Oral Answer by Law Minister K Shanmugam to Parliamentary Question on Penal Policy
19 Jan 2009 Posted in Parliamentary speeches and responses
Mr Lim Biow Chuan, Member for Marine Parade GRC
To ask the Minister for Law whether there is any need to review Singapore’s penal policy in view of the statement in the latest issue of the Law Gazette by the President of the Law Society of Singapore Mr Michael Hwang that Singapore is sadly lacking a principled and transparent penal policy.
- I thank Mr Lim for his question. Mr Hwang, President of Law Society, in his article in the Law Gazette asserts that:
- Detailed statistics on crime and punishment should be published. And that not publishing such statistics has prevented social scientists from undertaking adequate research on the causes of crime and the effects of current penal policies on prisoners.
- This has resulted in our system being unprincipled.
- Rigorous research with full access to relevant information will help us decide on issues like the effectiveness of capital punishment.
- I will deal with each of the three assertions.
- Statistics not published?
- First, about statistics not being published. This assertion is questionable for 2 reasons:
- First, Mr Hwang does not make clear what data (which would help in penal research) that he is referring to as not having been published.
- Second, law enforcement agencies such as the Singapore Police Force and Central Narcotics Bureau do publish crime and drug offence statistics regularly. Where there is public interest to be served, additional relevant information is collected and disseminated.
- In addition it should be noted that Home Team departments also undertake qualitative and quantitative research, often in collaboration with independent researchers, on topics relating to crime, punishment, and criminal behaviour. Further, as a matter of practice, assistance is also given to researchers (including students) who wish to do serious research and such research has been done. To suggest that there are inadequate published statistics and that that has prevented proper research is therefore quite untenable.
- I will now deal with the second of Mr Hwang’s assertions.
- The lack of statistics has led to our penal system being unprincipled?
- Since the basis of the assertion (that we do not publish statistics) is itself not clear, this further conclusion is equally questionable. Further, any objective analysis of our penal system will show that the system is based on sound practical philosophy and principles, which have been made clear several times.
- While we take a tough stand on crime, we also believe strongly in compassion and rehabilitation. These principles underpin our approach to (i) principles of prescribing punishment and sentencing, (ii) treatment of prisoners when they are in prison, and (iii) thirdly, reintegration of ex-offenders back into society.
- Punishment and Sentencing
- Let me deal with punishment and sentencing. The Government’s approach to prescribing punishments is a matter of public record. During the Second Reading (in 2007), of the amendments to the Penal Code, our approach was again restated clearly. In brief summary, these are first: the type and quantum of punishment should provide sufficient flexibility to the Courts to mete out an appropriate sentence in a particular case; second, the prevalence of the offence; third, the proportionality of the penalty to an offence, taking into account its seriousness; and fourth, the relativity in punishment between related offences.
- On sentencing, our Courts have set out the applicable principles. Our former Chief Justice, Yong Pung How, has published over 882 judgments during his time on the Bench, several of which relate to criminal offences. Our current Chief Justice has been similarly prolific. Subordinate Court judges publish Sentencing Practice in the Subordinate Courts, which is a sentencing guide and which makes accessible the sentencing approach for a wide range of offences. The approach is not based exclusively on either deterrence or retribution alone. Rather, the approach to sentencing an offender is to consider both these aspects, and also take into account other considerations such as: potential for rehabilitation; suitability of the punishment for each individual offender; and the nature of the offence committed.
- Hence, both in prescribing punishments and sentencing offenders, much thought has been given to how justice can be best secured for each individual offender. The Government is also at present exploring Community Based Sentencing options, which will further equip our penal framework with the best tools to advance justice in each particular case.
- Treatment and Rehabilitation of Prisoners in Prison
- Let me now deal with treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners in prison. As stated earlier, we believe strongly in rehabilitation and we believe that the process of rehabilitation should start even while the sentences are being served. Thus, during incarceration, inmates who are genuinely willing to change are given education, training and rehabilitative opportunities that will better help them to reintegrate into society after their prison sentences.
- Reintegration of Ex-Offenders Into Society
- Our focus on reintegration of ex-offenders back into society continues after the prisoners are released. The Yellow Ribbon Project (YRP), set up to create awareness on giving second chances to deserving ex-offenders and generate acceptance of ex-offenders back into the community, has been widely lauded by international experts, and has received an honourable mention at the 2007 United Nations Grand Award. Coupled with the YRP was the setting up of a Yellow Ribbon Fund which contributes to the development and implementation of reintegration programmes for ex-offenders.
- A key measure of the success of our rehabilitation and re-integration programmes is our recidivism rate, which is now one of the lowest in the world.
- Another example of the successful rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for offenders is the Home Detention Scheme. Deserving inmates are released earlier, at the tail-end of their sentences and placed on electronic monitoring to work or study. Prisoners on Home Detention have lower recidivism rates compared to the general population.
- Thus far from being unprincipled, our penal philosophy has been carefully thought through and has, been articulated publicly several times. Theoretical arguments on our penal policy, bereft of any reference to these key aspects in our system, may make for good sound bites. But they do not have any real merit. In evolving our policies we take into account the views of parties involved in the administration of justice, including the courts, law enforcement agencies, civic interest groups, the legal profession, academia and the Law Society.
- I will now deal with Mr Hwang’s final assertion relating to capital punishment.
- A definitive answer to the debate on Capital Punishment?
- Mr Hwang’s suggestion is that publication of detailed statistics will lead us to a possibly conclusive answer to the debate on capital punishment.
- The debate on capital punishment, Sir, is not going to be settled on the basis of statistics. Leaving aside the fact that it is not clear from what Mr Huang says what statistics are said to be lacking, I should point out that all capital punishment cases are matters of public record in Singapore and the media usually widely covers capital punishment cases. Each criminal case heard before a court is also a matter of public record.
- On the issue of capital punishment itself, the reality is that there is no universal consensus on such punishment, and there is unlikely to be any such consensus, anytime soon. Serious and bitter debate on capital punishment has raged on in many countries. The philosophical and ideological chasms that separate the proponents and opponents of capital punishment are quite unbridgeable. Both sides marshal powerful arguments.
- On an issue like this, the Government has to take a stand. And the Government believes that death penalty should be retained. A Straits Times survey conducted a few years ago reported that 95% of Singaporeans supported the retention of the death penalty.
- Our firm position on crimes and the considerable benefits of such a stand to our society can be illustrated by reference to the drug situation. In a region where drugs is a very serious problem, Singapore has kept the drug problem very much under control and is in fact almost unique in battling it successfully so far. Members know that in the last 15 years, the drug situation has been getting from bad to worse in many countries, both in this region, and in the world.
- Why have we succeeded so far, when so many others have not? It is because we took a practical, hard headed approach to the problem and tackled it decisively. In this context, the introduction of the death penalty for drug trafficking has, we believe, had the deterrent effect. There are no widely prevalent syndicated drug activities linked to organised crimes in Singapore, in contrast to the hierarchical and organised drug syndicates and cartels in various countries. As a result of our policies, thousands of young people have been saved from the drug menace.
- In conclusion, Sir, Singaporeans appreciate the safe environment here. And the international community has taken note of our success in maintaining law and order. In 2008 the Institute for Management Development (IMD) World Competitiveness Yearbook ranked Singapore first in personal security and private property.
- Sir, in closing, let me assure Members that our approach to penal policy is both principled and transparent. And quite fundamentally, the approach has been shown to work, ensuring the safety and security of our citizens. We will continue to review our approach and ensure that it remains relevant and effective.
Last updated on 27 Nov 2012