By Ghui –
In many ways, we are a country in transition. Our viewpoints, wants and needs are evolving and perhaps, the powers be have not yet caught up. There is an increasing mismatch between government dictates and citizen demands and the gulf grows ever wider.
The Samantha Lo saga is but the latest example of this seeming divergence. AsiaOne link here.
The debate is raging as to whether or not she is a vandal or an artist and many have criticised her arrest, stating that it would be impossible for Singapore to nurture a vibrant and creative society if people are not permitted to freely express themselves. While I have sympathy for this view, the charge has been framed and it would be virtually impossible for her to get off “scot free” for to do so would be tantamount to publicly stating that the laws of the state be applied unevenly.
What Ms Lo has done is in contravention to the Vandalism Act and the charges leveled against her are legally sound.
A Facebook petition has been circulated, urging for the charge of vandalism against Ms Lo to be amended to that of public nuisance. Both are offences but the charge of public nuisance triggers a lower penalty of a maximum fine of $1,000 as opposed to a jail term of up to 3 years imposed by a conviction of vandalism.
The alternative suggested by the online petition appears to be a happy medium between those who deem her a vandal and those who believe her an artist. It could also be a good opportunity for the government to “compromise”. Both charges capture her “transgressions” but the lower charge could have the dual effect of letting Ms Lo off with a slap on the wrists without the government “losing face”.
However, do Ms Lo’s actions really fall into the category of “vandals” which inspired the Vandalism Act in the first place? Is the time not ripe for the evaluation of this law?
The policy reasons behind the Vandalism Act
The Vandalism Act was introduced into Parliament as the Punishment for Vandalism Bill on 17 August 1966. At the second reading of the bill on 26 August, its introducer, the Minister of State for Defence, Mr Wee Toon Boon, said that Members of Parliament were aware of the reasons for the bill. He said: “… for we have witnessed for some time the sorry spectacle of people of ill-will smearing and defacing our fair city. The writing of slogans, drawing of pictures, painting and marking or inscribing on public and private property has been rampant. Indeed, even the sides of drains have been used by anti-social and anti-national elements in the name of democracy, but their crude artistic feats in effect destroy and deface what democracy has built for the people. Singapore has also recently witnessed acts of vandalism like the theft of insulating oil from electrical power stations and the wanton damage to fountains. Damaging or destroying public property that is provided for the benefit of the people must be considered extremely serious, for it is the people themselves who ultimately pay for the services and amenities provided by the Government. However, there are, regrettably, certain irresponsible persons in the community who find a cruel joy in destroying and damaging public property. In the interests of the nation, it is therefore necessary that the minority who cause damage should be dealt with severely.”
From this, it is clear that the Vandalism Act was introduced to punish those who bear “ill will” and whose acts destroy public property and render such property unusable or less usable. Ms Lo’s actions could hardly be said to fall into this category and the law cannot and should not be blindly applied as such!
Her stickers were tongue in cheek and have done nothing to “destroy” public property. To those who do not find her slogans entertaining, their usage of the various buttons and facilities etc. are not hampered bar a passing annoyance. Similarly, her spray paint of the road does not affect the usability of the road in the same way theft of insulating oil would cripple the functioning of a power station. Besides, if the sticking of stickers is an act of vandalism, should we also be seeking to punish all the various maid or tuition agencies that stick up stickers advertising their services?
Looking at her actions from this perspective, it would be more apt to charge her with public nuisance than the more serious charge of vandalism. But the framing of the charge is but a cure and will not prevent a similar dilemma from occurring again in future. What needs changing is the definition of vandalism in the Vandalism Act.
Section 2 of the Vandalism Act defines an act of vandalism as:
“(a) without the written authority of an authorised officer or representative of the Government or of the government of any Commonwealth or foreign country or of any statutory body or authority or of any armed force lawfully present in Singapore in the case of public property, or without the written consent of the owner or occupier in the case of private property —
(i) writing, drawing, painting, marking or inscribing on any public property or private property any word, slogan, caricature, drawing, mark, symbol or other thing;
(ii) affixing, posting up or displaying on any public property or private property any poster, placard, advertisement, bill, notice, paper or other document; or
(iii) hanging, suspending, hoisting, affixing or displaying on or from any public property or private property any flag, bunting, standard, banner or the like with any word, slogan, caricature, drawing, mark, symbol or other thing; or
(b) stealing, destroying or damaging any public property.
Public property means movable or immovable property owned by the Government of Singapore, the government of any Commonwealth or foreign country, any statutory body or authority, or any armed force lawfully present in Singapore.”
It would therefore appear that as long as one writes, draws, paints, marks or inscribes on any property or private property, it could be deemed as “vandalism” without regard for the nature or intention of such writing, drawing, painting, marking or inscription. Perhaps, there should be some “carve out” language to limit such so-called vandalism to actions, which actually affect the usage of such property?
Laws are after all not meant to be static and have to be revised to suit the changing needs of the nation. In the spirit of embracing change, it is high time for a number of outdated laws to be reviewed.
Singapore has undoubtedly evolved. Look at how much more vocal we now are. Ten years ago, would we have mobilised to organise an online petition? Would we have spoken up the way we do now? Singapore has changed and our laws need to reflect that so as not to lose relevance.