President Halimah Yacob, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon in 2017. Photo: WALLACE WOON / POOL / AFP
Concerned about a recent series of sexual assault cases against minors, Singapore’s president is calling for better measures to protect children from sexual predators—among them, a proposition to expand caning to those 50 years old and above.In Singapore, men of this age group are exempt from caning for all offenses—though there has not been an official reason for the exemption. But Singaporean President Halimah Yacob said that should change.
“Rapists should not be spared the cane just because they are fifty years old,” Halimah wrote in a Facebook post on Monday.“It’s ironic that they could escape from the pain caused by caning despite the lifetime of severe trauma and irreparable damage that they cruelly inflicted on their victims which will last a lifetime,” Halimah added. The president’s statement comes after a string of news reports on children who were sexually abused by their older male family members. Last month, a 37-year-old man was sentenced to more than 10 years in jail and 12 strokes of the cane for sexually assaulting his daughter while intoxicated. In Singapore, caning is a commonly used form of corporal punishment for offenses ranging from sexual abuse to drug trafficking and vandalism.On Thursday, a 54-year-old man was sentenced to almost 5 years in jail for repeatedly molesting his daughter over six years since the girl was 10 years old. The term includes four additional weeks of imprisonment in lieu of caning because he was above the age of 49.
And in January, a 65-year-old man similarly escaped corporal punishment after sexually assaulting his 6-year-old granddaughter, whom prosecutors said he had treated “as a sex toy.” He was sentenced to 14 years in jail, with an additional nine months in lieu of caning.While Singapore’s president has limited legislative power, Halimah’s Facebook post has sparked responses from the public and civil society groups, with some similarly questioning the age limits for caning, while others cautioned against endorsing corporal punishment. Adrian Tan, president of the Law Society of Singapore, said exempting those over 50 from caning was “pure ageism.”“And frankly, if you’re fit enough to rape, you should be fit enough to be caned,” Tan wrote in a post on LinkedIn. However, activists say that the discussion surrounding age limits for judicial caning is missing the point. “The problem here is that every time we encounter a crime that is really repulsive to us, our first instinct is harsher punishment,” local activist Kirsten Han told VICE World News. She is a founding member of the Transformative Justice Collective, a group advocating for reforms to the country’s criminal justice system.
“To me, that is really confusing vengeance for justice, and confusing vengeance for addressing harm.”In a statement posted on Facebook, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), a local gender equality advocacy group, said that corporal punishment such as judicial caning “normalizes violence” and reinforces the idea that authority should be established through “physical domination.”“In terms of deterring potential abuse and recidivism, we have not seen clear evidence that caning is in fact a deterrent [to] sexual abuse, or is superior to prison terms, rehabilitation programmes or other non-violent penalties,” the statement said. The harshness of the penalties imposed on perpetrators may also make some survivors of sexual violence—such as those who are emotionally attached to their assaulters—reluctant to report their experience, the statement added. Corinna Lim, the executive director of AWARE, told VICE World News that the group recommends that the criminal justice system be more empathetic to survivors and sensitive to their trauma. “We believe this to be a more effective and urgent area of focus than increasing criminal penalties,” she said. Administered on inmates’ buttocks by a specially trained prison officer, caning is known to be physically and psychologically grueling for its subjects.
According to anecdotes from released inmates, many of whom bear scars from their caning sessions, the sensation is similar to being branded by hot iron—the skin that comes into contact with the cane is known to split open, as blood oozes out of fresh wounds. Some would lose control of their bowels during the ordeal, while others had trouble walking afterward. After the flogging, inmates are given medical treatment, with medicine applied to their wounds.Inmates can receive up to 24 strokes of the cane in the same sitting. However, if they are unable to complete the session, the unfinished strokes would be translated into additional jail time of up to 12 months.In September 2021, Singapore’s Parliament discussed the suitability of caning for older offenders, as it passed legislation that increased the maximum jail terms for some sexual offenses. During the discussions, a member of parliament suggested that the suitability of caning should be determined by medical fitness instead of age. “I don’t see why Parliament should presume in favor of a repeat sex offender that he is not fit to be caned when he is clearly fit enough to commit such heinous acts,” said Murali Pillai, a member of the ruling People’s Action Party.
However, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam disagreed with the proposal at the time, saying that the number of men above 50 years old convicted of crimes punishable by caning is “significantly lower compared to men under the age of 50.” He added that raising the age limit for caning “may not stop the problem.”Singapore’s criminal justice system, already notorious for meting out harsh penalties to offenders, has been under increasing scrutiny over the past couple of years—in particular, its death penalty has drawn heated criticism from the international community after the country executed a drug trafficker assessed to have “borderline intellectual functioning” in April. However, even as the country reaffirms its commitment to controversial punishments like the death sentence and caning, more people are questioning the legitimacy of methods based on retribution and deterrence.“Overall, we have become very habituated to a system that’s very punitive, and also to a belief that authority is derived from punishment,” said Han, the activist. “As Singaporeans, we really need to go back to the first principles of: ‘What is this all for?’”“Do you actually want to repair harms that were done to people, and protect people, or do you just want to whack people who you think have done wrong?”Follow Koh Ewe on Twitter and Instagram.