Shanmugam responds to academic's comments on 'populism' in criminal law

Shanmugam responds to academic's comments on 'populism' in criminal law

In a Facebook post, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Associate Dean Donald Low criticised the Law Minister's comments that penalties provided under the law must reflect public opinion.

SINGAPORE: Law Minister K Shanmugam responded on Thursday (Apr 27) to comments by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Associate Dean Donald Low on the role of public opinion in deciding penalties for crime. 

In an exclusive interview with the TODAY newspaper published on Monday, Mr Shanmugam said that 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," he said. 

Mr Low shared the article on his Facebook page on Monday, stating that "making laws on the basis of public opinion is populism by another name". 

"Public opinion can be ignorant or ill-informed, excessively emotional (especially after a crime), unguided by reason, driven by our impulses, and biased by recent events that are vivid and memorable but are hardly representative," the academic and former civil servant wrote. 

"For the same reasons that public policy cannot be a popularity contest, neither should the penalties for crimes simply take reference from what the public thinks is correct at any point in time."

He added: "If criminal punishments are to reflect only public opinion, why bother having judges do sentencing? Just run an opinion poll each time someone has been convicted."

In a Facebook post on Thursday, Mr Shanmugam wrote that Mr Low's comments "seriously misconstrued" what he had said. 

He pointed out that in his interview, he had made clear that public opinion was relevant but not the sole or decisive factor in proposing legislation. 

"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 in the post. "These are common-sensical propositions, and have long been the basis on which laws are passed in many countries, including Singapore."

Mr Shanmugam, who is also Home Affairs Minister, said his statements on the issue reflected the established Government position on penal policy and were not "some new-fangled theory". 

"Academics, like Donald, have every right to criticise statements made by others, in particular on issues of public importance. But to be meaningful, and sensible, it will be first useful to read and understand what has been said, before jumping in to criticise. Otherwise the commentator does no credit to himself or his institution. Particularly an institution which carries Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s name."


In a Facebook post on Friday afternoon, Mr Low reproduced an email he sent to Mr Shanmugam apologising for his earlier comments. 

He said that his previous post was "mostly a reaction" to the headline of the TODAY article which he thought did not represent Mr Shanmugam's position accurately. 

"I had read the piece in full, but didn't give your comments sufficient attention in my post. I apologise for that," wrote Mr Low. 

He added that his original post was not targeted at Mr Shanmugam, but rather his own take on what was wrong with a criminal justice system based on public opinion.  

Source: CNA/mz