Singapore

Penalties for crime must reflect public opinion: Shanmugam

Penalties for crime must reflect public opinion: Shanmugam
Reviews of laws for a string of offences have been announced by Mr Shanmugam, who is also Minister for Home Affairs, in recent days, including some in high-profile cases that attracted close public attention, and even outcry. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY
The law will lose credibility otherwise, but it does not mean govt is bowing to public pressure
Published: 4:00 AM, April 24, 2017
Updated: 11:11 AM, April 24, 2017

SINGAPORE — How society feels about the punishment meted out in criminal cases has to be something the Government must pay heed to, but this does not equate to bowing to public pressure, said Law Minister K Shanmugam.

This is because, if penalties do not reflect the weight of public opinion and people do not find them fair, the law would lose its credibility and would not be enforceable, he added.

“You enhance the penalty (for a certain law) to reflect what people feel is the right penalty, what conduct should be more severely punished — that is not bowing down; that is understanding where the weight of public opinion is,” said Mr Shanmugam in an exclusive interview with TODAY last week.

He added: “(Paying attention to public expression) is important because these people represent the ground feelings ... Penalties and criminal laws can only be enforced if people believe that they are fair and that certain conduct ought to be made criminal ... Otherwise they lose credibility.”

Reviews of laws for a string of offences have been announced by Mr Shanmugam, who is also Minister for Home Affairs, in recent days, including some in high-profile cases that attracted close public attention, and even outcry.

For instance, he directed his ministries to relook the sentences for sex offenders such as Joshua Robinson, a mixed martial arts instructor who had sex with two 15-year-olds and showed an obscene film to a six-year-old.

The American was sentenced to four years’ jail, which was deemed too light by some — an online petition calling for a harsher sentence has since garnered almost 30,000 signatories.

In a Parliament sitting earlier this month, Mr Shanmugam said reviews of the laws relating to the abuse of foreign domestic workers was also being conducted.

While he did not cite any specific cases, news of the review came in the wake of a Singaporean couple who starved their maid, causing her weight to plunge from 49kg to 29.5kg in 15 months. The man was sentenced to three weeks’ jail and a S$10,000 fine while his wife was sentenced to three months’ jail.

Public outcry over penalties in individual cases do not necessarily lead to a review of the laws, Mr Shanmugam stressed, noting that reviews have been announced by ministries for laws in cases that did not attract any public attention.

Drugs, drink-driving, and false and malicious allegations against public officers are some offences that have been flagged recently for review.

He said: “Even without public expression, when I see a sentence (and if) I see these needs to be looked at ... (where) I feel need a review, I announce them. And that is our job.”

But, he noted: “When there is a reaction to a sentence by the public, as in the Joshua Robinson case, then I think it is important for us as policymakers to sit down and understand why people are upset ... It is important because these people represent the ground feelings — they are mothers, they are sisters, they are people who want their children to be safe.”

He added: “But it doesn’t mean automatically you agree with it. You must assess it, whether it is also fair. So, there are two parts to it — one, whether it is fair; two, what does the public believe is right.”

In a similar way to how he had urged the public against personal attacks on the High Court judges who recently reduced the sentences of six City Harvest Church leaders for misappropriating church funds, Mr Shanmugam said the announcement of reviews for laws should not be taken as an indictment of the work of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC).

The Public Prosecutor can only apply the law of the day and it is up to the Government to decide what the laws and penalties ought to be, he noted.

“It is the task of the Government to decide what is the appropriate legislative provision. And that is the mixture of ... what is fair, what is right and also where is the weight of public opinion.”

A deputy public prosecutor, who declined to be named, had reservations about reviews being announced soon after a case concludes in court.

“When the Government says these things, it ties our hands,” he said.

A former prosecutor, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that while public perception is a “relevant” concern, it “must not be the overriding consideration”.

“Otherwise we may run the risk of undermining the rule of law with mob justice ... In my view, it would help if the AGC engages the public more actively and explains its decisions,” said the lawyer, who is now practising in a private firm.

“This way, concerns of bowing to political pressure of public opinion would be allayed to some degree.”

Lawyers TODAY interviewed agreed there was nothing wrong with public uproar leading to legislative reviews.

Mr Sunil Sudheesan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, said: “The Government ultimately is a servant of the people. And if people are legitimately outraged (over a particular court sentence), then it should be of concern to the Government.”

He added that the Ministry of Law reviews a whole host of laws, noting “it just happens there has been a number of high profile cases lately”.

Legislative reviews are also a “product” of a more vocal and involved citizenry, said Mr Sudheesan. “I hope and trust that the engagement between the authorities and the public carries on for a long time ... The public should continue to speak up.”