In the wake of public outrage over the seemingly lenient 12 day sentence meted out to a 23-year-old dental student from the National University of Singapore (NUS) for attempting to strangle his ex-girlfriend after she rejected his request to get back together, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has announced that it will be reviewing the sentencing criteria for certain criminal cases.
In sentencing Yin Zi Qin to a mere 12 days in jail, district judge Marvin Bay had considered Yin’s age and his rehabilitative prospects. In addition, Bay did not find Yin to be a high risk of re-offender. Attempting to strangle someone is an act of great violence that could have resulted in the death of Yin’s ex girlfriend.
Granted, Yin may have been suffering severe stress. But what’s to say that he would not undergo stress again and resort once more to violence? This display of violent tendencies could replay if Yin was ever to face another relationship ending. With this in mind, how did Bay come to the conclusion that his risk of re offending was low?
While looking at Yin’s case, it must be noted that the maximum penalty for voluntarily causing hurt is jail for up to two years, a fine of S$5,000, or both. Yin’s sentence of 12 days is therefore not even a scratch on the surface of what could have been meted out.
It is noteworthy that Yin’s case is not the only case where rehabilitative prospects were taken into consideration by the judge. Late last year, a another student from NUS, Terence Siow avoided a custodial sentence despite repeatedly molesting a woman in 2018. In rejecting a jail term, the judge referred to Siow’s transgressions as “minor intrusions” and considered his “potential to excel at life”.
Given that Siow could have been jailed for up to two years, fined, caned or any combination of the three, it is no surprise that the lack of a custodial sentence caused public furore.
The whole premise of crime and punishment in Singapore is perceived to have deterrence at its core. The punishment should also fit the crime. How will a lack of jail term or a short jail term help to deter anything? In both these cases, there are two definable victims who have suffered actual harm and crimes were committed. Surely in sentencing, the only relevant issue is how the particular crime should be punished. Considering the future prospects of perpetrators is therefore irrelevant.
While Minister for Law, K Shanmugam has identified this as a policy issue as opposed to an error on the judge’s part, it still begs the question of why Shanmugam is only talking about a review now? Surely a review should have occurred over Siow’s case already? Is the government reacting late? Does this have parallels with other aspects of governance in Singapore?
For example, some have criticised the government for being reactive instead of proactive where mask wearing was concerned. Is this not rather similar? Is the Government able to effectively plan for the future or do things have to happen first? If it is the latter, does it mean that the Government will always be playing catch up, unable to predict trends and plan long term?
Besides, the judges did have a bandwidth to work with. In Yin’s case, he could have been jailed for up to 2 years, fined up to $5,000 or both but he got only 12 days. In Siow’s case, he could also have been jailed for up to two years, fined or both but he got no custodial sentence. Why did the judges in question apply their discretion in the way that they did?
Could it be that this is an ingrained system of elitism at play? In other words, because Yin and Siow have been deemed by the judges to have had good prospects, somehow their crimes become less serious. This is not just about the judge or the policy. It could be systemic snobbery, exclusiveness and selectiveness that needs to be completely rooted out.