GE issues – By our laws, are we a more compassionate and safer society?

lawBy Ghui

Many had heralded GE2011 as the dawn of a new age for Singapore politics. The PAP was given a wake-up call and the opposition parties were given a boost. Voters became more engaged and post GE2011, more young people have become involved in politics.

Fast forward to GE2015, and the evolving political landscape also came with a greater awareness about how we should progress as a more just and compassionate society. The legal arena, with a long and dubious reputation where local politics is concerned, is also not insular to this desire for change.

Most people in Singapore, and now increasingly around the world, would be aware of how certain individuals who have had differences with the ruling party of Singapore have been made the subject of lawsuits that have been viewed as punitively biased. The law is as powerful as it is dangerous in these circumstances.

Singapore is determined to be seen as possessing a modern, efficient and fair judiciary. It markets itself as a hub for arbitration and is indeed the legal forum of choice in Asia. Singapore’s laws are also not static and there have been changes post 2011 to become more in line with the current times.

Have these changes been successful? Have they benefitted Singaporeans? Are we being seen as a society that is more just, and how much do our new laws protect rather than penalise us?

give-vui-kong-a-2nd-chanceMandatory Death Penalty

For two years since 2011, changes have been made to the application of the mandatory death penalty. Judges were given more discretion on when the death penalty would be applied. This was a welcomed amendment in an area which has been criticised as unduly harsh and unfair. In part related to these amendments, death sentences were suspended for two years and inmates on death row were given a chance to apply for their cases to be reviewed.

Overall, these modifications are positive and give the judges more wriggle room not to prescribe the death penalty and consider each case on its own merits as opposed to a sledgehammer approach.

That said, it would appear that the effects of such modifications have not been evenly felt as two prisoners were executed in 2014 for offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act because they have waived their right for their cases to be reviewed. Shouldn’t review be mandatory if the legislation is amended as opposed to prisoners being given the choice? Did the prisoners even understand the repercussions of what they were being asked to waive?

Another worry about the amendments is that those found guilty but have their death sentence commuted to life still face a gruesome punishment of judicial caning. Rights groups and those involved in the defence of convicted individuals have called this barbaric and an excessive punishment, since life imprisonment is already a serious penalty.

All the positive steps made should not deny the fact that Singapore still has a long way to go in seeking alternatives to the death penalty and have it abolished altogether. The journey had started way before 2011 by human rights groups, and have only begun to show signs of improvement recently. More needs to be done to ensure that a serious conversation happens between them and the authorities, so that Singaporeans may experience greater proportionality in our laws.

Ng with Shanmugum at the Chong Pang Forum on Animal Protection Policies
Louis Ng of ACRES with Law Minister K Shanmugam at the Chong Pang Forum on Animal Protection Policies

Shanmugam

Animal cruelty

A bill was introduced in 2014 to impose heftier sentences on culprits of animal cruelty. As Singapore evolves into a more mature and civil society, this bill reflects our greater awareness as a nation. It is an encouraging move and would surely play a part in reducing instances of needless animal abuse.

A pitfall of this legislation is that while it imposes heavier penalties on perpetrators, it still relies on the AVA for prosecutions. The AVA is the only entity with the power to initiate prosecution and organisations such as the SPCA only have the ability to persuade the AVA to prosecute. This would mean that an incident of animal cruelty could go unpunished if the AVA has a heavy backlog and limited resources leading it having to prioritise what is considered “more serious”.

Protection from Harassment Act

The Protection from Harassment Act was introduced in 2014 to strengthen the harassment laws in Singapore by providing a range of civil and criminal sanctions and clarifying avenues of self-help.

It is useful that online harassment, which is becoming increasingly common, is specifically mentioned, as this brings our laws in line with developments in technology. It also widened the scope of perpetrators by making the application of this act extra territorial. In our world of worldwide social media and the like, this change is significant as it recognises the international nature of harassment.

That said, there are areas where this new legislation has been questionably used. For instance, it gives the government of Singapore the right to apply for protection against individuals. This is odd given that the logical intention behind this piece of legislation is to protect individuals who have no other means of protection and are vulnerable from an aggressor, as opposed to an all-powerful government who would hardly be seen as the “bullied” party.

K Shanmugam
K Shanmugam

Shanmugam

I can understand individual members of government wanting their private lives to be protected from hacking and the like, but where the government itself can apply for protection against an individual does not sit comfortably with me and can lead to misuse to stamp out opposition or whistle blowing.

Even more worrying is the possibility of how extensively the Act could be interpreted. When YouTube blogger Amos Yee first posted a video criticising former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, he almost had a charge of harassment laid on him for offending those who viewed the video. Fortunately, the charge was eventually dropped, but the potential conflation of “harassment” with “personal offence” is cause for concern indeed.

Should a government department be permitted to use this Act as such? Should the press not be permitted to publish and investigate public interest issues without fear of persecution? Does feeling offended constitute harassment? Oddly, Law Minister K Shanmugam has been silent on the disparate uses of the Act so far, although he had specifically said that the Act was meant to fight a “social scourge”.

While this new Act is a step in the right direction, the excessively broad interpretation, particularly in protecting entities and those who are much better resourced to defend themselves, risks abuse and negates the very purpose for which it was enacted in the first place: The protection of individuals at risk.

Employment Act and the Fair Consideration Framework

Understandably since GE2011, regulations on foreign manpower had been a sticking point between citizen-government relations. Beyond the constant call to protect jobs for citizens, there were also those among civil society organisations who clamored for better employment conditions and pay for foreigners – if nothing else, so as to level the playing field for citizens.

The amendments to the Employment Act were enacted to enable employees to better understand how their salary is calculated and their employment terms and benefits, specifically their right to an official payslips. This is also intended for employers to prevent misunderstandings and minimise disputes at the workplace – particularly useful for foreign employees who have often been the subject of abuse when their pay is withheld.

singapore workersWhile it certainly provides for greater transparency, does it go far enough to protect employees? Employment rights groups have also pointed out that it is entirely possible for employers to issue payslips without actually matching the pay indicated, or even not paying them at all. This completely defeats the purpose of the amendments to the Act. If anything, it is probably more vital to have more stringent enforcement and greater penalties on employers who flout the rules.

To mute accusations that employers might be favouring foreigners over locals in the hiring process, the government implemented the Fair Consideration Framework, with one rule requiring employers to advertise with a government job bank for locals before the vacancy can be filled by a foreigner. While this in principle might sound pro-Singaporean, observers have noted many loopholes that allow employers to beat the system, and the framework in itself does not encourage the transfer of talent from foreigners to locals.

Positive, but not quite a progressive society

While the legal landscape has not been significantly transformed, there have been rumbles in the right the direction. Given the enormous power that the law can yield, much more can be done.

It should be noted that the most effective changes to Singapore’s legal system almost always involve those that are intended to help Singapore attract more investors. While that is a laudable goal, changes in the social and civil aspects should also evolve in tandem.

More urgently, as we face an evolving manpower landscape characterised by the relentless drive for greater productivity, more laws might need to be put in place to ensure that such objectives are achieved, rather than token measures that try to give Singaporeans a foot up, but in reality do not alleviate the situation. How we define these issues this GE2015 will determine how the government will approach these issues in time to come.