The Call to Review Age Limit for Caning Sparks Fresh Debates on Corporal Punishment
Top Image by  Zachary Tang for Rice Media

In a Facebook post on 19 December, Madam President Halimah Yacob opined that government agencies must find better ways to protect children from sexual abuse at home. According to President Halimah, severe punishment, such as caning, was essential but insufficient to protect children adequately. 

She expressed concern about the recent spate of cases which involved the rapes of children by their male relatives and felt that something more must be done to better deter such heinous acts.

“Also, rapists should not be spared the cane just because they are fifty years old,” President Halimah details before the close of her post. “It’s ironic,” she went on to add, “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,”  

“It’s our duty to protect our young, and we must not fail them.” 

And with that, the proverbial can of worms was opened. Debates on whether caning was an appropriate punishment, let alone suitable for convicted offenders above fifty years old, surged through the online space. 

Does The Judicial Rod Deter? 

Supporters of the rod swear by the cane’s powers of deterrence. According to Singapore’s laws, the rod, which cannot be more than 1.27 cm in diameter, supposedly dissuades those who might commit a crime in Singapore. The pain and suffering of the potential consequence should, our Law Ministry hopes, be enough to discourage likely offenders. 

Presently, judicial caning is mandatory for a dozen offences in Singapore. These offences range from vandalism to robbery and drug trafficking. 

In a post on LinkedIn, the President of the Law Society, Adrian Tan, alludes to another prominent reason why the rod commands throngs of ardent supporters: retribution. “When a crime occurs, society has a natural desire to see that the wrongdoer is punished appropriately.”

“For violent crimes, such as rape, people feel that an appropriately violent punishment must be inflicted on the wrongdoer. Otherwise, the punishment is inadequate, and society and victims won’t feel that justice is done.” 

Like President Halimah, Mr Tan also feels the rod should not spare convicted sexual offenders aged fifty and above. “Not caning someone just because they are over 50 is pure ageism.”

 “At 50, you aren’t even old enough to withdraw your CPF, meaning that the State thinks you still can work. And frankly, if you’re fit enough to rape, you should be fit enough to be caned.”

Like all other forms of corporal punishment in Singapore, whether the sentences effectively deter crimes has been called into question. 

Some lawyers are wary of drawing definite conclusions about the omnipotent power of the rod, doubtful if caning deters would-be offenders—in this case, potential sexual offenders—from committing a crime. 

Image: Zachary Tang/RICE File Photo

Sparing The Rod

In response, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) opposed corporal punishment in Singapore, much less President Halimah’s suggestion to cane convicted rapists above fifty years old. 

According to AWARE, acts of violence like caning reproduce the idea that “authority and norms should be established through physical domination”. The idea is undeniably dangerous. Imagine what the idea’s underlying principles—authority through violence—could be used for. 

Of course, AWARE has always been consistent in its stance. When Mr Liew Khai Khiun, in a letter to Today Online, claimed that judicial caning was the only appropriate punishment for sexual offenders, AWARE disagreed, citing the same rebuttal to President Halimah’s suggestion.

“Violent punishments such as caning may contribute to normalising rather than reducing a culture of violence,” a spokesperson offered. In the same response, AWARE suggested that the priority should be to “improve the victim’s experiences of criminal and legal procedures”. 

The organisation asserted that survivor-victims are often afraid of reporting the perpetrator to the authorities, primarily when the perpetrator is known to them. AWARE advocated for a restorative instead of a retributive approach to justice. 

Restorative justice focuses on repairing harm through outlets such as a restitutionary agreement. Most conversations around justice in Singapore allude to an undertone of retributive justice instead—that offenders deserve a punishment in severity that fits the crime.

Image: Tingey Injury Law Firm/Unsplash

Could Chemical Castration Replace Caning? 

Some offered alternatives to caning, such as chemical castration. Chemical castration is not a new form of punishment; South Korea had already introduced chemical castration for paedophiles in 2011

Closer to home, Thailand passed a law that allowed chemical castration for sex offenders, which will come into full force from 25 January next year. The chemical castration process requires convicted offenders to take drugs that stop sex hormone production. 

And while castration might seem like a one-off process, it is far from that. Convicted offenders in South Korea who have been chemically castrated are required to undergo injections once every three months. 

Still, chemical castration comes with its own set of complicated baggage. Although chemical castration reduces sexual interest and performance, the procedure is not without its side effects. 

Chemical castration has increased the likelihood of other diseases, such as osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease. The longer someone consumes the drugs, the higher the chances of experiencing severe side effects. And while some quarters may think that’s par for the course, others might see the two (castration and its side effects) as separate matters that have little to do with each other. 

Image: The Objectivity of Caning

Justice means different things to different people. A two-year sentence for a serial robber who’s also a father might seem too heavy a punishment for his daughter, but for the son of the shop’s owner, too light a sentence. 

In Singapore, and like many other countries, our ideas about justice inevitably bend towards retribution—that the offender’s pain should be equal to or outweigh the pain of the survivor-victim. But retributive justice can only go so far in addressing the survivor-victim’s needs. Very often, this goes beyond the desire to see the perpetrator suffer. 

Restorative justice also offers something that retributive justice cannot—closure for the victims. With its advocacy for mediation clinics and restitution agreements, the survivor-victim’s needs are also taken care of. 

To wit, punishment, when properly meted, should go beyond inflicting pain on those who have committed the act of hurting and move towards helping those who have been hurt to heal and move on. After all, using the rod may not spoil the child. But it doesn’t save the child either.

Still, that’s not to say the sentiments of concerned and impassioned Singaporeans like President Halimah, Mr Adrian Tan, and forum letter-writer Mr Liew Khai Khiun should be brushed off too eagerly. 

They advocate for stricter caning regulations not because of retributive sentiments but as a need to send a strong message to would-be perpetrators. As if to tell them that you can run, but you can’t hide, no matter how many years have passed. 

We’re still far from changing the law to remove any age restriction for caning. But, until it becomes a topic of discussion in the hallowed halls of Parliament come 2023 (if ever), we should continue to debate this issue and understand the viewpoints of proponents from both sides of the aisle. 

Although having come straight from the lips of President Halimah herself, perhaps it’s an indication that the time is nigh for the law to soon be revisited and revised. 

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