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Watching the watchers: a counter surveillance report

June 12, 1999.

BY James Gomez, Senior researcher at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Singapore and a politican scientist.

James Gomez attended a function at the Open Singapore Centre. Before entering the centre's premise, he stood at the bus stop amongst those running the surveillance activity. He wrote this counter-surveillance report from a 20-minute observation of their activity.

The Open Singapore Centre hosted a tea party at its Balestiar Road premises to mark its opening on recently. Located along a row of two storey shop houses, the centre occupies a modest section up a flight of stairs in a second floor unit.

Interestingly enough, the buzz of activity did not take place at the second floor that day, but down along the five-foot way of the shop house. Pictures of people attending the session were busily being taken and a surveillance activity co-ordinated.

The surveillance activity was conducted by a group of 8-12 people. The operational centre was made up of a core of three Chinese men in their early 30s. Dressed in working class clothes, they stood at the bus stop observing people approaching the centre. They merged well with commuters waiting for their bus. Those at the bus stop had the overall view of the situation.

Standing not too far away from the bus stop and dressed in neat and plain clothes was an older Chinese man. Aged between late 40s to early 50s, he too kept an attentive eye on the centre's entrance, occasionally stepping forward to advise the three. He was clearly the man in-charge.

This core was directing about four Chinese ladies dressed in a mixture of black shirts or trousers, coloured tops and make-up. Aged between 30 and 40 years, they carried a concealed handbag camera/video.

The visual recording unit was housed in black handbag that they held firmly in front at the waist level. The handbag is box shape in design and can be comfortably held in both hands. The camera lens was the size of a five-cent coin and was merged in the middle of a elaborate gold ornament in the front of the handbag.

The Handbag Ladies placed themselves strategically on both sides of the centre. Two were near the centre's stairwell entrance a couple of shop house units away. While another two were placed much further away towards the end of the row of shop houses. They moved their body positions as well as the position of the bag to capture persons entrancing and exiting the centre. Where and how they moved was co-ordinated by the core at the bus stop who went back and forth to these ladies to forward instructions.

Collectively from where the handbag ladies were, they able to photograph/video record everyone who went in and out of the centre's entrance. With co-ordination by the men at the bus stop and multiple recording points, a composite picture of who attended the session is most likely to be well captured.

The presence of this surveillance activity possesses an important question for civil liberties in Singapore.

Firstly who are these people? Are they from the Ministry of Home Affairs, in particular the Internal Security Department? If not, where are they from? How much did that whole activity cost? Who finances it? What was its purpose and was it necessary? Who gets the information and how and where is it disseminated? And towards what end is it used? But more importantly, how did they get prior information about the event to organise such a large surveillance activity?

Secondly, is there an infringement of civil liberties by this activity? Can an individual or group take action? Can they confront the person/s at the site of incident to make a citizen's arrest for photo recording a person? What if the perpetrator is a police officer? What than is the next course of action? How should Singaporeans resolve this? What are their rights against surveillance? Or is the only recourse counter-surveillance to expose the culprits and make their job harder?

This is an important issue that needs to be addressed within the context of the larger question on political reform in Singapore.

James Gomez was one of the 6000 people consulted by the Singapore 21 Committee. His specific recommendation was that Singapore adopts some form of proportion representation to make its electoral system more reflective of the voters' ballots. (Back to top)

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