Treatment of 73-year old woman reinforces views that Public Service has “lost its heart”

Treatment of 73-year old woman reinforces views that Public Service has “lost its heart”
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The following article is based on news report of the incident; and news reports of the statement by the Singapore Police Force and the Singapore Prison Services. The authorities’ statement is not currently available to the public (via their websites).

Town councils have by-laws which are gazetted under the Town Council Act (TCA). Each town council would have its own defined sets of rules and regulations.

With that, let us consider the case of one Madam Savarimuthu.

The 73-year old woman had gone to lodge a police report on 4 March, Saturday, over the loss of a pawn ticket.

What should have been a simple filing at the Ang Mo Kio South Neighbourhood Police Centre, however, turned into an ordeal lasting several days. Her experience came to light after her daughter wrote a letter to the press which was published on 15 March. (See below.)

Briefly, at the police centre, the police officer while processing her report discovered that Mdm Savarimuthu had an outstanding warrant of arrest issued against her in 2016 for “failing to attend court to a town council summons.”

Mdm Savarimuthu was arrested at the police centre and subsequently transferred to the Ang Mo Kio Police Division.

From there, she was brought to the State Court, and then to the Changi Women’s Prison (CWP), where she was remanded until 6 March, Monday.

The police statement said that “throughout her time with the police, [Mdm Savarimuthu] was not restrained.”

However, it added that “in her transfer to prison, Madam Savarimuthu was restrained at the hands and legs, which is part of SPS’ standard operating procedures, which include preventing persons in custody from harming themselves.”

It was only in prison that Mdm Savarimuthu called her daughter, Gertrude Simon, and informed the latter of where she was.

The police statement said Mdm Savarinuthu, who has a pre-existing medical condition, was asked several times during her arrest if she wanted to call her bailor. Each time when she was asked, according to the police, she declined.

The warrant of arrest, apparently, has to do with some town council matters involving “the wrongful placement of potted plants outside her flat, which amounted to an offence involving a $400 fine.”

S’pore Statutes, Ang Mo Kio Town Council By-laws

Unsurprisingly, the case has generated much public interest, with many slamming the police and the as-yet un-named town council over their treatment of the elderly woman.

The authorities, however, stood their grounds.

“The police and SPS have a duty to enforce the law and to ensure that the rule of law is respected,” its statement said. “At the same time, we are committed to ensuring the well-being and safety of persons in our custody.”

Was the police right in the way they handled the case? Could they have done differently?

Certainly, the law must be respected, and anyone who flouts it should be taken to task.

At the same time, however, the law must be applied with compassion, especially in obvious cases such as this one involving an elderly woman with a medical condition, and over a relatively trivial case of wrongful placement of potted plants.

Here are a few facts which should help the authorities do better in cases such as this one:

Mdm Savarimuthu is 73-years old, and is unlikely to give the police much trouble physically. Was there a need to handcuff and shackle her, hands and feet, as she was being transported from one place to another?

The police’s explanation that this is the SPS’ standard operating procedures, which include preventing persons in custody from harming themselves, is indeed beyond doubt. However, surely, rules must be applied based on prevailing circumstances, and are not cast in stone, as it were.

Given her age, medical condition and apparent physical frailty, was it necessary to have her restrained in such a manner – and over the offence of wrongful placement of some potted plants?

Anyone, let alone a frail elderly woman, would find it shocking and traumatic to walk into a police station to seek help, and instead end up being arrested, brought to the police station, then to the courts, and finally to prison, handcuffed and shackled, all within the same day!

Why could not the police have asked her for a family contact and called the contact on her behalf, even if Mdm Savarimuthu declined to do so herself, when they first discovered she had an outstanding warrant against her name?

Asking her if she wanted to contact her bailor is of course a good thing, but if she declined the offer, is there really nothing else the police could have done?

Why wait until she was at Changi Women’s Prison – by which time she had already been subjected to the traumatising experience – before the Prison Service contacted her daughter?

Evidently, the Prison Service was able to obtain the daughter’s contact number. Why was the police unable to do so?

The police statement, according to media reports, makes as though the police is a passive, helpless party in this instance.

What is the police and prisons’ protocol in such a situation – to run the elderly through the legal system unfeelingly, like robots without a heart?

It is good that the Prison Service kept Mdm Savarimuthu in the medical ward in prison and ensured that she received and took her medication.

In a recent parliamentary sitting, several Members of Parliament (MPs) accused the Public Service of having lost its “heart”.

TODAY, March

“In our pursuit to automate most things, we now have a system without a heart,” MP Louis Ng said. “I hope that every public servant has a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”

Ministers came out in defence of those who serve the public.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service, Teo Chee Hean, said, “I want to assure Members that our public officers do work tirelessly to serve Singapore and Singaporeans. There are many examples of exemplary public officers who go the extra mile to help those with particular needs or are in distress.”

Indeed there are many such public service officers, and we do not disparage their work because of one or a few cases of officers falling short of our expectations.

Nonetheless, in cases such as Mdm Savarimuthu, we do expect more compassion and commonsense in how her case was handled.

And citing “standard operating procedure” to defend your handling of it only serves to prove the MPs’ contention, that our Public Service officers are unfeeling automatons, a charge which in fact is untrue most times.

So, do better, SPF and SPS.

Lastly, we hope the town council involved can also practise compassion in Mdm Savarimuthu’s case.

Letter by Mdm Savarimuthu’s daughter which brought the case to public attention