“Are we moving towards to punitive society?”, the Workers’ Party chairman, Sylvia Lim, asked the packed room of more than 80 people at the party’s headquarters who were there to attend the WP’s forum on the government’s proposed amendments to the Penal Code. (Here and here)
“We are 2nd in Asia in terms of imprisonment, with about 350 inmates per 100,000 population, after Turkmenistan”, says Ms Lim, citing the World Prison Population report. “We’re in the top 20 or 35% in the world”.
Bringing a balanced view to issues
Kicking off the forum, Ms Lim related how a Singaporean once advised her not to focus too much on the law in her public life as ‘the law may not be something that really interests Singaporeans”. Explaining why it is necessary to bring public awareness to the issues of crime, law and order, Ms Lim emphasized that it is important to bring a balanced view to the issues.
“Very often in singapore when we’re faced with crime or worries about security, you find that the right-wing view takes over”, she says. Thus, in the tradition of the party – as established by its past leaders, Mr David Marshall and Mr JB Jeyaretnam – Ms Lim says the Workers’ Party will always be concerned about criminal justice issues.
Moving on to specific proposals in the amendments, Ms Lim voiced several concerns. One of which is the proposal to increase sentences from existing ones. As an example, Ms Lim cited the proposed amendment to up the jail term for assaulting an MP from the current 7 years to 20 years. This drew some gasps from the audience. “Are we over-reacting to particular incidents?”, she asked. For criminal breach of trust, punishment is also proposed to be raised from the current 3 years’ jail to 7 years.
The sentence for being part of an unlawful assembly will, if the proposals are accepted, be raised from the present 6 months to 2 years.
“As we know, people who claim trial get higher sentences than those who plead guilty. Faced with a higher maximum jail term, some will not be willing to take that risk”, explains Ms Lim. Thus, there is concern about people being pressured to plead guilty in order to receive a lighter sentence.
Although “one good thing about the changes is that they have removed mandatory minimum sentences”, Ms Lim questions the proposal to allow judges all 3 options in sentencing – jail, fine and caning – instead of the current practice where judges would choose 2 out of the 3 options. “Why is this necessary?”, she asked.
Although the Ministry of Home Affairs has said that “for imprisonment terms, we have avoided increasing imprisonment terms unnecessarily”, Ms Lim questions if these proposed amendments are then indeed necessary.
Litigation lawyer and columnist for the TODAY newspaper, Thomas Koshy, focused his speech on the sexual aspects of the amendments, including marital rape which is being included under ‘new offences’. Giving specific examples of how the amendments will affect sex crime cases, Mr Koshy says there is too much bias in the protection of women.
Calling the proposed amendments “gender-biased’, he cited the example of sexual intercourse with minors. Although tougher penalties will be introduced for men who engages in sexual intercourse with girls under 16 years of age, it is not an offence for women to engage in sex with boys under 18.
Workers’ Party Youth Wing Exco member, Firuz Khan, touched on the lack of debate and scrutiny of such issues, where the mainstream media tends to take a pro-government stance and there aren’t many NGOs here to push such issues, unlike the United Kingdom where vigorous debate takes place.
The public needs to get involved
“Making love, not making sex”, is what Anthony Yeo, Clinical Director of the Counselling and Care Centre hopes for. Drawing from his experience as a counselor, Mr Yeo touched on the topics of marital rape, emotional blackmail and post-traumatic stress disorder of women who suffered from sexual abuse in marriage – areas in which there are no research done, he regrets.
Mr Yeo also called on all Singaporeans to participate in civil engagement on these issues and not leave it to the opposition parties to voice out. Saying that they are not there as political party members, Mr Yeo emphasized that the public needs to get involved so that the authorities know that ‘we are concerned’.
Gay sex, gay rights
In the question & answer session which followed, a lively exchange between 2 gay lobbyists and the panel of speakers took place. Asked if the Workers’ Party would voice out on the issue of gay sex, Ms Lim explained that the party has discussed the issue extensively but is nonetheless divided. Thus, the WP will not be making any submissions to parliament with regards to gay sex, she says.
A member of the audience cautioned that it is important for the WP to speak up on this as it’s not just a gay rights issue. “If you allow one thing to happen to one minority, it will happen to another minority. You have to be alert because if you keep quiet, then there really will be no voice.”
Another member of the audience asked the panel about their views on proposed amendments regarding new media. Mr Koshy replied that he did not see much in the proposed amendments which referred specifically to new media. “I tried looking for it but nothing grabbed me”, he said.
The forum host, WP treasurer Eric Tan, thanked everyone and called the meeting to an end and invited the guests to a tea reception. Party members, which included candidates in last year’s general elections – WP Vice-chairman Mohammed Rahizan ,Perry Tong, Abdul Salim, Dr Poh Lee Guan and Glenda Han – intermingled with the guests.
Being the first in a series of public forum to celebrate the Workers’ Party 50th anniversary this year, this forum was well-organised. It is also heartening to see so many Singaporeans – from the young to the older ones – making time to attend an opposition party forum.
Apart from the faulty sound system, the Q&A session should have been longer. It is unfortunate that not much time was allocated for this.
But what is important is that perhaps those who attended the forum will leave with a better idea of how the Penal Code may affect their lives, and society in general.
More pictures here.
Sylvia Lim's speech in full here
Read also Singapore Patriot's report here.