Restraining of elderly woman: Questions that we should ask

TL;DR – Don’t just blame government, or the police. 

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She went to a neighbourhood police centre wanting to report a lost pawn shop ticket. Instead, she ended up being arrested. That is the story of Madam Josephine Savarimuthu, a 74 year old Singaporean lady. As if that in itself wasn’t newsworthy enough, Madam Josephine’s daughter, Madam Gertrude Simon, wrote to Straits Times Forum to allege that Madam Josephine “was handcuffed and had leg restraints on”. Madam Simon wrote:

“It is appalling that a weak old woman was subjected to such harsh treatment.”

As expected, this news sparked a furore online. Most people agreed with Madam Simon that the treatment that her mother received was harsh. A lot of comments were scolding the police, questioning why was there a need to restrain an elderly lady. Many were demanding for explanations. It’s not as if the elderly lady could escape, right?

But it turned out that the police didn’t restrain Madam Josephine. She was restrained by officers of the  Singapore Prison Service (SPS) and only when she was transferred between the State Court and Changi Women’s Prison (CWP).

Also, according to a statement by the police, CCTV footage showed that Madam Josephine “was alert, coherent and communicative when in Police custody and did not appear to be distressed”. That is contrary to Madam Simon claims that her mother was “stressed and overwhelmed”.

Why restrain an elderly person?

But why restrain an elderly lady at all? While there was little chance that Madam Josephine could have escaped even if she weren’t restrained, there are still good reasons to restrain her. The best reason is to prevent Madam Josephine from hurting herself. If Madam Josephine wasn’t restrained, tried to escape, she could have easily injured herself in the process. Or if she wasn’t restrained, she could have injured herself in a whole host of other ways.

So the restraints weren’t only to prevent Madam Josephine from escaping. They were also to prevent Madam Josephine from hurting herself. Imagine if Madam Josephine, or any elderly person who was being transported from the State Court to the prison, weren’t restrained, tried to escape, and ended up hurting themselves, whose fault would that be? Who should shoulder the responsibility? The officers of the SPS? Or those who called for elderly people not to be restrained?

Why was she sent to prison?

The police also pointed out that Madam Josephine was asked twice whether she wanted to call someone to bail her out – once at the police station, and once at the state court. Madam Josephine declined on both occasions. So it’s not as if Madam Josephine weren’t offered the opportunity to prevent herself from being held in remand in CWP. It’s not as if Madam Josephine wanted to be bailed out but the police didn’t allow her to be bailed out.

More importantly, it’s not as if Madam Josephine couldn’t be bailed out because the police weren’t able to get in touch with Madam Josephine’s family because she was “stressed and overwhelmed, and was unable to recall the contact details of any of her relatives” as Madam Simon claimed. Madam Josephine declined to be bailed out.

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But that’s not good enough for some people. There are people who speculated that Madam Josephine declined calling her family members probably because she didn’t want to trouble or alarm her family members. Those people say that that’s a very Asian thing. But police officers are humans, mere mortals like you and me. They’re not mutants equipped with the ability to read minds. They have to take the word of the person. Right?

More importantly, police officers should respect the wishes of the other person, right? What if Madam Josephine really had some good reasons for not wanting to contact her family members? What if the police had disregarded what Madam Josephine said, gone ahead to call her family, only to have Madam Josephine come and scold them for not respecting her wishes? Then how? Are we to assume that elderly people have no agency? Should we just do what we think are in their interest regardless of whatever they say?

Why was she in that situation in the first place?

All of these could have been avoided if Madam Josephine was able to resolve the Town Council issue in the first place. What was the issue? It was an issue of wrongful placement of potted plants outside her flat. Was it a trivial issue? It depends.

If Madam Josephine had placed the potted plants in a fashion that blocked the path of her neighbours walking along the corridor, that would have caused inconvenience to her neighbours. If there was a fire, would those potted plants made it more difficult for people to get to safety? For the Town Council to have taken Madam Josephine to court means that the Town Council wasn’t able to resolve the issue with Madam Josephine even after numerous attempts.

Then there is the fact that Madam Josephine didn’t turn up for her court hearing. Is it right to disregard and not respect the authority of the court? Isn’t that making a mockery of our justice system? Sure. Madam Josephine is elderly. Maybe she forgot.

What about her children? Why didn’t they pay enough attention to their mother to realise that she had received a court summon? Why didn’t they ensure that she turned up for the court hearing? Why didn’t they do their part to help Madam Josephine resolve the issue with the Town Council? If they did, none of this would have happened.

Easy to blame government, but is that right?

It’s easy to say that the government and government agencies should do more. Sure. There is always more that the government can be done.

But that doesn’t absolve all of us, as individual citizens, to take care of ourselves, and take care of our family members, especially those who need more care.

Hopefully this incident will be a reminder to all of us to pay more attention to our elderly family members and take better care of them.



Author: Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I'm a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.


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