SINGAPORE: A sweeping and much-needed refresh of Singapore’s Penal Code was passed in Parliament on Monday (May 6), leading to the repeal of marital rape immunity, as well as more protection for vulnerable adults and young children.
Law Minister K Shanmugam and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin spoke on the second reading of the Criminal Law Reform Bill, with the former setting out the Government’s position in two areas – better protection of vulnerable victims and dealing with sexual offences – while the latter covered areas such as dealing with emerging crime trends and updating current sexual offences.
The amended law outlined groups of vulnerable victims, which include children below 14 years old, vulnerable persons due to mental or physical disabilities and domestic workers, Mr Shanmugam said, adding that penalties for all offences in the Penal Code committed against the vulnerable will be enhanced up to twice the maximum penalties prescribed for the offences.
Citing the case of Ms Annie Ee, the minister said that with the new amendments, perpetrators who abuse those who are assessed to be substantially unable to protect themselves will be liable to up to twice the maximum penalty.
Ms Ee was an intellectually disabled waitress who died in 2015 after being abused by a husband and wife couple for eight months.
A new category of sexual offences was introduced as part of the Bill, with crimes such as voyeurism, which are brought about by advances in technology, also deemed as offences.
The issue of voyeurism was recently in the spotlight following the revelations of NUS student Monica Baey, who spoke out against the insufficient punishment meted out to perpetrator Nicholas Lim after he filmed her in the shower at a university hostel.
One of the Members of Parliament (MPs) who spoke in support of passing the Bill was Mr Christopher de Souza, saying this was the result of an “immense effort” by many stakeholders such as the Ministry of Law, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
“The product is a formidable piece of legislation,” Mr de Souza said.
SHOULD ATTEMPTED SUICIDES BE DECRIMINALISED?
However, Mr de Souza, along with other MPs, raised concerns over the decriminalisation of attempted suicide.
He made the case for retaining Section 309, calling it "the more compassionate approach” as he believes that preserving it “will save more lives” and prevent euthanasia from entering Singapore.
He cited six reasons for keeping the provision.
One of these is that the repeal “sends a normative signal” that taking one’s life is not the answer to life’s problems. The decriminalisation may send the signal that committing suicide “is acceptable to broader society”.
Mr de Souza also said that necessary treatment, support, care and counselling can be provided while still retaining the provision.
“Indeed, when this happens, society would benefit from the deterrent effect of the law. This means that the law would help deter some future suicides in society - while, at the same time, the people who need the counselling and care are able to receive it,” he added.
He also said that the repeal of the provision removes the requirement for mandatory reporting, which he believes should remain.
“This, in my view, should be seriously reconsidered since removing the requirement for the mandatory reporting of an attempted suicide removes one means, a crucial means, by which the suicidal person can get the professional help he or she needs,” Mr de Souza said.
Barring retaining Section 309, Mr de Souza said a study of the number of suicides must be carried out. Should the number of suicides in Singapore increase following the repeal, the law could be reinstated, he suggested.
Nominated MP Anthea Ong said that the repeal of Section 309 “most definitely helps to de-stigmatise suicides”.
However, she said she was “concerned” that the repeal “is not supported with a clear post-decriminalisation strategy”.
“With the rising numbers of suicides with our young and our elderly, decriminalisation of suicides must not be done without reviewing and rebuilding our systemic response towards suicide attempts,” said Ms Ong.
“We must do more to raise awareness of suicide risk factors, shift perceptions on mental health and deepen community-based efforts in active monitoring, reporting and help-seeking," she added.
In response to Mr de Souza’s concerns, Mr Amrin said that the abetment of attempted suicide is still a crime and the amendments of the law actually enhance penalties for attempted suicides by 10 times to 10 years’ jail.
“Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicides remain illegal,” he added.
Mr Amrin said the ministry will monitor the situation post-amendment.
“But we must remember that suicide attempts happen for various reasons. An increase or decrease in the number of attempts may not be attributable to criminalisation or decriminalisation,” he said.
THE PENAL CODE AND VULNERABLE PERSONS
Another area of concern was regarding the impact of the amendments on those considered vulnerable and the people around them.
Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim sought clarification on when an offender would be liable for enhanced punishments. She asked, for instance, if the enhanced penalties would apply if an offender was able to prove that the victim was capable of protecting herself or himself in the same way as an ordinary person.
Ms Lim also said that “it would be far better” if the provisions for enhanced punishments “were not invoked but instead achieved the goal of general deterrence” to prevent incidents against vulnerable victims from occurring.
To this, Mr Amrin replied that the enhanced penalties allow the courts to punish offenders more severely if they prey on the vulnerabilities of certain persons.
“If the vulnerability did not make the person more susceptible to the offence, the offender will be subjected to punishment but not enhanced punishment,” he said. “There has to be a link between the vulnerability and the offence for enhanced punishments to apply.”
Meanwhile, NMP Walter Theseira questioned how increased protections to the Penal Code will affect the autonomy of vulnerable adults and their families making end-of-life decisions.
Citing dialysis for end-stage renal failure patients or treatment for cancer patients, Associate Professor Theseira sought to understand what practices may be caught under the law “as neglect by the family, leading to death of the vulnerable adult”.
“Family members may disagree on the appropriate medical intervention for a gravely ill vulnerable adult and, if they cannot prevail in a discussion, might consider involving the law,” he added.
“A gravely ill vulnerable adult may lose autonomy in their decision to stop treatment because the family is both concerned the adult lacks mental competence and fears breaking the law.
“A healthcare or social work professional may refer a case to the police because they believe the vulnerable adult or their family is refusing treatment so as to constitute neglect,” he elaborated.
However, Mr Amrin said the Bill does not affect bona fide palliative arrangements.
The Criminal Law Reform Bill introduced amendments to the Penal Code to ensure it remains relevant and up to date, and the proposed changes came on the back of a two-year undertaking by the Penal Code Review Committee.
The last major review of the code was carried out in 2007.