By Teo Soh Lung
Minister for Home Affairs & Minister for Law K Shanmugam’s comment on his facebook of 16 Dec, on the sentence of 10 weeks’ jail imposed on the man who assaulted a policewoman just three days after the case was reported in the media is a clear illustration of how the government uses and takes advantage of the law, in this case, the new Administration of Justice (Protection) Act.
Section 3(4) of the Act permits institutional bias – the government can comment on a case within the period when an appeal may be lodged while the public cannot. Prior to the enactment of this law, the public was permitted to comment on such a case.
The minister said: “He [the convicted] has been sentenced to 10 weeks jail for this. I have asked the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to relook at the legislation, to consider whether this is adequate. I have said to MHA that anyone who attacks a uniformed officer should learn a lesson, which he will never forget; and it should be enough of a deterrence to others.
We acknowledge that the minister has vast powers and his opinion can influence decisions. The judge in the case had exercised his powers within the limits provided by the law. The maximum prescribed penalty for assaulting a public officer is “7 years, or with fine or with caning or with any combination of such punishments.”
The judge had exercised his discretion within the law when he sentenced the man to 10 weeks’ jail.
Our criminal laws (enacted long before Mr K Shanmugam was appointed a minister) set out an appeal process. The prosecutor has 14 days to appeal against the sentence if he is of the opinion that the convicted deserves a heavier sentence. What the minister should have done (if he strongly feels the need to interfere which I think should be discouraged) is to instruct the attorney general to lodge an appeal against the sentence and not make a public statement expressing his dissatisfaction with the sentence. His comment is a criticism of the judge.
Finally, why does the minister threaten to amend the laws over just one case and before the appeal process is exhausted? Singaporeans are used to knee-jerk reactions from ministers and swift amendments to laws without thorough research and debates.
But do we really need ministers to react in this way?