Commentary: Think the law is unfair? Speak up and make your voice count

Commentary: Think the law is unfair? Speak up and make your voice count

We have views on what is fair, what isn’t and how victims in society should be protected and perpetrators be dealt with – so we should provide feedback in a constructive manner to shape Singapore’s laws, says Channel NewsAsia’s Bharati Jagdish.

city harvest church chew eng han attempts to flee
Former City Harvest Church fund manager Chew Eng Han was arrested on Feb 21, 2018, for attempting to flee the country in a sampan. (Photos: TODAY and Gaya Chandramohan) 

SINGAPORE: When a dramatic crime is reported, it often garners a considerable amount of public attention.

Readers tend to scrutinise the details of the crime, express their views on court judgments, whether the punishment is commensurate to the seriousness of the offence and may even point out perceived gaps in law enforcement. 

We saw this in the case of Annie Ee, the intellectually disabled waitress who was tortured to death by a couple.

The criminal breach of trust case involving former leaders of the City Harvest Church and the subsequent escape bid by one of them similarly captured public attention. 

Many clearly have a sense of justice. We have views on what is fair, what is not, and how victims in our society should be protected and perpetrators dealt with.

But beyond commenting on social media platforms or talking about it over coffee with a friend, what more can be done?

A committee has been set up to review Singapore’s Penal Code. After the current review, the Ministry of Home Affairs will invite further feedback from the public on the resultant recommendations. These are valuable opportunities for ordinary citizens to play a part in shaping the laws that govern our society.  

Among other things, the criminalisation of attempted suicide, marital immunity for rape and punishments for sex offenders will be reviewed

Principles that form the foundation of not just the Penal Code but other criminal laws, will be likewise reviewed, including issues such as elements of criminal liability and the scope of mental health defences.

The Ministry of Law has also proposed, among other changes to the Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act, making jumping bail a criminal offence.

While this change is not triggered by the case of former City Harvest Church leader Chew Eng Han’s attempt to flee the country, it would clearly address it.

Malaysian man accused of helping Chew Eng Han brought back to scene
Khoo Kea Leng is accused of helping former City Harvest Church leader Chew Eng Han try to flee Singapore. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Many netizens praised the move and said it was long overdue, but could we have raised such issues to lawmakers in order to effect change even earlier? 

THE LAW IS EVERYONE’S BUSINESS

You might think legal issues are unimportant unless you need the protection of a particular law at any one time.

You may not need it today, but what if you end up in a situation that requires its protection in the future?

The law touches us all in different ways, whether you are a victim or perpetrator or related to one, or merely a citizen with ideas on what values are important in our society.

For instance, before a 2007 review, laws here did not recognise that a husband could rape his wife.

In 2007, an amendment was introduced to lift the blanket immunity in limited circumstances, for instance when there’s evidence of a breakdown in the marriage.

Today, many say the law should go further to uphold the right of a married woman to say “no” to her husband.

It is a question of the law reflecting evolving societal norms and rights.

DOES PUBLIC OPINION MATTER?

In the absence of a review of this and other laws, there would be a tendency for mob justice to rear its head.

This is why citizens' formal input is even more vital in the amendment of existing laws and in the formulation of new ones. 

When current laws, the rationale behind them and their limitations, are explained well, citizens can provide more informed views and a healthy discussion can result in more considered laws that make sense to society, diminishing the mob instinct.  

Clearly, when laws make little sense, frustrations will arise.

In the recent City Harvest case when the Court of Appeal moved to uphold the High Court’s decision to convict its former leaders of less serious criminal breach of trust (CBT) charges, Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang acknowledged the “lacuna,” or gap, in the law.

However he added that the shaping of a remedy should be left to Parliament and urged it to conduct a “wide-ranging policy review”, noting that “the separation of powers … is the bedrock of our Constitution”.

Indeed it is the job of Parliament – not the Court of Appeal – to construct laws.

City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee was convicted of funneling millions in church funds into the
City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee was convicted of funneling millions in church funds into the pop music career of his wife Ho Yeow Sun. (Photo: AFP/ROSLAN RAHMAN)

So why not give your feedback to the very people who can take such issues to the country’s highest law-making body – our Members of Parliament?

There is no need to even wait for formal public consultations on legal issues.

We have access to our lawmakers at least once a week during Meet-the-People sessions.

There are many opportunities to raise such issues.

However, several MPs have anecdotally told me that the issues that come up the most during sessions are centred on an individual's day-to-day concerns such as financial challenges, problems with neighbours, estate issues and challenges with government services. 

These are important issues, but we should also take some time to make known our views on issues beyond our immediate concern.

Those of us who disagree with matters of the law, even if those matters do not directly affect us, can comment on them on social media platforms, but we should also feel empowered to discuss them with our MPs.

MPs themselves need to be open to raising such issues and receiving feedback, and make it known that they are representing their constituents’ views in Parliament, not just on municipal issues, but on larger issues of the law and justice.

That being said, it cannot be assumed that all public feedback will be taken into account and implemented.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said last year that “public opinion, while relevant, cannot be the sole or decisive factor in proposing legislation”.

He said the Government must pay heed to how society feels about the punishment meted out in criminal cases, “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.”

Shanmugam CNA
Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam speaking to Channel NewsAsia on Friday, Feb 9, 2018.

However, Mr Shanmugam also pointed out that a lack of public support could be problematic in the long-run.  

"If some law completely lacks public support, and the Government is not able to persuade the public on that law, then that particular law, over time, could become difficult to enforce," he said.

GO BEYOND EXPERT VIEWS

In spite of this, discourse about such issues tends to be dominated by experts in the field or civil society activists. 

Some feel that the issues are daunting and the thought of engaging in an intellectual discussion on the law is intimidating.

This is understandable, which is why it is important for the issues to be crystallised and discussed in the context of how each and every one us would be affected by the law of the land.

Public consultations and Meet-the-People sessions are opportunities for us to express our views on issues that fundamentally affect us, our family and friends, and what society as a whole stands for.

Lawmakers on the ground also need to make a sincere effort to reach out to ordinary Singaporeans and present the issues in a way that drives home the point that ordinary citizens’ views matter and are taken into account.

We are all stakeholders in this process.

Let’s not restrict our sense of justice to online forums or coffeeshop talk. Let’s take it further, speak to the various decision-makers and make our voices count.

Bharati Jagdish is host of Channel NewsAsia Digital News' hard-hitting On The Record, a weekly interview with thought leaders across Singapore, and The Pulse, Channel NewsAsia’s weekly podcast that discusses the hottest issues of the week.

Source: CNA/sl

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