Friday, 6 March 2009

Government clash with top lawyer: Singapore

Singapore's law minister has attacked the president of the Law Society in Parliament for questioning the transparency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament on 19 January that society president Michael Hwang SC had mounted "theoretical arguments" about crime and punishment that lacked "any real merit".

He was responding to an editorial published in the January edition of the Law Gazette, which argued that a measurable deterrence and proportionality between crime and punishment should underpin "a rational sentencing policy".

The article was a largely theoretical discussion of the purpose of punishment, and the role of deterrence and proportionality in sentencing.

Hwang called for greater research to inform a fundamental "re-think" of the country's laws and sentences, concluding that "Singapore is sadly lacking a principled and transparent penal policy".

"Possibly, this is because 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 recidivists)," he wrote.

"Only rigorous research with full access to relevant information can help us determine important penological questions such as:

"Is the death penalty effective in preventing murder and other capital crimes?

"Do strict liability offences achieve their object of deterring anti-social behaviour?

"What kind of punishments best deter what kind of behaviour?"

Shanmugam rejected the argument that the criminal justice system was "unprincipled".

"[A]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," he said.

"While we take a tough stand on crime, we also believe strongly in compassion and rehabilitation."

Statistics, secrets
He told Parliament the lawyer's article was unclear about what statistics should be published to aid research, and it ignored statistics currently published by police and narcotics control officials.

He said Hwang suggested the "publication of detailed statistics will lead us to a possibly conclusive answer to the debate on capital punishment".

"The debate on capital punishment ... is not going to be settled on the basis of statistics," he said.

There was "no universal consensus on such punishment".

"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."

Shanmugam responded to the claim the system was lacking in transparency with the government's usual argument that capital cases were "matters of public record" and the media reported on cases heard in open court.

However, the Singapore government has resisted repeated calls from human rights organisations and the United Nations (UN) to publish comprehensive information about who is sentenced to death, and for what crimes, as well as how many people are executed each year.

Threat, clarification
In comments quoted by The Straits Times, Shanmugam implied the criticism could damage the government's relationship with the Law Society.

"We have had a constructive and professional relationship with the Law Society for several years," Shanmugam said, according to The Straits Times.

"And for that to continue and for us to take the views seriously, the views that are expressed by the Law Society have to be well thought through and substantiated by facts.

"Sound bites and sweeping statements which are contrary to the facts, and which show a basic lack of understanding of our criminal laws and procedure, and approach to sentencing is not really constructive or helpful."

Michael Hwang stressed in the February 2009 issue of the Law Gazette that his article did not represent the views of the Law Society and was not approved by its governing council.

He said he would write to the minister "to explain the basis" of his message.

"I do not intend to have a public debate with the Minister but hope to have a constructive private dialogue with him."

Related stories:
Tochi in Singapore: "the burden thus shifted" -- 26 January 2008
Asian activists condemn drug executions -- 8 July 2007
Drug penalty violates international law -- 6 May 2007
Singapore activists: Rethink death penalty -- 23 January 2007
Remembering Van Tuong Nguyen -- 29 November 2006

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