Laws shouldn't be too far off global standardsFact: According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, Singapore has the 17th highest prison population per capita (I believe those are statistics for 2004, or relatively recent at any rate). According to the United Kingdom Home Office, that rank is 8th.
A MAN punched a lawyer in front of a judge and was sentenced to six years in jail. When he appealed to the High Court, another four years were added to his sentence, a decision which was later reversed.
A shoplifter was jailed for 11 years.
Drug traffickers caught with as little as 15g of heroin are sentenced to death. According to Amnesty International, since 1991 400 people have been hanged, mostly for drug trafficking.
Singapore is known for its strong emphasis on law and order. However, one cannot help but feel that something is amiss in the way court sentences are sometimes meted out.
Today, the death sentence on Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van, caught at the Changi Airport transit hall, is creating an uproar in the Australian press. One argument had it that the guy was not even trying to smuggle drugs into Singapore.
A senior United Nations human-rights official has also stepped in to criticise Singapore's decision. He says that the mandatory death penalty is a contravention of international law and Singapore should bring its drug law more in line with international standards.
There is no doubt in my mind that law enforcement in this country is seen as a deterrence against crime and hence it is probably thought that the harsher the sentence, the fewer the crime. If so, this is an oversimplified understanding because other factors have a bearing on crime rates, like social and economic conditions. Harsh laws do not explain everything about low crime rates.
I agree with the view of the UN official that our laws should not be too far off from international standards.
Besides, too great a difference would result in continual friction with other developed countries which have a different view of the seriousness of certain crimes, like drug trafficking.
The idea of law enforcement as a deterrence against crime also implies that it is meant to be corrective. Will putting a man to death do anything to correct his erroneous ways than, say, 15 years' imprisonment?
In fact, being sentenced to death with no chance for reformation contributes to the impoverishment of mercy in our collective consciousness and the want of belief that people can change for the better.
No human being is perfect in every way. Offences like fisticuffs can be committed by anyone out of impulse or provocation of the moment. There is such a thing called sudden 'loss of self-control'. There is no need to be overly harsh in punishing such offenders.
Given that there is now a campaign in Singapore to rehabilitate offenders and assimilate them into society, such as by erasing their criminal records and asking employers to employ them, the Government should seriously review not just the drug law but also how some court sentences can be so controversial.
Chia Hern Keng
Fact: There is no positive relationship between harshness of punishment and low crime! The US and the UK have the most punitive criminal justice policies in the Western world - and generally also have higher crime rates compared to the countries of Western Europe.
Fact: An experiment conducted in Australia compared similar offenders. Some were sentenced "normally" - with jail, fines and so forth. Some were sentenced to restorative justice processes - with victim-offender mediation, encouraging offenders to participate in constructing their own sentences, and so forth. There was no higher rate of re-offending for those who "got off lightly" - what does this say about deterrence?
In Singapore, we "know" that harsh punishments work. We "know" there is low crime. Or do we? Where are the statistics and what methodology generated them? We did not always have the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking - was there really a drop in drug trafficking and drug-related crime when that was introduced? When we are told that "the problem would be even worse" without these measures, how do we "know"? There's a lot we think we know, but what do we, really?