Public opinion should count when criminals are punished: Shanmugam

Photo: REUTERS/Edgar Su

If the punishment imposed in criminal cases does not reflect the weight of public opinion and society at large finds it unfair, then the law will lose its credibility and become difficult to enforce, said Law Minister K Shanmugam.

He stressed that this did not meaning bowing to public pressure, “You enhance the penalty (for a certain law) to reflect what people feel is the right penalty, what conduct should be more severely punished — that is not bowing down; that is understanding where the weight of public opinion is.”

Speaking in an exclusive interview with TODAY last week, the minister added, “Penalties and criminal laws can only be enforced if people believe that they are fair and that certain conduct ought to be made criminal … Otherwise they lose credibility.”

A string of recent high profile cases, such as the ones involving sex offender Joshua Robinson and the City Harvest Church leadership, has caused a public outcry due to perceptions that the sentences meted out were too light. For example, after Robinson was sentenced to four years’ jail for having sex with two 15-year-old girls, an online petition calling for a harsher sentence for Robinson has since garnered almost 30,000 signatories.

This led to Shanmugam directing his ministries to re-evaluate punishments for sex offenders, as well to review laws on other offences. This month in Parliament, he also announced a review of the laws relating to the abuse of foreign domestic workers, in the wake of a Singaporean couple who were jailed for starving their maid over a period of 15 months. The husband was sentenced to three weeks’ jail and fined S$10,000, while the wife was sentenced to three months’ jail.

But the minister said that these reviews should not be taken as an indictment of the work of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC).

Shanmugam added that public reaction to individual cases does not necessarily lead to a review of the laws, pointing out that drugs, drink-driving, and false and malicious allegations against public officers are some offences that have been flagged recently for review.

“Even without public expression, when I see a sentence (and if) I see these needs to be looked at … (where) I feel need a review, I announce them. And that is our job.

Referring to the Robinson case, he said, “When there is a reaction to a sentence by the public, as in the Joshua Robinson case, then I think it is important for us as policymakers to sit down and understand why people are upset.”

He added, “But it doesn’t mean automatically you agree with it. You must assess it, whether it is also fair. So, there are two parts to it — one, whether it is fair; two, what does the public believe is right.”