Murali Pillai
10 min readApr 8, 2024


At the 2nd reading of the Bill to extend the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act for the further 5 years, I examined the Government’s case to retain the extraordinary powers to deal with the menace of secret society. I also highlighted the need to stop secret societies from recruiting youths, some of whom are as young as 11. Finally, I raised attention to the fact that the Act actually consists of other parts which are not spoken much of and provides for different powers. I suggested that these parts be reviewed with a view to delete obsolete provisions or port them over to other primary statutes. My speech is set out below

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Mr Speaker, I wish to declare that I am a lawyer in private practice who has dealt with detention cases under the Crim­inal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act 1955 (“Act”).

This Bill represents the 15th time that Parliament is being asked to extend the Act.

Given the longevity of the Act, which was enacted al­most 70 years ago, the skeptical amongst us may be tempted to say that there is nothing “temporary” about this Act.

Iwould respectfully suggest, however, that that would be a case of missing the wood for the trees.

This Act vests with the Minister for Home Affairs with extraordinary powers to order the detention without trial of a person accused of having association with specified activities of a criminal nature (“DO”) or sub­jecting him to a supervision order (“SO”).

These powers are meant to be used as a matter of last resort because of the difficulty in securing evidence against such persons; primarily by reason of their asso­ciation with secret societies.

By design, these powers constitute a derogation from the usual due process accorded to persons accused of crime which will involve the court independently adju­dicating on the case after reviewing the evidence.

The exception has been justified on the basis of the pernicious nature of secret society operations and the need to preserve public order in Singa­pore.

Several safeguards have also been worked into the framework which include:

1. the requirement that the Attorney-General, in his capacity as the Public Prosecutor, has to consent to the Minister’s exercise of the power;

2. The involvement of an Advisory Committee headed by sitting Judges of the Supreme Court of Singapore and comprising promi­nent private citizens to scrutinize the investi­gation and evidence and making appropriate recommendations to the President who, act­ing under the advice of the Cabinet, may cancel or confirm the DO or SO; and

3. the oversight of the Supreme Court over the process through judicial review.

Notwithstanding the safeguards, given the exceptional nature of the power, however, it is apt that there is a fur­ther mechanism built within the Act to allow Parlia­ment to satisfy itself of the continued need to confer on the Minister these powers before deciding to extend the Act.

Hence, the reference to “temporary” in the Act is really a recognition of the fact that these are extraordinary powers requiring the Minister to periodically make a case in Parliament on the reasons for extending the Act to enable him to use the powers.

This constitutes responsible politics.

I now turn to the hon Minister’s case for extending the Act.

I have noted, based on the reports provided by the Singapore Prison Service, that between 2019 and 2022, the number of detentions under the Act have been on the decline.

a. 2019–97

b. 2022–80

For context, the detention numbers up to the 1980s and early 1990s were in the 4 digits and in the 3 digits up to the 1st decade of the new millennium.

It is therefore good news that the numbers have re­duced appreciably over the past 4 decades.

The bad news, however, as I note from MHA’s re­port, is that there continues to be a number of serious secret society clashes that affect the peace and good order of Sin­gapore.

What is noteworthy is that prosecution was not viable because the witnesses refused to give evidence in court, probably for fear of reprisal.

Such violent acts, should they have gone unpunished, would threaten the peace and security we are accus­tomed to, and some take for granted.

This, we cannot afford.

In addition, the hon Minister refers to a significant number organized criminal activities such as unlicensed moneylend­ing and drug trafficking by secret societies again where wit­nesses are unwilling to come forward to testify in court.

Without the decisive action taken under the Act to crip­ple the syndicates, many more Singaporeans may have fallen victim.

Hence, the Act had the effect of preventing the prolifer­ation of such crime.

Apart from what the hon Minister highlighted in this House, I note with concern that it is stated in the Global Organised Crime Index Report on Singapore for 2023 that foreign crimi­nal actors continue to operate in Singapore with “moderate influence” and almost all of them are involved in immigra­tion-related crimes, money laundering and scams, amongst others.

I would imagine them to be fairly sophisticated in their criminal activities and it would likely not be easy to get witnesses to spill the beans on them.

This brings to my mind what the then Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Wong Kan Seng said in this House in 1994, about the threat of organized crime, particularly Asian triads and gangs, which continues to be real across much of the world today too.

Mr Wong stated that the Act served as a deterrence against these overseas triads and gangs from shifting operations into Singapore.

To deal with these hardened criminals with sophisti­cated international networks, we need laws with teeth and muscle. The Act certainly has all these prerequi­sites.

On balance, I am convinced, based on the hard facts that have been laid out in this House, that it is in the better inter­est of Singapore that the Act be extended. I therefore sup­port the Bill.

Sir, I would however like to make a case for the Police to do more to prevent youths from being recruited by secret societies.

Through my pro bono criminal law practice as well as a 2-year involvement in a study of youths at risk for a self-help group, I have noted the tendency for secret socie­ties to recruit youths from a relatively young age:

Young people are the “oxygen” or life blood for se­cret societies.

Once recruited, the youths become the secret so­cieties’ fighters who protect and advance their criminal objectives. As I will be alluding to shortly, if we can starve the secret societies of this “oxygen”, we will be able to significantly curb the societies’ influ­ence and activities.

In the study that I was involved in, it was noted that the entry age of secret society members ranged from as young as 11 to 18.

Once the youths join the secret societies, a number of them would be introduced to alcohol and controlled drugs.

They in turn develop violent streaks which the head­men would find useful to unleash against rival gangs.

In answer to a Parliamentary Question I filed in October 2020 (“PQ”), the hon Minister revealed that the median age of persons subject to Detention Orders and Police Supervi­sion Orders between 2017 and 2019 is only 22.

He also stated that the youngest persons subject to these orders were 17.

In fact, I was personally involved in a pro bono case where a 17-year old boy was issued with a Detention Order which was subsequently extended as well.

On the face of it, I would imagine that for some of us, this may be seen as a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

However, the reality is that, depending on the facts of the case, young people, as part of a gang, can cause serious harm; even death.

They pose a danger to themselves too as violence be­gets violence.

Depending on the facts, it may be necessary to invoke the Act to issue either a DO or PO to preserve the pub­lic safety, peace and good order in Singapore, some­thing we cannot take for granted.

I am aware that the Police does good work to help youth to keep away from the clutches of secret societies.

The hon Minister, in his answer to my PQ in 2020 high­lighted some of these steps.

He said that the Police works with Ministry of Social and Family Development, Ministry of Education and Singapore Prison Service to develop and implement preventive and rehabilitative initiatives.

These initiatives include the Streetwise and Enhanced Streetwise Programmes aimed at providing youths as­sociated with secret societies with counselling.

The Enhanced Streetwise Programme (“ESP”) is a com­pulsory pre-court diversionary programme that im­poses additional conditions on youth offenders such as regular reporting to the Secret Societies Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department (“SSB), close monitoring of attendance at school or work and prohi­bition to go to places where secret society members tend to congregate.

Youth offenders, who would ordinarily be charged and convicted in court, have an option of under­going ESP. If they successfully complete the pro­gramme, they will not be charged but instead be issued with stern warnings.

SSB also regularly runs Camp ACE which means “All Can Escape” to educate youths on the perils of joining a secret society and educational talks for parents on tell-tale signs.

However, the secret societies are not keeping still.

Through my work in the study, I learnt that secret socie­ties have evolved methods to specifically target and recruit youths in communities and school settings.

These societies may well double their efforts in an environment where, generally, enrolment in secret societies is falling.

The activities usually start off as being rather innocu­ous social gatherings but lead to initiation ceremonies after which the youths would start being at the beck and call of their respective headmen.

I see such recruitment activities as “capacity building” to undertake activities of a criminal nature that are contemplated under the Act. Such acts should equally be viewed as affecting the peace and good order of Sin­gapore too.

I am aware that recruiting persons to join unlawful so­cieties constitute an offence under the Societies Act 1966. Where the Police has secured evidence of recruitment activ­ities, these persons should be prosecuted.

In cases where the evidence on record is not forthcoming, I won­der if the powers under the Act can be invoked.

In paragraph 3 of the Fourth Schedule to the Act, the Minister may use his power to detain a person or sub­ject him to supervision if the person is generally in­volved in a secret society or as a gangster.

This should extend to recruitment activities on behalf of a secret society or gang.

From my research, though, I have not been able to un­earth any case where the power of the Minister was invoked to impose a DO or SO against a person for conducting re­cruiting activities for a secret society.

I seek the hon Minister’s clarification and views on this matter.

The final point I wish to make concerns the provisions in Parts 2, 3 and 4 of the Act.

It is not well known that the Act does not just deal with detention and supervision powers which are set out in Part 5 of the Act

This is not surprising. This is because at almost every 2nd reading debate of the Bill to extend the Act, the Gov­ernment made its case by reference to its report card of the use of powers provided for in Part 5 of the Act; not Parts 2, 3 and 4.

Respectfully, I think the time has come for the Govern­ment to consider porting over Parts 2, 3 and 4 to other pieces of legislation and repealing these Parts.

Such a move would be more in accord with Parlia-ment’s intent when passing this Bill to extend the Act for a further 5 years.

Going down to some specifics, Part 3 of the Act deals with placing prohibitions and restrictions on the ability of workers to strike and employers to lock-out workmen when they are engaged in “essential services” which is defined in the Act.

Such restrictions should not be controversial.

The International Labour Organisation, of which Singa­pore is a member of, expressly acknowledged that there may be a prohibition or restriction to the right to strike in essential services.

I therefore suggest that the Government consider tak­ing steps to port Part 3 of the Act over to another stat­ute; perhaps the Industrial Relations Act 1960.

Parts 2 & 4 of the Act deal with public safety and public order issues.

For instance, in Section 4 under Part 2 of the Act, it is provided that any person who has a “subversive docu­ment” (as defined in the Act) shall be guilty of an of­fence.

Section 13 under Part 4 of the Act provides the power to the Minister and the Police to disperse assemblies which pose an immediate threat to public peace.

I suggest that the Government reviewing these parts with a view to repeal provisions which may be seen as obsolete or otiose. In the alternative, there may also be a case to port over relevant provisions to the Public Or­der Act 2009 which is the primary piece of legislation that the Government relies on to regulate and control assemblies to maintain public order.

Mr Speaker, in conclusion, I wish to reiterate the point I make about making it difficult for secret societies to recruit young people.

Young people are not just the life blood of secret socie­ties but of our country.

It is sad that there continue to be cases of youths fall­ing victim to the machinations of secret societies. Each case is a case too many.

We should call out the acts of recruiters and bring to bear the full force of the law against them either by prosecution under the Societies Act or through exer­cise of the powers under this Act.

It is these recruiters who seduce vulnerable and im­mature young people by making false promises of charmed and privileged lifestyles.

Once our young get snared into the gangs, their future prospects will naturally suffer. Needless to say, their families suffer together with them.

Through more resolute action against the recruiters, I believe we will have a far better chance of turning our young people away from dark alleys of crime and vio­lence, and instead focus on the flourishing of their own bright futures, for their sake, that of their families as well for Singapore.

Thank you.



Murali Pillai

Member of Parliament, Bukit Batok SMC, Advisor to Bukit Batok SMC GROs.