I’ve been wondering about the way the Committee of Inquiry was going about its business, especially after an online Tamil group came up as a witness yesterday. Now, the people representing the group before the COI had no real “evidence’’ as such. They were reporting what other people told them about the riot. They were not there. They also made several allegations about the police coming down hard on the foreign workers, citing people who did not want to be named. They maintained that the foreign workers hated the cops, who paid them little respect and were always summoning them – and that alcohol was not an issue or there would be riots every week.
What’s all this, I thought. The COI was listening to hearsay?
I think plenty of people applaud the tough questioning by the COI, including me. But some comments are also making the rounds that the COI was not conducting an inquiry – but an inquisition.
That DAC Lu of Tanglin, for example, sure had a pretty hard time on the stand, getting cut off in mid-sentence so much so that he complained about being grilled left, right and centre. Now a COI is not a job interview and he couldn’t have expected the COI to treat him with kid’s gloves. He didn’t come out smelling like roses and his answers portrayed a police force more interested in protocol than crime prevention. Would he have come off better if he got more of chance to explain himself and his actions? I’m inclined to say no.
Then what about comments that the COI let fall during the inquiry, throwaway remarks that make for good reporting and leave spectators with a clear picture of how the members regarded the testimonies, even before the hearings are over?
Was this “on’’?
I suppose you could say that the COI “don’t give chance’’ and if ever there was an independent panel which did not give the G (in this case, the law and order people) face, then chairman GP Selvam and his men showed themselves capable of doing so.
I admit that I found the COI hearings enlightening. Even entertaining. I was present for two days of hearings . Face it, you don’t often get to see G men getting grilled and the COI was way more effective at asking questions than any opposition political party member.
The way the hearings are conducted is not like what you get in a courtroom. Sure, you have a prosecutor “leading evidence’’ but the show is really the COI’s, so to speak. Members interjected liberally and questioned carefully. While the prosecutors tried to render their questions “neutral’’, not so the members of the COI. Some of the questions would make journalists cringe – they were of the “leading’’ variety.
Was this “on’’?
So I took a look at the powers of a COI under the Inquiries Act. It’s like a court in that it has the protection given to the courts, such as ruling people in contempt. But the COI is not bound by any rules of evidence or procedure. That is, it is free to determine the procedure for the COI hearing. The COI may also admit any evidence which might be inadmissible in civil or criminal proceedings. That, I believe, would include hearsay evidence.
Well, it seems that all is all right then…
Methinks somebody somewhere should clarify the work of a COI and what it can or cannot do. For example, a COI cannot rule and has no power to determine civil or criminal liability of any person. What else?
It is not good for anonymous comments to float around that the COI might have over-stepped its bounds or have been less than fair. Or that it had contributed to lowering the standing of our law enforcement officers even before it has finished its work. I know I am saying this at the risk of “scandalising’’ the COI. But its work is in the public eye and while it can punish “contemptuous” commentators, it can’t stop opinions from forming.
I hope it will look kindly on this observation. There is no malice intended.