By Choo Zheng Xi
If you’re 17 years old in Singapore, you don’t qualify to vote. You don’t qualify to be conscripted.
However, you apparently qualify to have your identity exposed and your character dragged through the mud if you stand accused of a crime.
Most of the mainstream media publications in Singapore have been quick to censor the “sensitive” aspects of the graffiti that was scrawled in public view. They seem equally anxious to “expose” and humiliate the alleged perpetrators of this “sensitive” crime.
Faces of the 17 year old boys in the police van squinting in the glare of camera flash adorn the online versions of the mainstream press. The boys look visibly shaken.
This behaviour is repugnant, and I hope the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) steps in to issue the necessary cautions to the mainstream media.
The AGC should act quickly because it is both legally and morally correct for them to intervene to keep the media in check.
Singapore is a signatory to only three international human rights conventions. One of these treaties is the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which recognizes a child’s right to certain legal protections. A child is defined in the CRC as a person below the age of 18.
The CRC recognizes that children need special safeguards, care and legal protections. Member states who accede to the treaty accept these principles. Singapore has accepted these principles.
Amongst these protections are provisions which recognize the importance of protecting the privacy of children.
Article 16 of the CRC provides that no child shall be subject to arbitrary interference with his privacy.
Article 40 (2)(b)(vii) the CRC recognizes that every child alleged to have committed a penal offence has the guarantee that his privacy will be respected at all stages of the proceedings.
The CRC also recognizes that every child deprived of liberty shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family and should be stripped of this right only in exceptional circumstances. Singapore, as a signatory to the CRC, accepts this principle.
This is a very practical safeguard: the law as it stands deems minors under the age of 18 to lack sufficient mental maturity to enter into certain contracts. Surely the alleged vandals should have access to their parents and legal counsel to advise them on their rights while under interrogation for an offence which could lead to corporal punishment.
While Singapore signed the CRC with the reservation that our Government feels that existing legislation provides adequate protection for the rights of children, protecting the privacy of the boys in the Toa Payoh case is surely in keeping with the spirit of the CRC.
Protecting the identities of the accused boys does not require the Government to introduce a new law, it only requires the Deputy Public Prosecutor appearing in Court to apply for the necessary gag order to protect the identities of the accused.
The protection of the identities of young persons involved in criminal proceedings is extremely important.
The dominant approach the Court takes towards young offenders is rehabilitation. The public humiliation these four boys are being subject to could have serious consequences on their futures, much of which still lies before them.
It should not matter that this case is “politically sensitive”, involving an alleged act of brazen defiance to authority.
The media have a moral duty to ensure the fair trial of these boys and to protect their identities.
Zheng Xi is a lawyer in private practice. Nothing in this article should be construed as, or used as a substitute for, legal advice.
Editorial correction - Singapore has acceded to three human rights convention, namely Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) not two.