When news broke that a police officer had committed suicide shortly after publishing a Facebook post detailing various allegations of racism and bullying he endured at work, quite a few netizens raised concerns over the tragic incident. After all, it was not that long ago when police officers in some other countries – the very people expected to keep the public safe – murdered George Floyd and Sarah Everard in cold blood. These cases might have happened in the US and UK, but is it possible that the decay in values is running amok in our police force? Is there a systemic discrimination problem as well?
These seeds of doubt that can erode trust in our law enforcement are the reason why Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam ordered the Singapore Police Force (SPF) to investigate the matter thoroughly last year. “We will get to the bottom of it and be accountable,” Mr Shanmugam assured the public.
The thing is, investigating such damning claims is like opening Pandora’s Box. A different kind of government might have dropped the matter quietly and taken it to the grave. But one would be hard-pressed to find the PAP take such an unprincipled stand. And so nearly six months after his promise, Mr Shanmugam stepped up in Parliament on Feb 6 and laid out the findings into the allegations made by the late Sergeant Uvaraja in a Ministerial Statement.
It is a tough statement to deliver. To the uninitiated, how does one spell out unpalatable facts without running the risk of desecrating the dead? The task fell on Mr Shanmugam to explain that the issues Uvaraja had complained about – racial slurs, abusive language, unfair work appraisal and allegations of a cover-up into police misconduct – had all been investigated and dealt with accordingly.
Subsequently, Mr Shanmugam delved into the heart of the matter – Uvaraja’s personal and professional challenges. The unprecedented amount of leave he took, his psychological consultations, the tensions he had with his family that led to a couple of police reports against him, and the criminal investigations he was under. All of which adds multiple layers of complexity to why a young man in his prime would feel compelled to take his own life.
As headlines, these facts can feel sensationalised and devoid of empathy. Yet they are at the crux of understanding this tragedy. Was there institutionalised racism and rife bullying within the police department? Findings of the investigations (reviewed and deemed satisfactory by the AGC) reveal an emphatic no. Could Uvaraja’s prolonged absences perpetuate the ostracisation he felt at work? Human psychology suggests so. In the end, there is no denying that Uvaraja was a troubled man facing stress from various sources. Perhaps he needed more help than what his family, colleagues and police para-counsellors could provide. To that, we will never know for sure.
In that case, why is the government so hung up on laying out the facts? The truth is that it cannot afford not to. Staying silent would have propagated the narrative that SPF is entirely to blame for the unfortunate turn of events. It would mean dismissing the integrity of an entire police force, deflating their morale and turning the tide of public opinion against them. Is that the kind of scenario we want in Singapore? To live in a society with a complete disintegration of trust between the police and the public that a pledge to “investigate every crime” actually needs to be said? The experience in other jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and the US in recent years showed how serious police work and public safety can be undermined easily when trust between the force and the public is diminished.
As Mr Shanmugam noted, “The vast majority of our officers hold themselves to the highest standard of conduct. We cannot allow a small minority who do wrong to colour the public perception of the rest of the Force.”
For this reason, it is only right that the government stand by its officers and defend them against unfair accusations. And of course, the pendulum does swing both ways. Had the investigation revealed failings within the SPF, we can be sure that the Minister would be raining hell on them to clean up the house.
Photo Source: MCI via YouTube