Penal Code Review may have a chilling effect on private citizens

Penal Code Review may have a chilling effect on private citizens

The nature of laws is that it is never static. Laws need to be reviewed and amended in line with changing social norms. Given that laws are put in place to protect the values of society, changes in public attitudes would necessitate laws to be periodically updated to be kept up to date with the current values of society.

The review of the Penal Code is Singapore is therefore welcomed. To that end, a Penal Code Review Committee (PCRC) was set up in 2016 to update and refresh our Penal Code. The PCRC has recently submitted its report to the Minister for Home Affairs and the Minister for Law.

The report is lengthy and detailed. It deals with a whole raft of matters ranging from the minutiae to more substantial matters.

One of the areas for concern is the proposal to amend the definition of “public servant” within the Penal Code (Recommendation 21). It has been proposed that the definition of “public servant” be extended to include persons employed by private contractors, and performing a law enforcement role.

The logic behind this alteration is ostensibly to afford greater protection to those who may be performing roles related to public duties but who may not be directly employed by the state. While this may afford the “public servant” greater protection, it has a flip side – it also imposes additional duties and obligations on individuals who may not wish to have such additional obligations.

The Penal Code sets out the code of behaviour that public servant must abide by. Are hitherto privately employed individuals happy to suddenly become public servants governed by this code of behaviour?

It is also noteworthy that offences committed on “public servants” attract much more severe penalties than the same offences committed on the mere general public. This could have the chilling effect of controlling the behaviours of people who may simply be exercising their rights as citizens. How will “law enforcement” be defined? Also, will it be extended to private security forces?

For example, if I was standing outside a condominium with 5 friends complaining about something and the security guard comes out and decides to lay hands on me. If I threaten to retaliate if he persists, will this be treated as threatening a “public servant” which could then land me in jail for 2 years?

Do we really want the definition of “public servant” to be so wide? Is it open to easy abuse and misuse?

Secondly and on a much wider policy point, I note that the abolition of the death penalty and the decriminalising of gay sex were not within the ambit of this report. This is disappointing as it would have been illuminating to hear the views of the PCRC on these issues.

There is growing momentum on the abolition of both of these which in turn signify a change on public perceptions and viewpoints. Should these not also be taken into regard and discussed by the PCRC? Overlooking these issues seems like an unhelpful refusal to deal with them.

Lastly, this 502-page report was only published on 9 Sept and consultation will end on 30 Sept. Does it make sense for a report which took two years for a dedicated committee to produce, to be scrutinised over a period of less than a month?

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