The recent case of a student who physically assaulted his ex-girlfriend has the public outraged over the relative light sentence he received of 12 days of detention, a day reporting for five months with counselling, and 80 hours of community service over a year.
Netizens were quick to denounce the sentence as too light given the seriousness of the offence while the People’s Action Party (PAP) Women’s Wing and PAP Women MPs came out with a statement stating their disappointment with the “disproportionate” sentence. They asked for the matter to be looked into by the Ministry of Home Affairs while MP Tan Chuan-Jin tweeted that he hopes there will be an appeal in the case.
Following that, activist and author Jolene Tan also took to Facebook to pen her thoughts on the matter in a post hoping that the momentum from this case is “directed toward thoughtful change and not just knee-jerk punitiveness”.
Ms Tan wrote in a post on Thursday (23 July) that she agreed the relative sentences for various offences can seem “absurd”, noting, “Six months in jail for smoking weed, or a week for a stupid stick figure drawing of politicians, but no criminal record for a violent assault? The implied priorities and value judgments are shocking.”
However, she added that she hopes reforms can move beyond merely making “unduly light punishments” harsher.
She said, “Nobody benefits from a concept of equality or ‘proportionality’ which amounts to an arms race, an upward escalation toward ever more brutal and disruptive punishments.”
“This is particularly to be avoided when harsh sentencing is implemented to satisfy public outrage but is unaccompanied by any genuine understanding of the wider and deeper causes of the problem one seeks to solve.”
Giving an example, Ms Tan noted that that extremely harsh penalties in the most dramatic cases of physical abuse of domestic workers does not address the bigger issue of legislation and institutional frameworks that “systematically reduce domestic workers’ power, status and options” which in turn perpetuates the environment that leads to abuse.
“Changing the Employment Act to include domestic workers would do far more for domestic worker welfare (including preventing abuse) than adding more years to the jail term of the next grotesque abuse case,” she emphasised.
She went to say that even in cases of domestic and relationship violence, perpetrators must be held accountable under the law and treated with “suitable gravity” but that prison should not be the “first port of call” when addressing the issue.
“We need to look at the proliferation of hierarchical and misogynist norms in daily life (especially in the arenas of family and sexuality) to do that,” Ms Tan elaborated.
“As just a few examples, reforming access to public housing, providing a minimum wage, improving public education around gender equality and taking action to change the norm of corporal punishment of children would in my opinion likely all do more to stop domestic violence than implementing a more consistently harsh sentencing framework,” she added.
When it comes to changing the sentencing framework, Ms Tan says: “What Singapore urgently needs is a consideration from first principles of the purpose of criminal punishment, and a proper empirically-informed understanding of the effects of various options available (both prison and non-custodial sentences such as fines, community service, probation and restorative justice approaches such as restitution agreements).”
She says this would require going beyond “unevidenced folk theory” that harsher penalties are a deterrent.
“Everywhere in the world, prison populations are disproportionately made up of people who face some kind of discrimination: the poor, ethnic minorities, people with poor health and/or disabilities,” said Ms Tan.
“In very many cases, prison is an expensive and ugly way of making a bad situation worse, especially when there is a “revolving door” of short prison sentences,” she added.
“I hope that the energy and momentum that has been galvanised by this case is directed toward thoughtful change and not just knee-jerk punitiveness.”