A brief look into immigration offences in Singapore
With 200 million people travelling to and from Singapore each year, the sheer number of travellers suggests that immigration offences might be a major issue on our little red dot. To tackle the advent of immigration related offences, SPF (Singapore Police Force) and ICA (Immigration & Checkpoints Authority) work hand in hand under the persona of the ICC (Integrated Checkpoints Command), which consists of ICA, SPF, and CNB (Central Narcotics Bureau) officers. This collaboration operates at the first line of defence in Singapore at various entry points (or checkpoints) in our country. This of course includes airports, customs, and ferry terminals.
The list of immigration offences in Singapore are detailed in s57 of the Immigration Act.
The Singapore criminal lawyer website gives a good summary of this at this link. As one would expect, immigration offences include acts such as:
Unlawfully entering Singapore;
Harbouring illegal immigrants; and
In Singapore, the 3 most common offences according to the ICA are:
Overstaying (staying beyond the period one is permitted to);
Illegal immigration (entering Singapore despite not being permitted to); and
Harbouring/employing illegal immigrants.
Statistically, overstaying is by far the most common form of immigration offence in Singapore. However, even that, along with all forms of immigration offences have been on a downward trend for the past 5 years, thanks to the efforts of the ICA and law enforcement clamping down hard on overstayers through inland operations.
On the other hand, smuggling (although smuggling is not technically an immigration offence) and sham marriages are both on an upward trend, albeit the latter in much smaller numbers. For those unaware, a sham marriage is one where in exchange for money, a Singapore Citizen (usually one in financial difficulty) marries a non-Singapore citizen to grant citizenship or an extended visitor pass (for more information about how this works, you can access this link for a good summary). In practice, the matchmaking of the financially needy Singaporean and the desperate non-citizen/resident is done by a syndicate third party who receives a cut of the cash.
Enhanced powers of search in 2018
On 1st April 2018, the Immigration (Amendment) Act 2018 came into effect, and with it, enhanced powers of search for immigration and law enforcement officers. Previously, police officers were empowered to search individuals (and their belongings) only after they made an arrest, even within an authorised area (for example, a Changi Airport checkpoint). Immigration officers were allowed to search individuals (and their belongings) only within authorised areas. In effect, this meant that immigration officers did not have an unfettered power to search if they are in public areas (the public areas of Changi Airport, for example).
However, the April 2018 amendments change this. Both immigration and police officers since the Act was passed (1st April 2018) have the authority to search, in essence, any vehicle, or person passing through an authorised area, and places in close vicinity to an authorised area (such as the public areas of Changi Airport). Immigration officers also now have the power to make arrests, although they previously had to wait for their police counterparts to make the arrest.
These powers are especially relevant to tackle smuggling (or anything related to bringing in unlawful items) but leaves the issue of sham marriages wanting. However, the reduction of sham marriages and the catching of it is really more of a practical problem than a legal one, lest a more intrusive marriage process be implemented. It is submitted that the police should take further action to expand or enhance their operations if there is a pressing need to resolve the problem of increased sham marriages in Singapore.
Why the need for enhanced powers of search?
In short, terrorism. Or at least, that seems to be the key factor, according to the Parliamentary Debates enacting this amendment bill. Terror acts like the 2016 Brussels Airport bombing and the Istanbul attacks in the same year were both mentioned in the aforementioned debates. With the enhanced powers of search, firearms and explosives can be detected more easily and without our security officers fearing consequences for overstepping their jurisdiction. This takes a highly effective step against terrorism. My opinion is that the enhanced powers of search have been long overdue, even without the war on terror factored in. Given that immigration officers are often on the front line of things, and it is sometimes crucial to apprehend a suspect with haste, having limited powers of arrest is simply impractical. For example, in the past, an immigration officer could do little more than request backup from their police counterparts if a suspicious individual were to bolt. Credit where credit is due, at least now immigration and police officers are free of the older, and more illogical restrictions.
Dangers of the increased powers of search
Every time law enforcement have more powers of search, the right to privacy the public enjoys is reduced. The fact that police officers no longer need a warrant to search individuals (albeit only at certain locations like airports) means that the discretion to search lies with any and all officers. This affects travelers (aside from SAF camp visitors) the most, subjecting all who pass through our airport and ferry terminals to the scrutiny of all law enforcement officers. Aside from the reduced privacy that travelers must now endure, the enhancement of police powers also means that travelers are more likely to be charged with offences relating to the obstruction of justice (e.g. refusing to be searched outside of the restricted areas of Changi Airport).
It is no secret racial profiling is a huge issue in the US, particularly for darker-skinned or middle-eastern looking individuals. Unfortunately, racial profiling happens right here in our tiny red dot. The victims: Indian people. It takes place mainly at MRT stations, security staff frequently checking our Indian friends for dangerous items (in laptop bags or musical instrument cases) while their Chinese and Malay compatriots are left alone. It is subtle and we are usually too engrossed in our smartphones to notice. At this juncture, Singaporean Indians who are aware of this handle it with an admirable stoicism, while others are blissfully ignorant of it. However, the increased convenience which the enhanced powers of search bestows to immigration officers might magnify this problem. Despite this, Singapore is not plagued with intrusive “stop and frisk” policies like the US, the less intrusive search procedures of our security resulting in the searched feeling less intruded upon and subsequently, less discriminated against.
Tourists are unlikely to be bothered by the enhanced powers of search as those who travel frequently will already be familiar with more stringent checks at other countries.
Some other things you could mention: how tourists are likely to view this? (esp given SG’s existing reputation in some Western countries as an authoritarian state)
Ultimately, while reduced privacy is regrettable, it is a necessary evil to take to allow Singapore’s law enforcement to effectively do their jobs. Furthermore, most sensible and innocent people do not mind the added inconvenience (if anything) in exchange for a safer country. The security of our land is paramount in deciding which to prioritise, even if the general public may be against it.
Interesting side note: you can report any immigration offence at https://www.ica.gov.sg/feedbackio if you are so inclined to do so.
Written in 2019 by Benjamin Ong
*The views and opinions expressed in this article do not constitute legal advice and solely belong to the author and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the NUS Criminal Justice Club or its affiliates.
Data of illegal immigrants – https://data.gov.sg/dataset/number-of-illegal-immigrants-arrested
Summary of immigration offences under s57 of Immigration Act – https://www.singaporecriminallawyer.com/immigration-offences/
ICA annual report 2017, 2016, 2015 – https://www.gov.sg/~/sgpcmedia/media_releases/ica/press_release/P-20180208-1/attachment/ICA%20Annual%20Statistics%202017.pdf – the ICA website was not working for this one
Second Reading of Immigration (Amendment) Bill 2018 – https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic?reportid=017_20180108_S0003_T0003
Marrying a foreign spouse in Singapore – https://dollarsandsense.sg/marrying-a-foreign-spouse-in-singapore-this-is-what-you-need-to-plan-for/
Immigration Act – especially s51AA, s57, s57C
Immigration (Amendment) Act 2018
Report an immigration offence – https://www.ica.gov.sg/feedbackio