Shanmugam explains why police had to act swiftly in Benjamin Lim case
In Parliament yesterday, two ministers answered a barrage of questions from MPs on the case of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim, who was found dead after he was questioned by police over the alleged molest of an 11-year-old girl. They explained the rationale behind the police's and school's actions
When police realised from closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage that the alleged molester of an 11-year-old girl was from North View Secondary School, they acted swiftly.
They went to the school to find out the identity of the boy, who had allegedly molested the girl at an HDB lift the day before.
Should the police have waited until Benjamin Lim, 14, had gone home first?
No, explained Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament yesterday.
"We need to be clear about how we expect the police to investigate in general," he said.
"If the police wait, and he molests someone else in the meantime, then the question would be why the police did not move faster."
The police did not know that it was Benjamin in the CCTV footage when they first went to the school.
THE NEW PAPER, FEB 29
Neither did they know if he had a history of offences then.
Said Mr Shanmugam: "An accused person could well have engaged in other molest, (which) until then no one might have reported.
"As a general rule, I'm sure we want the police to move quickly... What do you think (the) public's attitudes will be if it was a victim who had committed suicide?"
Mr Shanmugam and Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng, spoke for about two hours on the case yesterday in Parliament. They answered eight parliamentary questions and clarifications from 13 MPs.
At their respective minister's requests, both ministries had refrained from commenting in detail on the case previously, so as not to prejudice a coroner's inquiry into the death.
But speculation and falsehoods that followed the case had prompted the ministries to provide more information, said Mr Shanmugam.
He asked the House to imagine what would have happened if Benjamin had not taken his life.
In seven out of 10 cases, youths would only be warned, placed on a guidance programme or have no action taken against them, he said.
"Where possible, the police try to avoid criminalising the conduct," he said.
"It is likely that on the evidence available to us, Benjamin would have received no more than a warning."
While five police officers had visited the school, he stressed that they were in plainclothes and arrived in unmarked cars.
Of the five officers, three were there "to link up" the school with the other two police officers from Ang Mo Kio Division, who were there to investigate, he said.
Only one officer spoke to Benjamin about the alleged crime.
Said Mr Shanmugam: "We should look at the facts and in this case, what did the boy see? He saw one officer at first, and then three brought him back to the station.. and he was interviewed by one officer at the station."
Sketches and photographs of the open plan office in an Ang Mo Kio police station, where Benjamin was interviewed, were handed out to MPs.
There is nothing to suggest that Benjamin was mistreated by the police, based on the facts so far, said Mr Shanmugam.
But why did the school not send anyone to accompany Benjamin to the police station?
This is because even if someone went, there would have been no contact between the staff member and the boy, explained Mr Ng.
Mr Ng said it is not police practice "to allow teachers or school staff to be with the student in the police car".
During a police interview, school staff are not be allowed to be present under current protocols.
Said Mr Ng: "At end of the interview, (the police will) hand over the student to the direct care of parents."
He also addressed why a school counsellor called Benjamin's mother to advise her that the teen "remain with the family during this difficult period".
That meant he would not be able to attend a school camp the next day.
Said the minister: "It is not unreasonable to call and check on how Benjamin was doing. The decision (to not attend the camp) was discussed and mutually agreed upon with his mother.
"It is a very tragic incident, but we really do not know what was the trigger for Benjamin."
As a general rule, I'm sure we want the police to move quickly... What do you think (the) public's attitudes will be if it was a victim who had committed suicide?
- Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam
Shanmugam slams TOC over falsehoods
When allegations against the police's integrity surfaced following Benjamin Lim's death, the Ministry of Home Affairs initially decided against disputing these claims, said its minister K. Shanmugam.
"(Is) that the right thing to do? To have a public trial by media, at this stage? Rebut the family in public, and add to the family's grief?
"The answer is clearly 'No'. We can understand that the family, in their grief, may genuinely believe some things, and assert them. Thus we chose not to respond," said Mr Shanmugam.
But in Parliament yesterday, the Home Affairs Minister addressed these "untrue factual assertions", not just to maintain public confidence in the police, but to answer to the Members of Parliament who had filed questions about the case.
"People may misunderstand if the Government did not respond.
"Thus, I decided, with some regret and considerable reservation, and after consulting the Attorney-General's Chambers, that we will have to set out the facts, discuss the matter," he said.
Usually, following unnatural deaths, the details of each case are dealt with at the coroner's inquiry (CI) - the right forum for the relevant facts to be dealt with. Till then, the rules of sub judice apply, which include preventing discussions which may influence court proceedings.
"Yet, some, such as TOC (The Online Citizen), continued making accusations, insinuations, speculating, on the facts, well after that.
"As I have said, it is understandable when the family says some things. But TOC and its ilk should not engage in this, prior to the CI," said Mr Shanmugam.
The various TOC articles implied that the police were lying, they intimidated Benjamin, and they pressured him to confess to a crime that he did not commit - all of which are false, the minister said.
"It is sad to see the level of dishonesty and politicisation of this matter. Where the police are wrong, we must and we will take action. But we should not allow deliberate, dishonest attacks," he said.
He also said it was "surprising" that the sub judice rules were ignored even by Law Society president Thio Shen Yi, who made assertions that "imply that Benjamin killed himself because of police intimidation".
Adding that he has kept within the principles of sub judice by discussing the case, the minister said: "I would have preferred to have remained silent up to the CI. But I have spoken today because it was in the public interest to do so."
Mr Shanmugam added that on Monday, Benjamin's family asked for privacy as they felt pressured by the public and media attention.
In a supplementary question, Jurong GRC MP Tan Wu Meng pointed out that Benjamin's father, Mr Lim, was quoted as saying that if not for media like TOC, the case would have died down a long time ago.
Mr Shanmugam replied: "The suggestion that this case would have died down long ago is ridiculous because there's going to be a CI...
"I'm not saying the father is saying absurd things. I don't want to assume that what I see in TOC is what the father says. But any suggestion (that the case would have died down) would be absurd."
Reiterating Mr Lim's request for privacy on Monday - the same day the TOC article was published - Mr Shanmugam said: "(There are) any possible explanations. I have not sought to ask why. Is it a case of the father saying different things to different people? Or is it the case that as usual, you can't believe what you read on TOC?"
People may misunderstand if the Government did not respond. Thus, I decided, with some regret and considerable reservation, and after consulting the Attorney-General's Chambers, that we will have to set out the facts, discuss the matter.
- Mr K. Shanmugam
Timeline of events
Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday laid out the facts in the case. Here is a summary of what he described:
DAY OF ALLEGED MOLEST
- Benjamin Lim is going home from North View Secondary School when he takes a detour.
- He seems to be following an 11-year-old girl, and is seen on closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage going to another block in the neighbourhood instead of going home directly.
- The same footage shows Benjamin following the girl into a lift on the ground floor.
- A CCTV camera in the lift captures what happens there. The girl later makes a police report against Benjamin for molest. Benjamin later admits to touching a part of the girl's body.
- When the lift reaches the 13th floor, Benjamin steps out.
- As he goes out, there is a brief exchange between him and the girl, according to her statement to the police.
- The girl does not follow him out.
- CCTV footage shows Benjamin walking down to the 12th floor, getting into the lift and going to the ground floor.
- He then exits the lift and goes home.
- The girl goes home, tells her father what happened and the family makes a police report against Benjamin on the same day.
- Police obtain CCTV footage depicting the alleged crime.
- Studying the school uniform in the footage, the police identify the school as North View Secondary School.
DAY OF QUESTIONING
- Five plainclothes officers - three from a neighbourhood police centre (NPC) and two from Ang Mo Kio Division - go to the school in unmarked cars.
- The three officers from the NPC are familiar with the school and are there to facilitate the interaction between it and the divisional officers.
- The officers show school officials a screenshot of the CCTV footage, and Benjamin is identified.
- The principal sends a staff member to look for Benjamin, who is in the canteen. The teen is taken to the principal's office.
- The principal informs Benjamin that a police officer would be speaking to him and assures the teen that he and his staff will be present.
- Only one police officer meets and speaks to Benjamin in the presence of the school staff.
- At the end of the meeting, the principal tells Benjamin to call his mother, which he does.
- The police officer also speaks to her, informing her that Benjamin will be taken to the police station to give a statement.
- Benjamin, who is not handcuffed, is taken to the station in an unmarked car by three officers, one of whom alights along the way.
- At an Ang Mo Kio police station, in an open plan office, the investigation officer records Benjamin's statement at 12.15pm, after the teen indicates he is ready.
- After the interview, Benjamin is placed in a secured temporary holding room alone to wait for his mother, who also gives her statement.
- Benjamin is released on bail to his mother and sister, about 3½ hours after he first arrived at the station.
- The family goes home and has lunch. Benjamin plays games on his mobile phone.
- A school counsellor calls Benjamin's mother to check on his well-being. Both agree that Benjamin should not attend aschool camp the next day. Benjamin's mother tells him that he won't be going to the camp.
- At about 4.20pm, Benjamin is found dead at the foot of his Yishun block.