Death of 14-year-old raises questions about police procedure involving minors
Benjamin Lim was 14 years old. He lived in a three-room public housing flat with his parents and two older siblings, working part-time in McDonald's to help supplement his family's income.
“Many of the aunties there praised him for being a helpful and friendly boy," said his mother, Mdm Teng, in an interview with The Online Citizen. “They congratulated me for having such a good son.”
On Tuesday, 26 January, five plainclothes policemen showed up at Benjamin's high school. They said that a report had been made about a case of outrage of modesty. Benjamin was accused of following an 11-year-old girl into a lift in a nearby block of Monday and molesting her. They took him away to police division headquarters before his mother even made it to the school.
Benjamin was later arrested. His family was only able to see him when he was released on a bail of S$2,000 (US$1,404). The police said that he had been cooperative during the interview, and had confessed to the crime. But Benjamin told his mother that he had not done it.
When she asked him why he had confessed, he said, “You say I am guilty, I’m guilty then.”
At home later in the day, Benjamin locked himself in the room he shared with his siblings. His body was then found on the ground floor under his block. The police have classified it an unnatural death.
This tragic incident has prompted questions about police procedures and investigations involving minors in Singapore. There is no immediate right to legal counsel in Singapore; the authorities are only required to give the person of interest access to a lawyer within a "reasonable time". This applies to minors, too – there is no requirement for a parent, guardian or lawyer to be present while the young person is being interrogated.
"CAN is of the opinion that the tragic incident involving Benjamin Lim Jun Hui, a 14-year-old who died of 'unnatural causes' on Tuesday, could have been prevented had everyone involved in the investigation of this case showed sensitivity towards the fact that they were investigating a minor," said a collective of activists known as the Community Action Network (CAN).
In its statement, the group points out that Singapore has signed the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC), and should therefore amend the Child and Young Persons Act to more clearly define the age limits for a child. Although the CRC defines a child as an individual below the age of 18, Singapore defines a child as being below the age of 14, while someone between 14 and 16 is a "young person".
"The main thing about interrogations is that the interrogation rooms are usually cold and unfriendly," said Rachel Zeng, a member of CAN who had been brought in for questioning three separate times for various investigations. "At times, the officers may ask questions regarding the same point to see if there are any lapses in accounts – it is like a mind game, and if you calmly repeat what you have said before, basically the truth, it should be alright. They may also ask you to read a section of the law and inquire about your understanding of it, followed by an explanation of the penalty. This happened to me once, and it was slightly unnerving because for a moment I thought that I may have said something to incriminate myself unnecessarily, or had misunderstood a piece of law that I had read and understood many times before."
"The reason why the interrogations were not intimidating was because I knew what to expect, and I personally reject the view that the investigating officers had any authority over me," she added. "However I can imagine what being investigated can be like for anyone who may have a greater view of the police as an authority, or the perception that if the investigation results in a conviction, it may be the end of a bright future to come, as teachers and parents will often say."
Vincent Law, a social worker who also signed the CAN statement, said that he has come across cases of minors being hauled up for minor offences like loitering or substance abuses. In such cases, parents might sometimes not even be informed until it is time to bail them out.
"There should be a simplified assessment put in place to find out the needs [of the minor], and to access self-harm level," Law recommended. "Trained personnel should do this assessment."
"Right now, they have volunteer helpers for special needs youth accused of various crimes," he added. "Maybe that scheme can be extended."