Armed police and soldiers patrol Changi Airport's Terminal 2 in Singapore on October 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Edgar Su
Armed police and soldiers patrol Changi Airport's Terminal 2 in Singapore on October 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Edgar Su

Singapore is preparing to enact a new law to empower the police to stop communication in the event of a terror attack, under which people, the press included, may be ordered to stop shooting photos or videos of a police operation, let alone forwarding or sharing them online.

The move to protect the secrecy of tactical operations is subject to passage of a new Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill, which underwent first reading by the city-state’s Parliament this week. Once passed, the bill will come into effect this year.

In a nutshell, the bill is about a communications stop order to vest the Commissioner of Police with wide-ranging powers. Even if there is no actual attack, the police will be able to order members of the public to stop using their phones or any other recording device as the force sees fit.

If such an order is issued, anyone in the vicinity of a terrorist incident will have to stop making or communicating video clips, pictures, texts or audio messages of the place and any ongoing police op. Failure to comply could result in a fine of up to S$20,000 (US$15,130) and/or up to two years in jail, according to the Lianhe Zaobao.

Police will also be empowered to take down any drones or the like regardless of their intent or identity.

The move follows incidents such as the 2015 attack on the Hypercacher  kosher supermarket in Paris, when a lone terrorist holding hostages in the store was able to watch live television broadcasts of police outside preparing to storm the place, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

“There is no doubt that the information available to the terrorists made the police operation more difficult, reduced the chances of a successful operation, and put the safety of the officers and hostages at greater risk,” the MHA said in a statement.

During a series of coordinated attacks across Mumbai in 2008, live broadcast of security forces preparing to storm the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel also allowed gunmen inside to anticipate their next moves.

Also in Asia, there were debates in Hong Kong after the intense, hours-long live broadcast of a Police Special Duties Unit operation in response to a developing gunfire incident in a public housing estate in June 2014. It was believed that the culprit was able to watch TV coverage while hiding in his unit.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his deputy Teo Chee Hean inspect a drill held at Changi Airport.
A screen shot show Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his deputy Teo Chee Hean inspecting a drill at Changi Airport.

The MHA and police have stressed that a communication stop order would only be exercised in very exceptional circumstances.

One reason the new law is needed is that existing legislation does not allow for expanded powers in situations where public safety is seriously threatened, but where there is no large-scale public disorder, the MHA said.

The legislation is more evidence of Singapore’s mounting apprehension that a terrorist attack may be imminent, even though the wave of jihadism and extremism that has engulfed other major cities in Southeast Asia such as Jakarta and Manila in separate terrorist attacks in recent years has so far bypassed Singapore.

Still, the Lion City has held a string of large interdepartmental drills and exercises in preparation for any eventuality.

Also, law enforcers across the region have reportedly splurged on cutting-edge hardware to tackle heightened security threats, such as portable cellular network jammers that can paralyze communications within a certain radius.