Singapore Law Society: A Crippled Tiger?


Imagine what persuasive power it could yield in challenging bills and acts? The recent law on “moving on” arrest powers is an example. What if the Law Society habitually takes more interest in such topics?

Co-opt, control or even coerce, baring the overlaps, is how governments, here and elsewhere, conduct their business of politics, and sometimes also the politics of business. As far as the Law Society of Singapore is concerned, the government seems contented in controlling it as pressure group, rather than co-opting it en masse like the media. By co-opting, it makes the Law Society just as culpable as the government when there is political unpleasantness looming. It is “soft” rather than “hard” power. As this TOC article explores, outright control like the Law Ministry’s appointment of the Law Society’s exco only does more damage to the government’s image. Or is it that the Law Society is allowed to be seen as supposedly independent to show that there is space for (toothless) dissent in Singapore still.

Assertions are ‘untenable’
Law Minister responds to comments by Law Society president

Tuesday • January 20, 2009
Ansley Ng
ansley@mediacorp.com.sg

SINGAPORE lacks detailed statistics on crime and punishment? How about the recidivism, or crime relapse, rate of 24.2 percent — “one of the lowest in the world” — Law Minister K Shanmugam offered yesterday in Parliament.

It is a measure of how, while the Government takes a tough stand on crime, it believes in compassion and rehabilitation, said Mr Shanmugam, in a rebuttal to “assertions” made by Law Society president Michael Hwang.

The latter had written in the Law Gazette that the Singapore system lacks a “principled and transparent” policy in punishing crimes, which is reflected in the lack of data in this area.

But Mr Shanmugam, who questioned Mr Hwang for not specifying which data he was referring to, disputed these “untenable” comments.

The Minister said that law enforcement agencies do publish crime and drug offence statistics regularly, while departments in the Home Affairs Ministry undertake research, “often in collaboration with independent researchers”, and also offer assistance to researchers, including students.

There have been several papers written by researchers allowed into the prisons to interview offenders. In 2007, the Prisons Department worked with the National University of Singapore to study the needs of aftercare services for ex-offenders and their families.

Last year, it worked with the University of South Australia to gauge the effectiveness of treatment programmes conducted by the prison service.

Non-constituency Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim, however, asked why she was told that the ethnic composition within Singapore’s penal institutions could not be revealed publicly, in response to her parliamentary question in 2007.

Mr Hwang had also alluded to ethnic data in his article.

Mr Shanmugam replied, “How in the world would publishing details on ethnic composition on an aggregated basis help in such penological research?

“If anyone wanted to do a study … the number of prisoners by ethnicity would be made available and they can go down and do their research,” he said. “But it’s an entirely separate question as to whether these have to be published as a matter of general practice. It sometimes could lead to a misinterpretation of data.”

The Minister told the media later that the relationship with the Law Society has always been “constructive and professional”.

“(But) sound bites and sweeping statements which are contrary to the facts and which show a basic lack of understanding over our criminal laws and procedure and approach to sentencing is not really constructive or helpful,” he said.

Where are the statistics?’
Law Society head criticises Government for lack of detail, Law Minister to respond on Monday

Weekend • January 17, 2009
Derrick A Paulo
derrick@mediacorp.com.sg

LAW Society president Michael Hwang has criticised the Singapore system for “lacking a principled and transparent” policy in punishing crimes.

For example, the Government “has not published detailed statistics of crime and punishment so that social scientists can undertake adequate research on the causes of crime and the effects of current penal policies on prisoners”, especially repeat offenders.

As a result, the local law schools “barely cover the study of criminology”. There is “even less” focus on “the more important study” of the punishment of crime, he wrote in his latest monthly message to the legal fraternity. According to Mr Hwang, a SeniorCounsel, one “traditional justification” for the lack of such statistics is that “these are sensitive figures”.

This, he said in this month’s issue of the Law Gazette, “could be interpreted as indicating that certain communities might be more prone to commit certain crimes”.

“But we cannot continue to put our heads in the sand and hide important social facts which need serious study by objective scholars in order to improve our society,” he said.

On Monday, his message will be discussed in Parliament after a parliamentary question was filed by MP Lim Biow Chuan (Marine Parade) on whether there is a need to review Singapore’s penal policy in the light of Mr Hwang’s statements.

Mr Lim, a lawyer, told Weekend Today that to say Singapore lacks a clear policy is a “very wide statement to make”. He said: “As president of the Law Society,Mr Hwang’s words carry a lot of weight … To me, it’s important enough for the Minister to give his views on whether he agrees with them.

Law Minister K Shanmugam will reply on Monday.

In his message, the second in a two-part series on crime and punishment, Mr Hwangalso said that “rigorous” research is needed to tackle issues such as whether the death penalty is effective in preventing murder and other capital crimes, or if corporal punishment (caning) is an effective deterrent against crimes for which it is imposed as a penalty.

The question of effective deterrence should also be asked of “strict liability” offences, which refer to “offences that do not require a guilty mind on the part of the accused”, Mr Hwang, 65, explained to Weekend Today .

He gave the example of customs offences and how some individuals might not know what to declare.

“There’s always an argument about customs offences,” he said.

Another possibility he raised was on whether Singapore should follow the United Kingdom in adopting “indeterminate sentences” for certain offences to incentivise offenders.

“So, you give a person a jail term of not less than X years and not more than Y years, and how long it actually is depends on the assessment of rehabilitation,”Mr Hwang argued.

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