MP Sylvia Lim

Ms Sylvia Lim asked the Minister for Home Affairs whether law enforcement agencies will review their protocols and implementation measures for dealing with crime suspects who are minors or who may have special needs.

Assoc Prof Dr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim: Sir, these questions arose from the case of Justin Lee, who was investigated for drug offences. A summary of CNB’s investigations was released on 22 October 2021. They show, in essence: Justin Lee had been advertising the sale of LSD stamps, a Class A controlled drug, on a messaging app. CNB officers did test buys of the drugs from him, twice, to verify that he was, in fact, selling the drugs. He was arrested on 3 February. He was cooperative during his arrest and did not put up any struggle.

CNB officers were not aware of any issues with Justin’s mental health when he was arrested. His mother, Ms Cecilia Ow, was present when Justin was escorted back to his house on 3 February for a follow-up anti-drug operation.

The Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects is used for suspects under the age of 16. The scheme, together with the age limit, had been announced publicly in January 2017. It was also discussed in Parliament in March 2017, where the age limit was made clear. Since Justin was 17 years old, there was no Appropriate Adult. However, the interviews CNB officers had with Justin were video recorded because of the seriousness of the drug trafficking offence he was being investigated for. The video recordings have been shown to his mother, Ms Cecilia Ow, on 22 October 2021.

We should add that there is also a separate Appropriate Adults Scheme for Persons with Mental Disabilities, in short, AAPMD.

During the first video-recorded interview, Justin mentioned to the Investigation Officer (IO) that he had previously been diagnosed with depression. CNB proceeded with the interviews. Justin answered questions without any signs of distress and did not appear to be in need of any assistance. Justin was composed and coherent, able to logically articulate the flow of events, including sharing about his research on drugs and his trafficking modus operandi. The IO assessed that he did not need to stop the interview to bring in an Appropriate Adult under the AAPMD Scheme. However, as stated, the interviews were video recorded.

Justin was released on bail on 4 February after about a day in custody. His mother came to meet him and brought him back. Justin was charged on 23 June for drug trafficking offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act. He was released on bail on the same day. This was done with AGC advice.

The next day, on 24 June, Justin was charged in Court. The Prosecution was ready to take the plea. Justin’s Defence Counsel requested for adjournment. He did so a total of four times, so the case kept getting postponed. Finally, it was fixed for hearing on 23 September. Throughout this period, Justin was out on bail and, as far as CNB is aware, he was at home.

He fell to his death near his home on 16 September.

Toxicology report from the Health Sciences Authority showed traces of LSD and Nitrazepam in Justin’s urine and blood when he fell to his death. This would indicate that he had taken these drugs. But this cannot be stated with finality and is subject to the Coroner’s findings.

I have looked at this case and asked: why did this young person fall to his death when he was out on bail and was staying at home? Thirty-two weeks, or about eight months, after he was arrested and released? It is very sad. The young man could have had a far better future. The question is: how can we bring across to more of our young people the danger of drugs? How can we also bring across to them and their families, that even if they are arrested, they will still have opportunities to reform and the agencies will help them give up drug-taking and that there can be a good future ahead?

We have been putting out this message quite a lot and will have to continue to do so, so that parents and persons who are arrested understand the process. You have done wrong, but that does not have to be the final word. Our system is designed to give second chances to help you rehabilitate. And many have succeeded. We have to get that point across. We changed our laws on dealing with pure drug abusers, to not treat them as criminals. Instead, we focus on getting them to change the drug habit. In Justin’s case, he was trafficking drugs and seems like he was also abusing drugs. But with the right help, he could also have changed. And our processes are structured to provide that guidance and help, after he is dealt with in Court. We bring in the family into these efforts as well because, without adequate family support, it is difficult to help the young person.

The young man had a lawyer, he was living with his family and the case was set to proceed in Court. And after the hearing, if he was found guilty, he would then, normally, be put on a path to help him change, rehabilitate himself, as we have said earlier. 

CNB had also made every possible facilitation for him. For example, bail. Usually, suspects charged with drug-trafficking offences will not be released on bail due to the high flight risk. However, in view of Justin’s age, CNB released him on bail after serving the charges to him on 23 June and allowed him to report to Court the next day. 

So, what made him jump to his death on 16 September, when he was staying at home? As I have said, this was some eight months after he had been arrested and released. What happened in those eight months? He had been charged and the case was fixed for hearing. What else happened? I think it is difficult to say. Is it the fact that the case was coming on in seven days’ time? Did he speak with anyone about the oncoming case and his concerns? Were there other issues? How did he have traces of drugs in his blood? How is it that he appears to have consumed drugs before his fall? There are many questions and it is difficult to do more than conjecture what the answers are.

I will now deal with the questions that have been asked. The questions relate to law enforcement agencies’ protocols when conducting investigations. 

Ms Sylvia Lim asked if we plan to review our protocols for dealing with young suspects and suspects with special needs. There are regular reviews to ensure that they are up to date. Ms Denise Phua, in 2016, and Ms Sylvia Lim, in 2017, had asked if all persons under 18 can be supported with an Appropriate Adult during interviews. Given that the AAYS scheme applies to all persons under 16, the point really is whether it can be extended to persons who are 16 and 17. We have told both of them that this would be reviewed. There were some difficulties in expanding the scheme to suspects in this age group. So, we decided to operationalise the current process, which was announced in 2017, for a period first, while we consider if, and, if so, how we can deal with the issues. We will announce our decision in the next few months as to whether we can extend the AAYS scheme to persons who are 16 and 17 years old.  

Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim asked about CNB’s protocols when conducting drug-related investigations involving young persons with a history of medical or mental health condition. If it is made known to the officers that the subject has medical or mental health conditions and would require special attention, prior to bringing the person in to assist in the investigation, CNB officers will contact the parents or school first, if operationally feasible. Under these circumstances, they will activate an Appropriate Adult to be present during the interview. 

If the subject displays any medical or special needs during the interview, officers will pause the investigation and activate support measures, such as activating an Appropriate Adult or sending the person to the Institute of Mental Health for assessment. CNB will also obtain medical reports to assess if the subject is mentally fit for prosecution. If the person is observed to be capable of being interviewed, the officers will carry on with the interview. The point is that they will use their discretion, based on their observations. 

Dr Tan Wu Meng asked for statistics on persons under the age of 18 arrested who had a history of mental health conditions, and those who, subsequently, were hospitalised or passed away. We do not track such data. It is also not meaningful for us to track it. These individuals may have passed away or been hospitalised due to varying reasons not related to the investigations, such as inherent health problems or injuries sustained by themselves. Regarding the outcomes of the investigations, out of 9,485 persons under 18 years old arrested from 2016 to 2020, only 16% were prosecuted; so, 84% were not prosecuted.

I will emphasise this. Justin’s case falls in the small minority of 16%, because he was openly trafficking. The general approach when dealing with young suspects is to, where possible, avoid criminalising their conduct, give them a second chance and help them in their rehabilitation. Suitable youths who have been arrested for minor offences can be referred to diversionary programmes, such as the Guidance Programme introduced in 1997, which has a strong focus on counselling and rehabilitation. Placing youth offenders on diversionary programmes allows them to be accountable for their actions and prevents disruption in other areas of development, such as education. Justin will also have been placed on such processes, after sentencing, if he had been found guilty.

Dr Shahira Abdullah asked how law enforcement agencies identify vulnerable persons and persons with mental disabilities. Training is given to our officers in this respect. The Home Team has also worked with the Agency for Integrated Care to increase officers’ awareness of mental health conditions and help them to identify and respond to persons observed to have some mental health issues. In gist, the officer will check if the person has a Developmental Disability Registry Identity Card issued by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), look out for information that the person may be undergoing treatment at healthcare institutions for diagnosed mental disabilities and observe the behavioural traits of the person.

Dr Shahira Abdullah also asked how family members of a young person, whose death is suspected to be related to the person’s interaction with the criminal justice system, can request for a formal investigation into the death. 

There are two possible scenarios here. First, the person may have been in official custody of a law enforcement agency at the time of death. Second, the person may be undergoing investigation and passed away subsequently due to suicide, while not in custody. 

Under the Coroners Act, both scenarios would be deemed as reportable deaths, and the Police must investigate the cause of the death. The Police are required to report their findings to the Coroner, who is a judicial officer appointed under the State Courts Act. 

In the first scenario, a Coroner’s Inquiry must be held to determine the cause of and circumstances connected with the death. This is required by law. 

In the second scenario, it is not mandatory to hold a Coroner’s Inquiry. However, the Coroner may still decide to hold an inquiry, after considering other factors, including the desire of any member of the deceased’s immediate family to do so.

Specific to Justin, we need to be clear: Justin was not in custody at the time of his passing away in September. He was in custody for investigation for about a day in February. Since his release on 4 February, he had been staying at his home, except for the one day in June when he reported to CNB and was charged in Court. His was not a death in custody. 

Regarding Mr Leong Mun Wai’s question on whether an Appropriate Adult was present during Justin’s interviews, I have already answered it at the beginning of my reply. The Member does not appear to be aware of previous announcements and discussions on the scheme.

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied): Earlier, the Minister of State made extensive comments about the case of Justin Lee. Justin Lee was my resident and I would like to clarify that I understand from his family that the Coroner’s findings into his death have not been issued yet. Therefore, I am reserving any questions that I may have until after the findings have been issued.

Mr Speaker, I have one supplementary question on the cut-off age for protection of young persons under investigation.

Earlier, the Minister of State specifically mentioned the Appropriate Adult Scheme and that the cut-off age of 16 years had been announced in 2017, so, everyone should be clear about that. But at the same time, I think he will acknowledge that in 2019, we did have a change in our CYPA, the Children and Young Persons Act. We amended the definition of “child” to extend the cut-off age to 18. Does MHA then not accept the fact that the spirit of that would require all measures protecting young suspects to have a cut-off age of 18 instead of 16? We can understand that it may need to be phased in and so on but, at the very least, does the Ministry not agree that we must commit to moving all these protections, whether legal or procedural, to the cut-off age of 18, in line with the amendment to the CYPA on the definition of “child”?

Mr Speaker, may I have your leave to ask one question about special needs suspects?

Mr Speaker: Short one, please.

Ms Sylvia Lim: I beg your pardon?

Mr Speaker: Keep it short.

Ms Sylvia Lim: Thank you, Sir. For special needs suspects, the Minister of State mentioned that there are Appropriate Adults also available to help vulnerable adults. Some of the special needs suspects may actually be non-verbal or non-communicative and perhaps only the family members understand what he or she is trying to say. So, I would like to ask whether law enforcement agencies do allow family members to assist in the investigation process so that the communication can be better understood?

Assoc Prof Dr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim: Sir, I thank the Member for the questions. In fact, indeed, as I have shared earlier, we are reviewing it and as such, we will announce the outcome of the review in the next few months.

We take note of the Member’s view on the CYPA. I want to assure the Member this is something that we have also been looking at and we also want to make sure we facilitate this.

Nevertheless, as I have shared with the House earlier, there are constraints that we are facing with regard to the Appropriate Adult Scheme because essentially, the Appropriate Adults are volunteers. We will need more volunteers to support the expansion to cover more young suspects. In order for them to come on board, we need to train them. We also need to provide face-to-face training to ensure that the volunteers are well-equipped to perform their roles. During this current pandemic, there are constraints on conducting face-to-face training due to the safe distancing measures. Hence, it is not easy to ramp up the pool of Appropriate Adults quickly.

Currently, we have about 331 volunteers for the AAYS and 320 volunteers for the AAPMD. As an estimate, if we expand the AAYS to cover suspects aged 16 and 17, we will need to increase the pool of volunteers to double of what we have today. If this age limit is further increased to 21, this would be even more significant. Expanding this scheme is not straightforward. Without a sufficient pool of Appropriate Adults, interviews will be delayed until an Appropriate Adult is available. This could add more strain on the person who is being investigated.

For the second question, I would like to share with Ms Sylvia Lim that we take every investigation seriously. We train our officers to better understand the behavioural component, the needs of the suspect, as well as how we can facilitate the interviews, all in the name of doing it fairly and professionally. So, if there is a need for us to reach out to the family members, we will do so.

Ministry of Home Affairs
2 November 2021

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