TIME TO ABOLISH CANING AS A LEGAL FORM OF PUNISHMENT

Singapore is unlike many other countries in that it still uses caning as a form of legal punishment. Most people would argue, rightly, that such a practice is barbaric. Caning as a legal form of punishment ought to be abolished.

The primary reason why caning as a legal form of punishment ought to be abolished is that it is inhumane. Before we get into why it is inhumane, let us first review the basic facts of caning [1].

Caning is a form of judicial corporal punishment – designed primarily to deter crime. Caning in Singapore originated from British colonial law. In modern times, caning is administered for a wide range of crimes, ranging from the petty to the serious. You are eligible for caning if you a male aged between 16 and 50, though juveniles below the age of 16 can still be caned if the High Court so orders, and of course being a foreigner like Michael Fay does not exempt you.

Many thousands of men have been caned in Singapore, with the numbers rising from 602 in 1987 to 6404 in 2007. Up to 24 strokes may be ordered. The cane itself is rattan, 1.2m long and 1.3cm thick. During the caning, the person to be caned will be strapped to a large wooden A-frame trestle. Before the caning, the prisoner is medically examined to determine whether he is fit to be caned. The prisoner is not told in advance of when he will be caned, and the waiting is meant to add to the level of anxiety and fear being felt. The place of caning can be a room, or an open courtyard. The whole event is ceremonial, with uniformed officers in attendance. The caning officers themselves are specifically trained for their purpose. Finally, the prisoner is stripped and tied to the trestle, and using a cane soaked in water to make it supple (producing the effects of a lash), the caning officer whips the prisoner with maximum force.

The result is that, in the words of a Singapore Bar Association report, “When the rattan hits the bare buttocks, the skin disintegrates, leaving a white line and then a flow of blood.”; there is usually “… blood at the fourth stroke.”; “The skin at the point of contact is usually split open and, after three strokes, the buttocks will be covered in blood”. Of the prisoners, “Many will collapse”, “some pray, some beg for mercy, others scream” and “people shake and shake”. And of course, there is the pain, which has been described as “excruciating”, as “beyond description. If there is a word stronger than excruciating, then that should be the word to describe it”, and as so horrible that “[I] screamed like a mad animal”. The prisoner is given medical treatment, but such treatment is largely useless – “for weeks the prisoner cannot sit down”, “the blood just wet[s] [your] shorts” and after 10 strokes, you are “unable to walk without help from the warder”. Even while the wounds were healing, “Going to the toilet was the worst … you don’t dare to squat because you may tear open the wounds again”, you can “neither eat nor sleep properly” and of course, “the cane marks are indelible and these will be a source of humiliation to [the prisoners] for the rest of their lives“. Lee Kuan Yew himself has emphasized this point many times: caning is indeed intended to be humiliating. Note that while Malaysia also has caning as a punishment, it is much less severe due to the relative thinness of the rattan that they use. All in all, caning as a legal form of punishment in Singapore is extremely inhumane, and that in itself is a good reason to abolish it.

But caning as a form of legal punishment is undesirable also because it has been used as a tool of repression against the political opposition. No matter how much the government tries to whitewash the historical record, the facts cannot be changed. Caning was instituted as a mandatory punishment for vandalism, under the 1966 Vandalism Act, as a way of further weakening the Barisan Socialists (who were not, contrary to the PAP’s claims, violent communists out to overthrow the state).

Jothie Rajah’s recent book, Authoritarian Rule of Law, brilliantly shows that the perverted law was passed to “fix the opposition” (to borrow from Lee Hsien Loong’s limited vocabulary) [2]. Back in 1966, the Barisan Socialists, despite being absent from Parliament due to their boycott of it, and despite being weakened by “anti-Communist” measures (e.g. Operation Coldstore and the arrest of Barisan leaders), were still seen by the PAP as a serious threat to its power. Then in April 1966, the Barisan started their “Aid Vietnam” campaign protesting against the Vietnam War and against the government allowing US troops serving in Vietnam to have their rest and recreation leave here in Singapore. Because the PAP was severely curtailing opposition activity (e.g. by banning public rallies), much of the anti-war protest involved slogans and posters being painted or put up covertly in the middle of the night.

In response, the PAP presented the Punishment for Vandalism Bill to parliament, whose aim was to punish vandalism, which Lee Kuan Yew described as “a particularly vicious social misdemeanor, like taking a pot of paint and going to every bus stand and chalking up anti-American or anti-British or pro-Vietcong slogans”, though of course the real target (and here Lee Kuan Yew’s choice of examples is revealing) was the opposition. Mandatory caning was justified by Lee Kuan Yew on the grounds that the ideologically motivated vandal (i.e. members of the opposition) was quite ready to become a martyr and go to jail, or to pay a fine, “But if he knows he is going to get three of the best, I think he will lose a great deal of enthusiasm, because there is little glory attached to the rather humiliating experience of having to be caned.” Such caning would also be meted out to “anti-national elements [that] use children and other young persons to smear and mar public and private property”, and by this Lee Kuan Yew meant that the opposition leaders who organized the putting up of slogans would also be caned.

The Act was also used in the National Day period of 1967, with youths arrested for doing things like painting slogans in red paint in public spaces, in protest against “fake Merdeka” and PAP rule. When the controversial Employment Bill was being considered by Parliament in 1968, the Act was again used, such as when an unemployed young man was arrested trying to affix an anti-Employment Bill posters to a lamp-post in the early morning. There was also the case of Ang Chin Sang, a youth sentenced to three months imprisonment and three strokes of the cane just because he had thrown egg shells containing green paint at a National Day arch. All things considered, the Vandalism Act and caning was used as a brutal way of curbing the opposition’s activities. No real discernible public interest is being upheld, unless you consider the brutal whipping of kids and the disfigurement of their bodies as part of the public interest. Caning has been used to silence dissent, and it may well be used again, which makes it all the more important and pressing that it be abolished as a form of legal punishment.

In the face of all this evidence against the wisdom of having caning as a form of legal punishment, one might still maintain that it helps deter crime (e.g. manslaughter, armed robbery, rape). However, such a point of view is deeply misguided and misinformed, because the harshness of a punishment has little to no impact on the deterring of crime. We might first make a relatively inexpensive observation, based on the statistics I brought up in the 2nd paragraph, on the frequency of caning – if indeed caning deters crime, then why on earth are we caning more people now (6404 people in 2007) than we did in the past (602 in 1987)? Plainly, caning is not a very effective deterrent.

The issue of whether the harshness of the punishment plays a significant role in deterring crime, can be better understood by considering the evidence on the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent, because if caning deters crime by being especially brutal and horrible, then surely so does the death penalty [3]. However, most leading criminologists (90% or more) do not believe that the death penalty deters crime (as compared to non-capital punishments like imprisonment). These experts are right – the murder rates in American states with the death penalty have consistently been higher than the murder rates in American states without the death penalty. The simple reason for the failure of the death penalty as a form of deterrence is that the threat of execution at some future date is not even likely to enter the minds and rational considerations of people who might A) be drunk, B) be gripped by fear or rage, C) be panicking while committing another crime (e.g. a robbery), D) be suffering from mental illness.

The same logic applies to caning – when people do try to commit crimes despite legal sanctions, it is simply because they are not so rational as to take these legal sanctions into consideration; and even when the criminals are rational, it is not so much the severity of the punishment, but the chances of being caught at all, that they worry about. In this regard, Singapore is lucky, because we are a small country with no place for criminals to hide – most criminals are easily caught. Singapore’s low crime rate is due mainly to this, and to our small borders, which mean we can easily stop the inflow of things like gun and drugs which aid homicide (in the case of guns) or which create incentives for criminal behaviour (in the case of drugs). All things considered, caning does not deter crime, and there truly is no reason to continue having it as a legal form of punishment.

When I was younger, I used to be in favour of caning, wrongly believing that it helped reduce crime. Yet the more I learnt about the issue, the more I realized that the evidence against having such a savage and primitive form of legal punishment is utterly overwhelming and inordinately compelling. We live in the twenty-first century, not the first, and it is high time we abolished caning as a legal form of punishment.

 

Joel


[1] Farrell, C. (2012) Judicial Caning in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei
[2] Rajah, J. (2012) Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore
[3] Amnesty International (2013) The Death Penalty and Deterrence

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