'Bright future' should not lead to lighter sentences for sexual offenders: Shanmugam

Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam addresses Parliament on Thursday, 4 March 2021. (SCREENGRAB: Ministry of Communications and Information YouTube channel
Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam addresses Parliament on Thursday, 4 March 2021. (SCREENGRAB: Ministry of Communications and Information YouTube channel )

SINGAPORE — Higher educational qualifications or the potential to do well in life should not result in lighter sentences for sexual offenders, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament on Thursday (4 March 2021).

“You shouldn’t be able to come to court and say you have a bright future, you will go far and so on,” said the Minister, noting that an offender's academic potential “should not carry much weight”.

He added, to Members of Parliament who thumped their chairs in approval, "You can go far. But first, serve the sentence."

Delivering a Ministerial Statement on sexual and hurt offences, he alluded to three specific cases.

A National University of Singapore (NUS) student who molested a woman on the MRT; an NUS undergraduate who strangled his ex-girlfriend; and a former Singapore Management University undergraduate who filmed a woman in the toilet of his internship workplace in 2017.

"There was a public sense that the sentences were not adequate, questions were asked, was there more leniency because of the educational qualifications of some of the offenders," said the minister.

"It should be clear, an offender will not receive a lighter sentence, simply because he has higher educational qualifications or has better prospects in life."

Increased penalties for three offences

From 2016 to 2020, the number of reported cases of outrage of modesty increased by 24 per cent, compared with 2011 to 2015.

Nothing this statistic, Shanmugam also told the House that maximum penalties for three types of sexual offences will each be increased by a year, following a review of how some sexual and violent offences are sentenced by the courts.

These are: outrage of modesty or molestation; sexual activity carried out in the presence of a minor aged between 14 and 16 or showing them sexual images; and sexual activity done in front of a minor aged between 16 and 18.

For molest, the maximum jail term will be increased from two years to three years. For the offences involving minors, the maximum penalties will be increased from one year to two years.

From 1 January 2020, amendments to the law had already criminalised acts that have become more prevalent with technology, such as voyeurism and spreading intimate images without consent.

"Voyeurism is not merely a thoughtless act that a young student commits in a moment of folly. These and other similar offences, whether committed against female or male victims, should be dealt with seriously," said Shanmugam.

"These actions must be seen as an affront of fundamental values. There can in general be no excuses for these offences."

He added that the need for proportionate punishment and deterrence must take precedence over rehabilitation. Nevertheless, he conceded that there may be "exceptional circumstances", such as an offender who may have a very low IQ that affected his judgment as to right and wrong, or a serious mental illness that had a causal link to the offending conduct.

"These factors should be assessed on a case by case basis with due consideration given to the harm caused to the victim, and the need for deterrence."

Adult offenders to be penalised

In addition, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) will generally object to rehabilitative sentences for adult offenders who commit certain types of sex crimes or crimes causing physical hurt.

Shanmugam alluded to the case of Yin Zi Qin, a 23-year-old NUS student who climbed into his ex-girlfriend's home and strangled her. He was sentenced to a short detention order of 12 days, which means that Yin will not have a criminal record upon his release.

Yin was also ordered to serve community service of 80 hours and a day reporting order for five months.

The minister noted that if his offences had occurred on or after 1 January 2020, when amendments to the Penal Code took effect, Yin would probably have been charged under the new offence of voluntarily causing hurt to a victim whom he was in an intimate or close relationship with.

He would have been liable for up to six years' jail, a fine of S$10,000, or both. He would also not have been eligible for community-based sentences as these are generally only available for offences punishable with a maximum jail term of three years.

Separately, an inter-agency sentencing advisory panel will be set up to issue non-binding sentencing guidelines, in order to achieve more consistency in sentencing and better educate the public on these issues. Its members will include representatives from the AGC, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the police and members of the judiciary.

"If we make examples of some offenders, however bright their potential outlook in life, then the message of deterrence will likely be stronger."

He added, "I'm going to ask the Ministry of Education to summarise these points and send to all students, boys and girls, so everyone understands where we stand, and they must realise that a moment of folly can lead to very serious consequences, and we will make sure our laws reflect this severity.

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