Sunday, July 20, 2008

Crime and punishment

July 20, 2008

By Andrew Raven

A lovelorn soldier slips out of camp with a high-powered rifle and a handful of bullets.

He's found 20 hours later in the bathroom of a downtown mall, apparently weighing the pros and cons of rampage.

Fast-forward to July 7, and the baby-faced corporal is standing in court after admitting to a few weapons-related charges.

His sentence: just over nine years behind bars and 18 strokes of the cane.

The penalty for Dave Teo Ming pained even the judge who handed it down.

'My heart hurts for you,' he told the national serviceman who went absent without official leave after being dumped by his girlfriend.

'(It's unfortunate) that so young a man will have to spend some of the best years of his life in prison and have to undergo so many strokes of the cane.'

The case illustrated the stark differences between the West's touchy-feely approach to crime and Singapore's brand of justice.

But, while perhaps a little jarring to my Western sensibilities, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Singapore's tough stance on crime has helped make the country one of the safest in the world.

You're four times more likely to be murdered in my birthplace of Canada than here, according to the United Nations. (And 36 times more likely in Ecuador.)

The length of Teo's sentence surprised me because I come from a place that has the tendency to coddle criminals.

When I was working in northern Canada, the local government spent tens of millions on a jail that featured panoramic windows, individual cells and even a sprawling sauna built into the side of a rocky hill.

The correctional centre represented a softer approach towards crime - one that emphasises rehabilitation over punishment.

It was the culmination of 30 years of increasingly liberal thinking about the best ways to deal with criminals. (The same ideas that see police call suspects 'clients'.)

The jury is still out on whether or not these changes reduce crime. But the approach has largely been panned by a Canadian public frustrated with the five-star treatment and slap-on-the-wrist sentences.

It seems to be the polar opposite here, where most people appear solidly behind the justice system.

'We're a pragmatic people,' someone told me when I asked whether they thought jail sentences were too long.

'Crime is low. So why change?'

My first introduction to Asian justice came last year when I was working in Hanoi and a couple of drug runners were sentenced to hang for ferrying heroin.

They were poor, likely uneducated and undoubtedly small players in a much bigger game.

'This place is harsh,' an expat co-worker told me. 'You've got to look out.'

While not the biggest fan of the molly-coddling Canadian system, I thought the executions were a little barbaric.

But over time, I came to realise that many of the cultural stigmas that surround capital punishment in the West don't exist here. And it was a little self-centred of me to think that they should.

So, while the jail sentences are still sometimes surprising, I'm coming to understand them a little better.

[Comment: I think there should be a distinction between punishment for the crime, and rehabilitation for the offender. One does not preclude the other. The crime has resulted in a loss to society, whether that loss is tangible (property, life, etc) or intangible (sense of security, risk, fear, etc), and the punishment should reflect or repair that loss. At the same time the offender may need to be rehabilitated. But that is a separate issue. One should not confuse the issue by equating "he has learnt his lesson" with "he has paid for his crime". But for every one expat like the writer, there would be another or more who continues to hold onto their own "western" philosophy. Nothing wrong with that. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination, I say. At least people who agree with Singapore's philosophy can come to Singapore to enjoy this security, and those who prefer the western model, can go West. Vote with your feet.]

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