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Caning in the military forces

With comments by C. Farrell

military caning under way

A caning in progress at the SAF Detention Barracks. Note supply of canes leaning against the wall at left.
From "Pride, Discipline, Honour" (book commemorating 40th anniversary of the SAF Military Police Command), Singapore Armed Forces, 2006.

flag SINGAPORE: Military CP

Army life is supposed to be tough and strenuous, and in most of the world's armed forces, officers are not usually too squeamish about using a bit of ad hoc physical force on recalcitrant squaddies. However, the Singapore military is the only one we know of where formal corporal punishment is still part of the official disciplinary regime.

    Caning may be imposed on male members of the armed services for a variety of offences under the Singapore Armed Forces Act 1972 as amended in 1975. These include non-compliance with lawful orders, insubordinate behaviour, disobedience of lawful orders, absence without leave, desertion, and escape and permitting escape and unlawful release from custody. The sentence of caning is imposed by a subordinate military court, which may award a maximum of 12 strokes for each offence, with a maximum of 24 strokes at any one court martial. This sentence must be confirmed by the Armed Forces Council.

    For offences by servicemen while detained in a disciplinary barracks, a court martial is not necessary. Caning may be ordered by the officer in charge of the disciplinary barracks, but has to be approved by the Armed Forces Council.

Military offenders undergoing training at the disciplinary barracks. All must wear a yellow T-shirt with "DETAINEE" on the back.

    Caning under this regime is less severe than JCP under the Criminal Procedure Code. The cane is 6.35mm (a quarter of an inch) in diameter - section 125(4). This is only half the thickness of the adult JCP rattan. Strangely, the regulations do not stipulate a length for the cane; it appears in the above picture to be about 4ft (1.2 m), the same as the judicial one. These dimensions would make it much the same as the Singapore secondary school cane, but with a much higher maximum number of strokes (24 instead of 6).

    Paragraph 26 of the Singapore Armed Forces (Disciplinary Barracks) Regulations (Cap 295, Reg 8, 1990 Ed) stipulates that the person to be caned "is to wear protective clothing to prevent as far as possible any permanent scar, cutting of the skin or bleeding from being caused by the caning".

    The picture at the top of this page shows the "protective guard" covering the offender's posterior during the punishment. It is not clear what it is made of, or why this is thought better than simply having him wear a layer of clothing. Presumably it is of some fabric or other, and not too thick, otherwise little pain would be transmitted and the exercise would be pointless.

    Oddly, the legislation also states that caning "shall be inflicted on such part of the person as the Minister may direct". It is not clear why there might have been any doubt about this question. Again, the photograph confirms what one would expect in this regard. We can also see that the A-frame used is exactly the same as for judicial canings (see these pictures).

    Military service is compulsory for all males in Singapore. The original rationale for the imposition of caning was that existing penalties were insufficient for some National Servicemen. These are conscripts, generally in their teens. Corporal punishment was seen to be necessary to control the more incorrigible amongst them. In the debate in Parliament when this legislation was amended, the Defence Minister stressed that the caning "will not be of the kind administered to hardened criminals", and noted that the offender in such cases was "usually a poorly educated teenage national serviceman". National service, he pointed out, covers "all strata of society, including those of low education and intelligence", and experience had shown that CP was necessary because deserters, AWOLs and other "incorrigible offenders" from this group had not been sufficiently deterred by existing forms of punishment.

    Nevertheless, it is not only conscripts who are liable to be caned.

    Many of the offences punishable by caning seem relatively trivial in nature, and offences such as "insubordinate behaviour" are vaguely defined, and might encompass a wide spectrum of activities.

    It is interesting to note that this military legislation explicitly provides for boys under 16 to be caned, in which case the maximum punishment at any one trial is ten strokes instead of 24. This clause is still in force, but 16 is now the minimum age for enlistment. In practice, the normal age for starting national service is currently 18.

    It is not known how often this military punishment is actually used. Such matters are not often reported. Thanks to the enormous strides made in its education system, Singapore has a lot fewer "poorly educated teenagers" than it did in 1975.

    One case that has recently been reported is that of a 23-year-old Lance-Corporal, sentenced in Jan 2009 by a court-martial to six strokes of the cane plus three years' jail, for his part in beating up a 19-year-old conscript.

    That this kind of punishment is still prevalent is also suggested by the following extract from HomeTeamNS (Sep/Oct 2007), an internal magazine for national servicemen. It reports that police officers visiting the SAF Detention Barracks were treated to a flogging demonstration on a dummy, using "two types of cane and stances". It seems unlikely that this event would have been put on if CP is hardly ever administered.

Magazine article

    Section 3 defines the persons subject to the Act as including all civilians who are in the service of the Singapore Armed Forces when engaged on active service or who are followers of, or accompany, the Singapore Armed Forces when engaged on active service, and officers and soldiers belonging to a Commonwealth or foreign force when attached to or seconded for service with or otherwise acting as part of or with any portion of the Singapore Armed Forces.

    This seems to imply that foreign troops visiting Singapore might be liable to caning for such offences as "insubordinate behaviour" and "disobedience of general orders".

    In practice, however, the only known canings of visiting foreign military personnel were ordered not under these provisions but under the ordinary civilian law. An example was the case of two young New Zealand soldiers sentenced to caning for drug offences in 1981. It appears from this report that the New Zealand military authorities gladly handed their two lads over to the Singapore courts because they actually wanted them caned in order to make an example of them. This punishment would not have been available had their request to be tried by an NZ military court martial been granted.

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