Caning violates international norms

Jolene Tan –

Oliver Fricker has been charged with vandalism. If convicted, he should not be caned. I say this not because of the potential diplomatic or media outcry, or even because marking a MRT train with graffiti was easily the most trivial of misdemeanours, but because no one of any nationality should be caned, ever.

There are some things that no state should do to any human being, regardless of what that person has done.

This idea is the foundation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which prohibits all forms of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. This is an instrument to which more than 140 countries are party, and which has been signed by a further ten. It reflects the weight of enormous international consensus, uniting the values and sensibilities of a vast range of peoples. Singapore is in a very small minority by refusing even to share formally in its aspirations, even if not all the state parties live up to them. Aside from the treaty, the prohibition of all forms of torture is also one of the few rules of international law which has the status of jus cogens or peremptory norm – in other words, it is so fundamental that no derogation from it is permitted in any circumstances.

Article 1 of the Convention defines torture as: “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as […] punishing him for an act he […] has committed […] when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

Some Singaporeans doubt that judicial caning is torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. This is not a doubt shared by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture (“Corporal punishment must […] without exception be considered to amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or torture in violation of international treaty and customary law.”) He has declared that corporal punishment cannot amount to “lawful sanctions” (which would prevent it being classed as torture) under Article 1. But even setting aside for a moment the authority of someone whose life’s work it is to understand torture, it’s important to emphasise that the childhood spankings that so many of us recall have little in common with what happens in the case of a criminal sentence.

Qwek Kee Chong told Amnesty International:

I heard the cane. It sounded like a plank hitting the wall. A split second later I felt it was tearing across my buttocks. I screamed and struggled like a mad animal. All I thought was that I want to run away. If I’m not tied up, one stroke could keep me running for a mile.

And I just could not control my screams. It went on and on, one stroke, one minute. Some lashes fall on the same spot, splitting open the skin even more.

Some prisoners urinate and even faint because of the pain. I felt giddy and went limp on the trestle at the last stroke. My bleeding buttocks throbbed with pain and felt like they were on fire.

A few prisoners pretend to faint to escape more strokes but the warder will go on flogging to see if you cry out. That’s because if you’re conscious, you will scream.

After we were flogged, a medical officer applied some antiseptic on the wounds. My buttocks then swelled to twice their normal size. My thighs went blue-black. I had to go without shorts for more than two weeks so that my wounds could heal. I couldn’t sit or sleep on my back or bathe all this time either.

The pain burns in your mind long after it is over. Until now I have nightmares about it.

In judicial caning a man (and it is always a man) is stripped of all his clothes, with only his spine and kidneys covered, tied to a wooden trestle, and then, possibly while he is screaming and struggling in desperation or pissing himself from pain, he is beaten, sometimes into unconsciousness or near it, with enough force to split his skin and flesh and to cause blood to run down his buttocks. He is permanently scarred. The whole purpose is to intentionally inflict severe physical pain and humiliation.

The extremity of the procedure is underlined by what is excluded from it. Only men are caned, in a dehumanisingly misandrist approach which denies the brutality of violence done to the male body, the significance of male pain and trauma, and the reality of male suffering. The protective cover around especially vulnerable organs is an implicit acknowledgement of the damage that the full force of the cane could do if it were applied to those areas. Finally, men over 50 and boys under the age of 16 are not caned, and doctors are present at each session, which cannot involve more than 24 strokes: all further forms of recognition of the severity of the effects on the body of the entire process.

I – like the signatories to the Torture Convention – do not believe it is acceptable to use torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in any circumstances whatsoever. But Singapore’s use of judicial caning, on the grand scale of 4,228 persons sentenced to caning on conviction from January to November 2009, is made even more grotesque by the hollowness of its justifications. Where is the detailed, independent empirical work which supports the claim that it leads to reduced crime? This is not a point that can be taken for granted: criminological experts all over the world have carried out large numbers of experiments as well as reviews of existing penal practice, and in the absence of convincing evidence, many are significantly sceptical about the theory that more severe punishments always lead to reduced crime. The Singapore government is acting on conjecture: and in the meantime human flesh splits and bleeds.

Apologists for this brutality invariably refer to the notoriety of Singapore’s criminal penalties. “But he knew,” they say, “he must have known the punishment and he chose to do it nevertheless, so he must face the consequences.” They treat a law of cruelty and violence like a law of nature, rather than a deliberate policy chosen by the conscious exercise of state power. This argument implies that any sentence at all can be justified simply because it is promulgated by a bureaucracy in an official document beforehand. It completely dodges the fundamental issue of the appropriate limits that society ought to observe when we choose, collectively, through our laws, to punish those in our power.

Acts of violence dehumanise not only their victims but also their perpetrators. In the case of judicial torture, all of society is implicated every time a struggling, screaming man is beaten in our name. I believe we can do better than this. A world without brutality will be very difficult to achieve, but the first step is simple enough. The government just has to stop committing it.


Jolene Tan is a feminist writer who grew up in Singapore and lives in London, where she works for a charity.  She writes in a personal capacity, and errors and opinions in this piece are hers alone.

Read also: Judicial caning in Singapore.

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