a tiger has been spotted stalking. And every student would breathe easier after he passed them for the principal also had the habit of popping into the class and randomly test students ‘spelling’.

    That is how people of authority can intimidate others.
    Let’s face it, police detectives are usually the ones operating in plain clothes. So it was not like as if the SPF has a requirement for its uniformed officers to specially change into civilian clothes for the purpose. We all know how detectives operate and we all know which are the type chosen to be detectives – not that I am critical of this, since police detectives are the ones often dealing with hardened criminals, so they are often as hard in not even harder than the latter.
    My point is there is a case for the SPF to properly train its officers to deal with people and suspect appropriately. No one size fits all and their supervisors must be made responsible to brief or remind his men on this.


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