Tuesday, August 01, 2006

One System, Two Judges

Singaporeans across the island could not help but notice that ever since Yong Pung How was replaced in April 2006 by Mr Chan Sek Keong as Singapore's new Chief Justice, the Singapore's courts, renowned for their tough laws and strict sentencing, have been showing a softer, more humane, touch when dealing with young Singaporeans who run foul of the law.

Some examples quoted include:

* An 18-year-old girl shed tears of relief when she was given two years' probation, instead of a jail term, for multiple counts of counterfeiting currency and using fake S$50 bills.

* A polytechnic student, whose mother was jailed for maid abuse, was given another chance by a district judge who placed her on probation for similar offences.

* The High Court judge reduced a woman's 33-month jail term to probation for seven credit card fraud charges because of a sanguine probation report that she deserves another chance.

* A Singaporean blogger has received a stern warning but escaped imprisonment for Sedition after posting cartoons mocking Jesus Christ on his online journal, instead of a possible three years' jail and/or S$5,000 fine.

Yong, a long-time friend of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (Lee said Yong lent him his lecture notes to read during varsity days), was known to be very firm on the use of punishment as a deterrent to crime. He even declared that his sentencing was sometimes correlated to the type of breakfast he had for that morning.

New Zealander Peter Jenkins, who operated the Sensible Sentencing Trust website, wrote about his visit to Singapore's lower courts.

"I witnessed a sentencing session where 20 offenders were dispatched in the space of less than an hour," he said.

The sentences were very much tougher than in New Zealand, he added, giving the following examples:

1. Shoplifting goods to the value of S$45 - three months.

2. Four assaults (30 months each) to be served consecutively not concurrently as would have been in New Zealand, making a total of 90 months or over seven-and-a-half years.

3. A sexual assault - 10 years.

4. A number of other offenders - shoplifting and other relatively minor charges plus some with drugs charges - were also sentenced for sentences ranging from six weeks or more (for a first offender).

5. A repeat offender who stole numerous ATM cards and withdrew S$25,000 from them was jailed for eight years. Punishment for rape is not less than eight years, not more than 20, plus at least 12 strokes of the cane, he observed.

6. A man with previous convictions for armed robbery and housebreaking who vandalised a welfare home in which he had been placed, causing S$4,000 damage, was sentenced to 42 months in jail - and eight strokes of the cane.

"Another thing I could not help but notice about the court on arrival - there were no intimidating low-lives hanging around who are often found lounging around outside NZ courts. And there was no graffiti inside or outside the court," Jenkins added.

Yong's own daughter caused some unhappiness when she was appointed CEO of the IDA (Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore). Fully aware that the IT industry knew she lacked the qualifications or experience to lead the country in information technology development, she proclaimed in the press that she "didn't know what CDMA was", but she "could always hire someone who knew".