Spate of knife incidents sparks in Singapore calls for security checks, controls over access to blades


Knife incidents in (clockwise from top left) Pasir Ris Plaza, Orchard Central, Elias Mall and the Commonwealth area took place over a matter of weeks. - PHOTOS: ARIFFIN JAMAR, SHINTARO TAY, SHIN MIN DAILY NEWS, KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE: After four separate incidents over a matter of weeks from December 2023 left more than a dozen people with injuries, Mohamed Ali found himself wondering if knife crimes were becoming rampant.

The 49-year-old, who works in the security industry, said his social media feeds made him more aware of violent disputes and fuelled his worries.

The father of three children, aged eight to 14, said: “It’s very, very alarming... These kinds of (incidents) can escalate very fast.

“When my kids leave home, we need to keep checking in on them until they return. It may be really extreme, but we have to do what we need to do.”

He is not the only one concerned.

Pasir Ris resident Albert See feels there is a need for heightened security checks.

The 57-year-old was spooked by a slashing at Pasir Ris West Plaza on Dec 20, 2023. The attack, allegedly by a rival mobile phone business owner who was later arrested and charged, left three people hurt.

“In other countries, I often see security guards standing at the door of shopping malls and looking out for suspicious people. But we do not have this. Maybe people think it is safe,” said Mr See.

Just days after the incident, six people were injured by an armed man as they gathered at Orchard Central to welcome the new year.

Then on Jan 11, a 56-year-old woman suffered minor injuries when a 15-year-old armed with a sharp object tried to rob a steamed bun shop at Elias Mall in Pasir Ris. The teen was later arrested.

Barely a month later, seven people were hurt when a 20-year-old man allegedly attacked them with a small knife and a chopper in the Commonwealth area.

The youngest victim in the Feb 3 incident was only six years old.

Violent incidents

After a spate of violent incidents involving weapons in 2022, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) revealed police figures as it sought to reassure the public.

The ministry said the number of knife-related crimes, which include murder, robbery, rioting and serious hurt, have stayed consistent from 2017 to 2021 – about 150 cases annually.

But that is an incident about every two days.

The figures showed that more than 60 per cent of knife-related crimes happened in public and commercial premises, 36 per cent occurred in residential areas, and 3 per cent in educational institutions and premises.

Nominated MP Razwana Begum Abdul Rahim, who is head of the public safety and security programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said while the number of such incidents may be low, the public’s perception of such crimes can be real and alarming.

“Knife-related crimes are often perceived as highly severe and life-threatening.

“The potential for serious injury or fatalities in such incidents can significantly amplify the fear, even if the statistical likelihood of encountering such crimes is low.

“Being safe may not necessarily equate to feeling safe,” added Associate Professor Razwana, who studies causes of criminal behaviour and effective criminal justice systems.

MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, whose questions prompted the reply from MHA, had raised concerns in Parliament in the light of two incidents in March 2022.

In the first case, Fadhil Yusop, 38, was caught on video swinging a sword in the Buangkok area, hitting cars and even striking a pedestrian. He was arrested and later sentenced to 18 months’ jail and six strokes of the cane.

In the other incident, police shot and killed a knife-wielding man after the 64-year-old refused to listen to orders to drop his weapon and continued advancing towards the officers.

Mr Zhulkarnain asked if it is possible to impose a blanket ban on the possession of a knife, razor or other sharp objects in any schools, public or commercial premises.

He also asked about legislative measures that could help police identify people at risk of being drawn into such crimes due to mental or other conditions.

In his reply, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said there was a need to be practical and not over-regulate items with common daily usage, like knives.

As for legislative measures, he said there are laws to deal with people with a higher propensity of committing crimes, including knife-related crimes, due to certain psychiatric conditions.

For instance, a person who suffers from a mental disorder can be detained under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act.

There are also a number of laws in Singapore to police the use of weapons.

They include the Corrosive and Explosive Substances and Offensive Weapons Act, which can impose up to three years’ jail and at least six strokes of the cane on those who carry weapons without lawful authority or purpose in public.

However, despite stringent laws, figures from the authorities show a 67 per cent increase in offensive weapons brought into Singapore via air cargo between January and October 2023, compared with the same period in 2022.

Prof Razwana said relying solely on legislation or record-keeping may not solve the problem as criminals can find other ways to acquire knives or use other sharp weapons to hurt people.

“Broader strategies addressing the root causes of violence should be explored to create a comprehensive approach to public safety.

“This includes education, mental health support, and addressing social factors that may lead to violent behaviours,” she said.

Prof Razwana added that young people especially are more likely to be involved in such crimes due to peer pressure, poor impulse control or lack of conflict-resolution skills.

Mr Tan had revealed in Parliament in 2021 that 131 people under 18 were arrested for possession of offensive weapons in the previous three years.

An offensive weapon is any instrument which, if used as a weapon of offence, is likely to cause hurt.

Examples include flick knives, machetes and airsoft guns.

Mental health

Dr Jacob Rajesh, a senior consultant psychiatrist at Promises Healthcare, said while weapon attacks may occur during gang fights, or when people are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, there are also instances of assailants with underlying mental illness.

This was the case with Surajsrikan Diwakar Mani Tripathi, who fatally stabbed a stranger who jogged past him at Punggol Field in 2020.

The assailant, then 20, had severe social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and dyscalculia, which is a learning disability in mathematics, said Dr Rajesh, who conducted the psychiatric assessment for the case.

Forensic psychiatrists check if accused persons have a history of mental illness, and evaluate their functioning and mental state at the time of offence.

If there is a link between the mental condition and the offence, then it has some mitigating value, said Dr Rajesh.

“Rehabilitation becomes more important as compared with the other arms of sentencing, like deterrence or punishment. (Offenders) still get punished, but their sentence or charge may be reduced,” said the psychiatrist.

Surajsrikan’s symptoms were found to have “crippling effects” on his life. During his remand, he was placed in a cell by himself due to his social anxiety disorder, and prescribed medication for his disorders.

The charge of murder with the intention of causing fatal injury carries the death penalty or life imprisonment and caning. In 2022, Surajsrikan was sentenced to life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane after he pleaded guilty to a charge of murder.

However, Dr Rajesh said that not everybody who commits crimes is mentally ill.

“You have to look at other factors like personality, alcohol and drugs, or history of violence in the past,” he added.

He said: “For example, somebody who is exposed to family violence from a young age may think such behaviour is normal and also lash out physically at others.”

Dr Sara Delia Menon, a clinical psychologist at Alliance Counselling, said she has many clients who have violent fantasies about real or imagined situations, either towards themselves or their loved ones, but do not act on them.

“These individuals tend to be highly motivated to address the behaviour and develop skills to prevent escalation of aggression and improve interpersonal communication and emotional regulation,” said Dr Menon.

The Straits Times visited Margaret Drive Hawker Centre on Feb 5, two days after the Commonwealth incident. Several victims of alleged assailant Joseph Lau Jin Hua were injured at the food centre.

The motive for the attack has yet to be established, but police had indicated they would seek a court order for him to be remanded at the Institute of Mental Health for psychiatric assessment.

Residents said they were relieved that the alleged assailant was caught, with several expressing hopes that he would receive help.

A part-time stall assistant at the hawker centre, 63, who declined to be named, said he was slashed on the right arm but declined medical attention.

“It’s difficult to predict such attacks. Anyone could have mental health struggles and we wouldn’t know,” he said.

Mr Zhulkarnain wants the public to be more aware of how to respond to violent incidents.

He said: “We can, through the SGSecure app and emergency preparedness events in schools and the community centres, prepare Singaporeans on how to react if such incidents occur in their midst.”

The SGSecure app allows users to report suspicious activities to the authorities, and receive official notifications in the event of major emergencies.

There are also neighbourhood groups that work with the authorities to protect residents in emergency situations.

Mr Nilanga M.G., vice-chairman of Marsiling Community for Emergency and Engagement, is hoping his group of volunteers, Marsiling Bravehearts, who are trained in first aid and emergency response, will receive self-defence training from trained professionals.

“This preparation will equip us to effectively handle situations that require physical confrontation, and to put it into action when the threat becomes inevitable,” he said.

In the Commonwealth incident, Madam Juwariyah, a resident of the area, said she was glad passers-by stopped the alleged assailant.

Five members of the public had helped to subdue the suspect before the police arrived. Three of them, Mr Mok Kwong Heng, 61, Mr Gangatharan Saravanan, 28, and Mr Emmanuel Ee, 21, were given the Public Spiritedness Award.

“I don’t worry so much because sometimes when members of the public see something bad happen, they will help us,” said Madam Juwariyah, 58. - The Straits Times/ANN

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