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Academic Potential Will No Longer Result in Lighter Sentences for Sexual Offenders in Singapore

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Abigail Ling


Academic Potential, a ‘Bright Future’ and Outstanding Educational Qualifications Will No Longer Result in Lighter Sentences for Sexual Offenders in Singapore

This is a paraphrase of something our Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam mentioned when addressing Parliament on 4th March 2021 - which is alarmingly recent.2

Woman getting molested on train (taken from AsiaOne)1


Leading up to this, it was not uncommon for offenders, regardless of their ages, to be let off with what many would agree is but a ‘mere slap on the wrist'.While this has proven, over time, to be a systemic issue prevalent in every facet of society, some of the most prolificcases are what I dub the “university cluster” cases. These received much press coverage not so much for the offences themselves, but more for the sentences - or lack thereof - awarded to these offenders.


An early example of a case that garnered such attention occurred back in 2019 when Monica Baey, a female undergraduate student from the National University of Singapore (NUS), took to social media to express her dissatisfaction and call for tougher punishments against the fellow male student, Nicholas Lim, a chemical engineering undergrad, who had trespassed and, without her consent, filmed her in the shower in the on-campus toilet. The police had, in light of all evidence presented, only issued a “conditional warning” citing, inter alia, that a “permanent criminal record” that comes with a proper prosecution would“likely ruin his [Lim’s]entire future”.3 They also highlighted the offender having“expressed remorse” as a reason for mitigating the charge. The university, on the other hand, only mandated that Lim wrote an apology letter to Baey, nothing else.


This, unsurprisingly, led to significant public outcry; not only were there online petitions published calling for tougher action by both the university and the authorities, then Minister of Education, Ong Ye Kung, deemed the penalties “manifestly inadequate”. Nevertheless, nothing more was done and that was the end of it.


Another case concerns an NUS student who strangled his ex-girlfriend when she chose not to get back together with him after they had broken up. The facts are as follows: after breaking up with him, Yin Zi Qin, a 23-year-old second-year dentistry student, trespassed into her home using an access card she had entrusted to him during their relationship. He then proceeded to beg her not to end the relationship. When she refused, he proceeded to strangle her and press his thumb against her eye, causing it to bleed.


The harm suffered by the victim is not only restricted to just physical ones but mentally as well such as insomnia, paranoia and recurring nightmares of Yin breaking into her house once more.


However, despite acknowledging the psychological harm suffered by the victim, District Judge Marvin Bay only sentenced the perpetrator to a 12-day long Short Detention Order (SDO),4 Community Service Order (CSO)5 and a day-reporting order for a period of 5 months(mandatory counselling and rehabilitation). This is a far cry from the 2-years-in-prison and $5,000 fine Yin would have had to pay otherwise. The Judge went on to elaborate that Yin’s “relative youth” and “low-risk of reoffending” made conventional custodial sentencing unsavoury.6


And the list goes on. An undergraduate from another top university in Singapore, Singapore Management University (SMU), Hoon Qi Tong, 25, who had filmed a woman in the toilet at his workplace during the course of his internship was let go with yet another SDO (of 14 days) and CSO, much like Yin. Even when the prosecution tried to appeal for a somewhat “heavier” sentence of 8-weeks, it was dismissed. The Judge of Appeal, Tay Yong Kwang, denied it on the grounds that an SDO wouldsuffice as it still resulted in the deprivation of Hoon’s liberty, even if only for a short time.7 It must be noted that, usually, for such an offence, Hoon would have faced a year of imprisonment, a fine, or both.


Finally, despite the prosecution making a successful appeal, eventually overturning the probation order, the initial ruling of 22-year-old train molester Terrence SiowKai Yuan was but a 21-month probation and 150 hours of community service. District Judge Kaurargues the ruling was as such because as a mathematics undergraduate at NUS with an outstanding academic performance, Siow has “[strong] potential to excel in life” which “no doubt[illustrates]... an extremely strong propensity for reform”, eventually barking his misdemeanours up to mere “minor intrusions”.8 However, it must be highlighted that the decision was only overturned in favour of much stricter punishment because of Siow’s personal behaviour, rather than there being an acknowledgement of an actual issue with the light sentencing. Even then, the sentence only lasts two weeks.


Looking beyond just cases concerning university students alone, it seems as though educational background and contributions to society alone can also play a part in mitigating punishments for sex offenders. Shen Ruifu, a civil engineer with a PhD in geo-tech - who had also worked with NUS up until 2015 - was sentenced to only 18 days in prison for molesting a woman on the train as Judge Bay was “mindful of Dr Shen’s contributions to geo-technological sciences and the construction of industry in [Singapore]” before going on to point out that “given his age” he “should have known better”.9 Nevertheless, the ruling stands.


These examples represent the tip of the iceberg and the problems are manifold.


Although this all seems like an over-exaggeration, it’s not. Every article that has ever been published on the issue would, in some way or another, mention something about the perpetrator’s educational background, contributions, and/or great potential. While this might reflect a deeper systemic issue of elitism and micro-discrimination deep-rooted in the society, it’s only being reported that way because that is how the court makes their decisions: they take all these irrelevant considerations into account when giving their ratio.


As a country that boasts a high criminal justice index of 0.7910 and a strong educational hub, with its national University - the National University of Singapore - sitting comfortably within the Top 30 at the very least (and number 1 in Asia),11 it is appalling that such miscarriages of justice are allowed to occur - and because these criminals are supposedly intelligent and highly educated. While merit is, understandably, important and a fairer measure of success and opportunity, why should it matter where the men have committed horrendous breaches of a woman’s personal autonomy and human rights? Is that right? The very fact that the Minister of Law himself has to come forward and explicitly state that the law will no longer look to educational background and merit when deciding cases of sexual offenceis absolutely ridiculous.


What I, personally, take greater issue with is that should one be let off the hook more easily because of a stellar academic track record, the converse would also hold true: a person who is less academically-inclined would not be given the same preferential treatment and face much harsher sentences and punishment. How is this supposed to make any sense whatsoever? What is the point if our Lady Justice is not only blindfolded but deaf and mute as well?


To end, regarding the final example listed above (Shen), the victim in question is actually a close family friend. When it happened to her, she calmly grabbed Shen by the wrist and dragged him to the police station. In the following meetings, all the police did was ask her lots of intrusive, unnecessary and irrelevant questions such as ‘what were you wearing’, ‘where were you going' and so on. After much back-and-forth, the 18-day jail term was the final sentence issued by the court. When she heard, all she could say was: “maybe I should have seemed more traumatised at the police station. Maybe I should have made a bigger fuss. Maybe then, he’d be behind bars for longer”. Although she said them jokingly, the disappointment behind her smile was evident.


This is not okay, Singapore. Fix it.



 

1 Image: Rei Kurohi, ‘Break Silence on Molest: Victims’ (The NEW Paper, 5 May 2014) <https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/break-silence-molest-victims?amp> accessed 12 June 2021.

2 Nicholas Yong, ‘Bright Futures Should Not Lead to Lighter Sentences for Sexual Offenders: Shanmugam’ (Yahoo News, 5 March 2021) <https://sg.news.yahoo.com/good-grades-sentences-sexual-offenders-shanmugam-043839197.html> accessed 12 June 2021.


3 Amelia Teng, ‘NUS Peeping Tom Given Conditional Warning Due to High Likelihood of Rehabilitation: Police’ (The Strait Times, 23 April 2019) <https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/student-in-nus-sexual-misconduct-case-given-conditional-warning-due-to-high> accessed 12 June 2021.

4 The Short Detention Order (SDO) is a form of community-based sentence that still requires offenders to be sent to jail but only for an extremely short period of time. Furthermore, upon serving the sentence, there will be no permanent criminal record attached to said offender. This is meant to be applied to lighter offences.


5 The Community Service Order (CSO) is a non-custodial form of punishment that subjects the offender to a specific number of hours that they must commit to carrying out community service-based works.

6 Yuen Sin ‘NUS Suspends Student Who Tried to Strangle Ex-Girlfriend’ (The Straits Times, 21 July 2020) <https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/nus-suspends-student-who-tried-to-strangle-ex-girlfriend> accessed 12 June 2021.

7 Wan Ting Koh, ‘Dismissed: Appeal Against Short Detention for SMU Student Who Filmed Woman in Toilet’(Yahoo News Singapore, 30 July 2020) <https://sg.news.yahoo.com/dismissed-appeal-against-short-detention-for-smu-student-who-filmed-woman-in-toilet-050251449.html> accessed 12 June 2021.

8 Dominic Low, ‘Two-week Jail Sentence for NUS Student Who Molested Woman on MRT’ (The Straits Times 28 April 2020)<https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/two-week-jail-sentence-for-nus-student-who-molested-woman-on-mrt> accessed 12 June 2021.


9 Shaffiq Alkhatib, ‘Man Jailed 18 Days for Molesting Woman on MRT Train’ (The Straits Times,9 February 2021) <https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/phd-holder-jailed-18-days-for-molesting-woman-on-mrt-train> accessed 12 June 2021.


10 World Justice Index, ‘WJP Rule of Law Index: Singapore’ (WJP, 2020) <https://worldjusticeproject.org/rule-of-lawiindex/country/2020/Singapore/> accessed 12 June 2021

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