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A bad call by Law Minister K Shanmugam: Public opinions on crime & punishment

By YC Ho

Singapore Law Minister K Shanmugam was quoted in Today newswire on 24th April 2017, that penalties for crime must reflect public opinions.

I beg to differ and find his comments worrying and objectionable. The Minister was quoted by Today:

“You enhance the penalty (for a certain law) to reflect what people feel is the right penalty, what conduct should be more severely punished — that is not bowing down; that is understanding where the weight of public opinion is. (Paying attention to public expression) is important because these people represent the ground feelings ... Penalties and criminal laws can only be enforced if people believe that they are fair and that certain conduct ought to be made criminal ... Otherwise they lose credibility.”

I find it incredulous and worrying that the Minister and the Government take on such a view. Our judicial system has been founded on fairness, moral justice, and equality undergirded by our national values. It might sound convenient and an easier path to appease some ground feelings as to how a punishment should be meted out for a crime according to public opinions, but I am afraid this is a slippery road to go where public opinions can easily split into a thousand ways. As it is today, there is no clear, fair, or known way to determine whose public opinions the Government is really hearing?

I would also like to quote what the Law Minister spoke too last year and quoted in Channelnewsasia on 11th July 2016:

“The law exists to strengthen the legal process and protect the common man. You want an independent party, the judge, to decide on guilt and innocence. You don't want, as it were, a trial by the public. The public can have a view, but that view on guilt and innocence should not be expressed in a way that say influences the proceedings against you. So in a sense the common man is helped because the judicial system is strengthened.”

By the two different interview statements the Law Minister made between last year and this year, it seems the Minister has wavered on his beliefs and such inconsistencies worry me.

Since when do we abdicate our sense of fair justice and moral uprightness to the general public? I am not trying to split hairs here but this has truly impactful implication for the country and around the world if we go down this slippery path, as the Minister seemed to have opined.

It is understood public opinions are in a massive way shaped by the media. It is understood that our mainstream local media is largely controlled by the Government (and we need not be pretentious it is not the case for an educated Singapore). So what public opinions are we referring to here? Do we all have true freedom of speech across all platforms and that we have equality across the public domain in order for wholesome or better opinions to be formed?

To bring it closer to home, there are tonnes of public opinions that Singapore water prices should not be hiked so much by up to 30% increase (and for that matter I did not oppose), will the Government listen to these public opinions?

There are tonnes of public opinions that Government Ministers’ salaries are still too high (and for that matter I did not oppose), will the Government listen these public opinions?

There are tonnes of public opinions that our Media is too controlled by the State (and for that matter I do see the pros and cons of this), will the Government listen to these public opinions?

I know all the above examples do not border around crime and legal punishment matters. But if public opinions of already such important social and emotional public matters are also not fully heard and taken in a thorough manner, do we dare to give such credence to public opinions of how a crime should be punished (or acquitted thereof)?

I hope the Law Minister reconsider his stance and reweigh this serious matter that has deep implications and impact on society concerning fair trials and moral justice. By allowing general public opinions in Singapore, wherein are mostly shrouded in anonymity by Internet trolls, to weigh in on crime and punishment is just too slippery a road from the way I see it.

We need a more well thought out statement coming from the Law Ministry and Government concerning this matter, and concerning matters around social and moral justice and fairness in this country, where we are seen as a beacon for world-class judiciary standard.