Has the CNB exceeded its powers in policing Singapore’s Escobar-themed eatery?

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Regarding the Escobar-themed eatery that grabbed headlines recently, has the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) gone too far? Or is it merely acting within its duties and powers?

I agree with the CNB that the eatery’s choice of name is very insensitive. I also believe that it is correct for the CNB to express its disapproval, given its institutional purpose of drug eradication, and given the reasonably sound argument that the glorification of drug lords and the trivialization of drug-related violence frustrates this purpose.

Hence, I welcome the CNB’s vocalness, and I believe that given the strong public support it receives as Singapore’s anti-drug taskforce, this vocalness will compel sufficient members of the public to refrain from patronising the eatery such as to put adequate pressure on the owner to reconsider his brand. In this regard, the CNB’s actions are absolutely correct.

However, the fact that CNB and the Singapore Police Force (SPF) have announced that they “will be engaging the owner of the bar and will take the necessary action to uphold our strict anti-drug policy” makes me concerned.

What exactly is this ‘necessary action’ that these organisations are referring to?

While it is quite clear that while the owner of the eatery made an irresponsible, regretful choice, it is also equally clear that the owner committed no crime whatsoever. Glorifying something that is morally controversial such as drug violence or adultery may be objectionable, but not illegal. The SPF and CNB are police agencies, but they are not our moral police. Hence, aside from expressing their disapproval, what other sorts of ‘necessary’ action can the CNB and SPF take?

One way to interpret the CNB and SPF’s announcement is that they are making an empty threat – there is in fact nothing they are legally permitted to do aside from expressing their disapproval, but they nonetheless want the owner of the eatery to think they can take further action, so as to pressure him to rebrand his business.

A second way to interpret the announcement is that the CNB and SPF are making a real threat to do something about the eatery, by legal means, even though there is nothing they can do about it directly. For example, they might ensure that the eatery’s tax returns are more carefully scrutinised by the SPF’s Commercial Affairs Department (CAD), or they may write to other government agencies to express their disapproval and make a case against renewing any license required to operate the restaurant.

A third way to interpret their announcement is that the CNB and SPF are making a real threat to do something about the eatery in a manner that exceeds their powers in order to do whatever is ‘necessary’ to ‘uphold their strict anti-drug policy’. For example, they may abuse their powers of search and arrest to put pressure on the eatery to close down or change its name.

On each of these three interpretations, the CNB and SPF would have acted in an inappropriate manner. The first interpretation is the least serious, but nonetheless inappropriate. This is because when these agencies threaten to use the powers they have been given for the purposes of policing criminal behaviour to police moral behaviour, for which no such powers exist, they undermine public confidence and trust in them. Today, they go after people who use the name of drug-kingpins in vain; who else will they go after tomorrow? Adulterers?

The second interpretation is legal but still inappropriate. Even though the police would be acting within the law, they would be utilising their connections and their public role to achieve an outcome that they could not otherwise achieve within the normal scope of the powers as granted by Parliament. The consequences of this are similar to the first interpretation.

The final interpretation is not just inappropriate but highly illegal, and as a society, we must never tolerate such behaviour, even if it is to achieve a socially desirable end. This is why it is not inconsistent to say that drugs are a problem and that drug traffickers must be eradicated, but at the same time disapprove of extra-judicial killings of the kind seen under Duterte’s administration in the Philipines.

The bottom line is, whenever an organisation says that it will do whatever it takes to achieve something, even if what they intend to achieve is desirable for society, we ought to get a little concerned. This is because the duty of any government organisation does not merely consist of the positive duty to accomplish its purpose, but the negative duty to refrain from exceeding the four corners of its powers in the process.

All of us have the right to express our disapproval of certain behaviour and are entitled to do so in the strongest words possible. However, when it comes to the exercise of executive power, it is important that executive bodies do not end up overreaching the limits of their power and begin to think that their organizational objectives require them to act as enforcers of public morality.

To clarify, I am not saying that both the CNB and SPF have exceeded their powers, or that any of the three interpretations I provided represent the actual intentions of these organisations. What I am saying is that their choice of words is unsettling, and may be interpreted in those ways.

Therefore, it might be ideal for both organisations to clarify what ‘necessary action’ means, so that we can understand more clearly what they perceive to be the boundaries of their powers as enforcers of the law (and not morality), and ensure that while they work diligently to uphold their public duty, they do not end up exceeding it.

 

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Written by Rio Hoe

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Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a recent law graduate from the University of Oxford. His interests include politics, sociology, legal theory and political philosophy.

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