Covering the Cooling-Off Day investigations
A plant and a vending machine. The vending machine was lit up – green on the buttons of the available drinks, red on the ones sold out. The plastic chairs were functional but not comfortable. Police officers, all in plainclothes, bustled in and out of various rooms. Once in awhile, someone would come out of the door identified as the entrance to the interview rooms. Otherwise, the waiting area on the third floor of the Cantonment Police Complex was still and utterly uneventful.
I could imagine nicer ways to spend the afternoon, but I could also imagine worse. Like being interrogated.
I'd heard that Ravi Philemon, an editor at The Independent Singapore (TISG), was reporting to the police for his interview on Wednesday afternoon, as part of the Cooling-Off Day investigations that had led to activists Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung's homes being raided and their electronic devices seized. On top of the two individuals, the Elections Department had also filed a police report against TISG for its posts on Cooling-Off Day during the Bukit Batok by-election.
I asked Ravi to let me know once he was out of the interview – I was curious to find out about his experience, as part of my work covering this story. I said I would drop by the police station if it seemed as if the interview had lasted more than two hours.
I didn't hear from him two hours later, at about 3pm. So I decided to head down to the Cantonment Police Complex anyway, and make enquiries.
Ravi's identification card was still at the ground-floor security counter, which meant he was still in the building. I managed to find out that he was in an interview on the third floor. Another friend and a lawyer arrived to join me about an hour later. While my friend sat in the waiting area on the ground floor by the security counter (where one is required to exchange one's photo ID for a lanyard to enter the building), I headed up to the third floor with the lawyer.
We presented ourselves at the security counter there. We signed in and identified ourselves to the officers there – I told them I was a friend of Ravi's, and a freelance journalist. The lawyer also identified himself. We were told to sit in the waiting area, with the plant and vending machine as companions.
I checked my email. I had sent questions to the public affairs department of the Singapore Police Force the evening before, asking the following:
- Both Ngerng and Teo were investigated after the Elections Department filed police reports. Previously, politicians like Vivian Balakrishnan and Tin Pei Ling had also been reported for posting on Facebook on Cooling-Off Day. Were similar investigations carried out then?
- Why was there a need to raid the homes of Ngerng and Teo?
- Why has the police confiscated their electronic property, such as laptops and mobile phones?
- Is there any assurance on the part of the police that Ngerng and Teo's private data as stored on their devices – emails, social media data not relevant to the investigations, etc. – will not be abused/misused?
I hadn't received an answer, so I sent a chaser, with additional questions related the investigations into TISG's editor and publisher, and when the seized property would be returned.
I received a short response about half an hour later:
"We are working with colleagues from the relevant units. If and when a response is available, I will inform you."
There was nothing else to do but wait: for Ravi, and for a response.
The lawyer and I sat in the waiting area for about two hours, chatting and staring at the flickering lights of the vending machine. Based on what Roy Ngerng had gone through the day before, we were mentally prepared for a long wait.
We would have kept sitting there, too, if I hadn't received a message from Ravi's daughter at about 6:30pm, asking if I was at home with her father.
I quickly realised that while we'd been sitting in the waiting area outside the interview rooms, the investigating officers had left the building with Ravi. They had to have gone some other way; neither the lawyer nor I had seen Ravi. When we checked with the security counter on the ground floor, Ravi's identification card was gone, but the friend who had been waiting downstairs hadn't seen him either.
We decided to make our way to Ravi's home, but were only halfway there when we heard the police had left, taking his laptop and phone with them. We also heard that Ravi was all right, but tired and would rather not meet up. So that was that.
Later that night, I received an email from the public affairs department of the police, pointing me to a Channel NewsAsia article – the first mainstream media coverage of these investigations – about a joint statement issued by the Singapore Police Force and the Elections Department, as well as the original statement on their website.
The statement said that they had observed "what appeared to be deliberate and serious breaches of the rules under the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) during the 2016 Bukit Batok By-Election", which had taken place despite advisories reminding people of the Cooling-Off Day rules.
"As part of the investigations, the Police need to examine for evidentiary purposes electronic devices used to publish the online postings. As such, these devices had to be seized. Upon the completion of their investigations, the Police will address the Attorney-General’s Chambers with their recommendations," the statement added.
While others have pointed out the strangeness of the police issuing a joint statement with the body that had made the police reports, that wasn't the only question left unanswered.
I sent the following questions to the Singapore Police Force as a follow-up soon after receiving their statement last night:
- Why are police statements sent to Channel NewsAsia first, and then other journalists like myself asked to refer to their report? Why can't the statement be sent to everyone at the same time?
- Both Ngerng and Teo were investigated after the Elections Department filed police reports. Previously, politicians like Vivian Balakrishnan and Tin Pei Ling had also been reported for posting on Facebook on Cooling-Off Day. Were similar investigations carried out then? Did both Ms Tin and Mr Balakrishnan have their property seized as well?
- Is there any assurance on the part of the police that Ngerng and Teo's private data as stored on their devices – emails, social media data not relevant to the investigations, etc. – will not be violated? In what form is this assurance given?
- The ELD's advisory for Cooling-Off Day said that "transmission of personal political views by individuals to other individuals on a non-commercial basis" is exempt. How is it that Ngerng and Teo, both individuals, are being investigated?
This afternoon, I sent another follow-up email at 4:20pm. I have yet to receive a response (at 9:08pm).