I agree with caning as punishment – but not for vandalism

Two German men were charged with vandalism and sentenced to three months in prison and three strokes of the cane each. Once again, as with the last time a foreign vandal was sentenced to be caned — Swiss national Oliver Fricker — human rights watchdogs Human Rights Watch condemned Singapore for continuing to administer “torture” for crimes that should be misdemeanours, like vandalism.

I agree with them — but only partially.

Caning is a highly controversial topic, especially internationally, but here in Singapore we barely bat an eyelid when someone is sentenced to be whacked with a rattan. Perhaps Singaporeans have become accustomed to caning as a form of punishment since the days of the British empire.

Singapore became so well-known for caning American youth Michael Fay in 1994 for vandalism that the kendo stick in pro wrestling became referred to as the Singapore Cane.

I for one, was subjected to videos in school used to deter youths from committing crime, featuring graphic portrayals of men receiving strokes of the rattan on their bare buttocks. There were even graphic pictures shown of their bloody behinds and these men were apparently forced to sleep on their stomachs for days because they could not sit down without experiencing excruciating pain.

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We are told that caning is required as a form of deterrence, but no one can really be sure about the “fear of the cane”, especially in regard to vandalism, which is seen as public nuisance of the highest order by our Government.

Foreigners who vandalise here will always, without fail, receive international attention because of the mandatory caning sentence which comes with a vandalism charge.  International media likes to play up the caning, calling the act “barbaric”, “cruel”, and “akin to torture”, but our government have stuck to their guns.

Vandalism still occurs on occasion, even by Singaporeans. This makes me wonder who the punishment is really directed at: us, or foreigners?

Caning is fine, but for vandalism? Probably not

We know how much Singapore values its clean exterior — and vandalism threatens the nature of a city renowned for its cleanliness. That said, street graffiti, long also considered a form of vandalism, has been allowed, albeit restricted to specific locations like Kampong Glam, and done by commissioned artists.

Given the severity of other crimes punishable by caning — rioting, robbery,  rape, drug trafficking, illegal money-lending…

I don’t know. Vandalism just isn’t on the level of these crimes. The reason for such a severe punishment may be political instead, with then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew alluding to martyrs prepared to go to jail in the name of their ideology, by defacing public buildings with red paint.

In 1966, vandalism went from a Minor Offences Act punishable by a fine of up to $50 and/or a week in jail, to mandatory caning, in an attempt to defend public property.

While times have changed, the Vandalism Act has not.

I will not argue for caning to be abolished completely; in fact, caning is a fate preferable to death itself. Singapore’s hard-line stance on the death penalty and caning are unlikely to be changed even in the face of yearly slamming by watchdogs such as Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch, for reasons the Government has provided many times — Singapore is a potential hotspot for crimes such as drug trafficking due to its location.

There is a case to be made against caning for a first-time vandalism offense, however. Of course, should caning be non-mandatory, there must be an alternative punishment. A fine with a minimum amount with an additional amount based on the damages incurred should be more than sufficient; if damages cost less than the minimum fine to repair, the difference can be made up with a longer jail term. The system is progressive, like our taxes!

Think about how a fine of $2,000 would have costed way more back in the 60’s than now due to economic differences. The same amount is equivalent to a month’s salary for an average working adult.

The same logic should apply to caning and the Vandalism Act.

Review, discretion needed for Vandalism Act

The strict law against vandalism may have been necessary in 1966 when damage of public property was rampant. If we think about how many other countries have already abolished caning, including our former colonial masters, Singapore should be thinking about reviewing its stance on caning. Not because caning is a violation of human rights, but because caning should be reserved for the worst crimes, especially those related to violence.aqmge4Y_700b

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Deterrence will not stop those who are determined, or foolish enough to commit vandalism. If we consider that road rage is punishable by a fine and non-mandatory jail term, is vandalism not in the same category, given road rage is more dangerous to road users?

Laws need to be reviewed to keep up with the times. Causing danger to others carries a jail term but not caning, yet drawing graffiti on an MRT train is punished by caning. That does not make any sense.

Vandalism should not be punishable by caning simply because other crimes in its category are not. The law should not be this arbitrary and dare I say, even archaic.

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Featured image via Al Jazeera
With references from WikipediaWikipedia, The Straits Times, The Straits Times, Yahoo News