Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Liquor Control Bill – Relook Needed

         If you are reading this with a can of beer in your hand whilst seating at your block’s void deck, you should probably finish it up and throw it away as soon as you can…

The Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Bill, passed in parliament on January 30th, kicks into effect today, April 1st. The bill comes along with it added restrictions, stating that alcohol cannot be consumed in public places between 10.30pm and 7am daily and take-away alcohol cannot be purchased after 10.30pm. The bill was passed to prevent public drunkenness and to reduce the probability of liquor-related offences (e.g. rioting, causing serious hurt). Though the intention of the bill is good - public drunkenness is unhealthy and needs to be eradicated, but the details and the reach of the bill needs to be carefully examined.

                The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has said that they conducted “two public consultation exercises between October 2013 and August 2014, and received close to 400 pieces of written feedback. MHA also conducted discussions with about 180 stakeholders, including members of the public, grassroots representatives and business owners.” The number of people involved in the consultation process is indeed small compared to the number that is going to be affected under the new law. We are talking about approx. 1,000 people being consulted as compared to the millions that would be affected. MHA said that out of those who were consulted, most were in support of better management of retail sales hours of liquor and the consumption of liquor in public areas.  The exact stakeholders and grassroots reps consulted are unclear; hopefully they are not solely representatives from the Little India and Geylang area, or else the results would definitely be skewed. A good proportion of those affected by the bill are migrant workers; thus, it is important that they are consulted on the bill as well as it directly affects them. I strongly believe that a more thorough consultation process should be carried out before drawing the conclusion that most are in favour of the bill.

                Additionally, the cut off time of 10.30pm might be too early in my opinion; the bill would be more measured if the time was shifted back to 11.59pm instead. This would allow Singaporeans who wish to unwind after a day’s work to do so in public, at least until 11.59pm. This would allow those with the sincere intention of enjoying alcohol to do so whilst ensuring troublemakers do not have the ability to stay out late to cause public nuisance. This would also allow businesses to suffer minimal impact from the bill. A good part of the daily liquor sale comes after 10.30pm as sales peak from 8pm onwards, with the implementation of this bill, business will be hit hard, especially so for small businesses.

                The government needs to play and active role in helping small businesses cope with the implementation of the bill, especially businesses located within the liquor control zone where there are even stricter restrictions on when liquor can be sold/consumed. Businesses should not be made to close down due to unsustainability of their business under the new law. The government could explore measures such as lowering of rental fees or partial waiver of the liquor license fees to help businesses cope.

                Tackling public drunkenness and public nuisance is a tricky business but in my opinion, it is often the same few hotspots which cause discomfort and insecurity to residents living in the area. It would be a legislative overkill if we pass a law that does a blanket ban across the whole island just because of these few hotspots. My view is for Singapore’s liquor control to remain status quo, but dedicate more resource to step up patrols in hotspot areas where liquor-related incidents have a high probability of occurring. Alternatively, a whistle-blowing system can be set up to allow residents to alert the police of any case of public nuisance easily via a phone call or an SMS system. I believe such a system would be more targeted and efficient. The police can also use current laws under the Miscellaneous Offences Act to punish offenders. Also, having a blanket ban across the island may lead to a black market demand for liquor after 10.30pm where illegal vendors profit from the ban of sales. This will create another law enforcement issue for the police and additional resources have to be dedicated to stop such illegal activities.

                Another key point of contention under the bill would be designating workers’ dormitories as “public space”, thus liquor restrictions would apply within the dormitories as well. Minister Iswaran has since came out to clarify that private quarters and beer gardens of the dorms will not be covered by the new law and that classifying dormitories as public space was mainly for “technical” purpose. Even so, this could be seen as an invasion into the private space of these foreign workers. Such regulation should be left to each dormitory’s managers as they know their dormitory situation best. The relaxing or tightening of alcohol consumption should be left to their judgment instead and thus there’s no need to classify dormitories as public space.

                The minister has repeatedly reiterated that the implementation of the bill would be measured and balanced and that the police would act as they deemed fit. There is much ambiguity with regards to the bill with much discretion given to police officers on the ground. I trust in the capability of our police officers; and given the subjective nature of consumption/possession of alcohol and the definition of public drunkenness, the ambiguity of the bill can be understood. However, the extend of authority bestowed upon these officers should be measured. The bill states that officers have the ability to strip search individuals whom they reasonably suspect to consume/possess alcohol. I feel that this authority given is extreme and unnecessary. A simple body-touch search would suffice to check for procession of alcohol, a strip search is excessive and borders on infringement of modesty.

                Though the law has been implemented, I do hope the government can relook the entire bill from its need to its framework to its implementation. My take is that more consultation should be done to establish that this concern is large enough to warrant such a law.  Using a sledgehammer to kill a fly is unnecessary; similarly enforcing a blanket ban to tackle a localized issue is excessive. If given the opportunity, this bill should be brought back to the drawing board.


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