SINGAPORE: The abolishment of marital immunity for rape and the introduction of voyeurism as an offence form part of what Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam described as “sweeping” changes to Singapore’s penal code proposed by a review committee in its 500-page report.
A total of 169 recommendations were submitted to the Government at the end of August and will be open to public feedback from Monday (Sep 10) till the end of the month. A Penal Code Amendment Bill is targeted to be tabled in Parliament in November.
The recommendations are spread over five main areas - the largest of which is dedicated to strengthening protection for the vulnerable in society.
For instance, the committee has proposed creating new offences involving child abuse material - from using or involving a child in the production of, to the making, distributing, selling, advertising, seeking, accessing and possession of such material. This includes fictional material.
The committee said fictional material could be used for grooming children, and could fuel child abuse by reinforcing potential abusers’ inappropriate feelings towards children.
It has also suggested enhanced penalties for committing a penal code offence against domestic helpers; children below 14; and vulnerable persons - defined as those unable to protect themselves by way of mental or physical disability. Those convicted could face up to two times the maximum punishment prescribed for such offences.
Mr Shanmugam added: “With the Joshua Robinson-type cases, where young children are being exposed to unacceptable material, being sexually groomed, we want to deal very severely with that.”
Robinson, an American mixed martial arts instructor, was in 2017 jailed four years for various offences including sex with minors, showing an obscene film to a six-year-old girl and possessing nearly 6,000 obscene films including child pornography.
The committee has thus proposed that it shall be an offence to cause a minor to look at sexual images. It will also be an offence for anyone to cause or allow the death or serious injury of a child or vulnerable person. Offenders can be jailed for up to 20 years, fined and caned. Causing the death of a vulnerable person by sustained abuse will also be an offence.
Explaining the latter, Mr Shanmugam said: “For example, a child gets badly treated over a period of six, eight weeks … starved, beaten, dunked in water and so on - and all of these have happened - the final act that caused the death would not by itself have killed a healthy child.
“With the current state of the law, the prosecution has got to prove that with the final thing that made the child die, the person had intention to kill and that the act itself would have killed. That’s not easy.”
“NO MEANS NO”
A full, unqualified repeal of marital immunity for rape was another key proposal - “based on the principle that all women should be protected from sexual abuse, regardless of their marital status or the identity of the perpetrator”, said a joint press release by the ministries of home affairs and law.
“The majority of our population no longer subscribe to the belief that a wife had irrevocably surrendered herself to sexual intercourse with her husband upon marriage,” the release added.
Said Mr Shanmugam: “I’ve thought it odd that we still have immunity for husbands who rape their wives. A woman’s body is her own. And even if she’s your wife, she’s entitled to say no - and no means no.”
Asked if this proposal could potentially come into conflict with Islamic beliefs, he said: “We have consulted Muslim scholars. Our understanding is it doesn’t contradict.
“The Muslim community, in reactions we had in our consultations, has taken a similar approach in today’s Singapore - that the woman’s autonomy should be respected and all religions, including Islam, do not prohibit that. But it’s something we need to engage and explain much more.”
ADAPTING TO A CHANGING ENVIRONMENT
The committee also sought to tackle emerging crime trends brought about by technology as well as the proliferation of mobile devices and social media.
It has recommended specific offences be created for the making, distributing, possessing and accessing of voyeuristic recordings regardless of gender. Distributing or threatening to distribute an intimate image, along with sexual exposure, are other new offences being suggested.
In the area of white-collar crime, the committee recommended a new offence of fraud, adapted from the United Kingdom, to deal with emerging crime tactics that target financial systems. Given that technology and the Internet has enabled crime and criminals to cross borders, it has also recommended the clarification and expansion of extra-territorial jurisdiction for selected white-collar and property offences.
“We see increasingly sophisticated and complex criminal schemes which threaten the integrity of our financial systems and prey on vulnerable consumers,” the joint press release said.
Under the third category of updating the penal code, a key suggestion is the decriminalising of attempted suicide.
“When a person is desperate enough to want to take his own life, putting him in jail doesn’t seem to be the most obvious thing to do,” said Mr Shanmugam. “I don’t think the deterrent effect will be softened because if you were intending to kill yourself, you’re not really going to worry whether you’re going to jail or not - you’ve already assumed you’re not going to be living anymore.
“But abetting someone to commit suicide is still an offence. So people who can be deterred will continue to be deterred.”
The committee has instead recommended amending the legislation to empower the police to intervene when responding to suicide attempts, as well as empowering medical practitioners and the courts to order detention at a psychiatric institution for treatment.
Other areas of suggested amendments lie in the removal of outdated criminal laws and updating of the sentencing framework.
Section 377A of the penal code, which criminalises acts of “gross indecency” between men, was not part of the review. A similar law was repealed by India earlier this week, prompting reactions in Singapore from Mr Shanmugam, diplomat Tommy Koh and others.
The review committee was convened in mid-2016 and is made up of leading practitioners and thought leaders from the private sector, academia and the public sector, including the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Judiciary. It is co-chaired by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and Health Amrin Amin.
Thanking the committee for its efforts on behalf of the Government, Mr Shanmugam said: “The Committee has proposed wide-ranging changes to the Penal Code, which the Government will now discuss, with the benefit of views obtained from consultation sessions with various stakeholders. It is my hope that this process will culminate in a revised Penal Code that is principled, proportionate, and practical; one which will continue to serve Singapore well in the years to come.”