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The Star, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 5 May 1996
Insight: Down South
Hard stand on crime and punishment
By Seah Chiang Nee
SINCE the age of 16 when he committed his first crime, Rahmat Ahmad, 43, has spent most of his life going in and out of jail 54 times.
He went in again last month for robbing a pub at Boat Quay. In his trial he wrote a letter to the judge pleading for a lighter sentence, saying his wife would divorce him and he would lose his children.
He said he was "ridden with guilt" after the robbery and promised his nine-year-old daughter he would never commit a crime again.
The judge was unmoved. Rahmat got 10 years' preventive detention and 24 strokes of the cane.
In another case, the court sentenced a 38-year-old man who was convicted 33 times in 22 years. His crime spree included theft, robbery, cheating, criminal breach of trust, impersonating public officers and outraging modesty.
His mother said she was disappointed in him. "I feel sad. He promised he would be good every time -- then he would go back to his bad ways," she wept.
There are many others like these two, people born with the evil bug, rotten to the bone, who will never change no matter what people do.
For them, the courts in Singapore are taking a new hard stand on sentencing, moving further away from humanistic rehabilitation to punitive incarceration and deterrence.
The softer approach regards criminals not as creatures of habits, but as victims of circumstances who can reform if treated humanely by the process of justice.
In Singapore, it has not been proven by facts. Three out of four convicted criminals go back to crime after jail.
Chief Justice Yong Pung How said he did not believe that a criminal would necessarily reform after serving time. "Rehabilitation is something I have never understood.
"Compassion went out the window a long time ago. Now I just deliver justice," he said.
Judges are more likely to turn an unsympathetic ear on pleas for leniency. There will be no softening of attitude towards sentencing for recalcitrant criminals.
The general perception is that individuals are responsible for their own actions.
Even prisons are not regarded as rehabilitation centres but holding pens to keep criminals away from society, according to a counsellor who is an ex-convict.
"At the end of the day, you have to define what the prison is for. For many of us, it is a place to keep some people from hurting or harming others," he said.
CJ Yong's reluctance to show pity to hardened criminals stems from his seeing the same people before him repeatedly saying sorry and they'll never do it again.
Statistics show a high relapse rate among convicted criminals. More then 76 per cent of those who are released from "corrective training" go back to crime within the next five years.
The toughness of the judiciary here contrasts with Britain's relaxed attitude.
In his National Day speech last year, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong cited the case of a British teenager who was sent on a holiday to Africa as part of his therapy for burglary and other offences.
He promptly went on another law-breaking spree within a week of returning home. His holidays had caused the taxpayers almost RM$30,000.
The policy here is to make prison life so distasteful that nobody wants to go back.
But an increasing minority of Singaporeans want to see a more generous approach, calling for a softer handling of criminals.
One recent letter to the press described crime as "a defect like absent-mindedness or negligence."
He said people might be breaking the law because they could not live up to the standard that society expected of them. Sounds like victimhood, blaming society for the crime not the criminal.
Criminals will reform if people show them enough compassion, some believe, and that moral education will solve the problem.
Another example of Britain's over-indulgence with criminals, regarding them as victims of society, was reported last month.
Hardened young criminals in a juvenile rehabilitation centre in Bristol were given M$480 each of taxpayers' money to buy themselves birthday presents.
They could browse through mail order catalogues in their cells or go on supervised shopping sprees.
The practice, it seems, is widespread in Britain, especially during Christmas.
The Bristol centre held 22 teenagers, from 12 to 16 years old, half of them for serious crimes.
The mother of an inmate was angry with the move, saying that another son, aged 13, had wanted to join his brother so that he could also get a gift.
I had an early lesson of crime and punishment in Hong Kong as a news editor years ago when crime was overpowering.
One of the first things I did was to visit the courts. I thought it was the best place to learn about any society.
One trial I sat through was for armed robbery. The accused, aged 24, soft-spoken and well-groomed, was complaining to the judge that he had been tortured into confessing.
He gave details of the beatings by the police. The accused looked more like a frightened student than a dangerous criminal. The jury acquitted him.
A few days later I asked the Mongkok CID chief inspector how the police could do such a thing to the fellow. In reply, he showed me the man's long history of crime as a triad member.
At 14, he committed his first offence, slashing someone in a gang fight, and later graduated to robbery, serious assault and rape, going in and out of prison for a decade.
In those days, armed robbery in Hong Kong was so violent that friends had advised me to carry at least a few hundred dollars in case I got robbed. "These fellows will stab you if you have no money," they said.
Murders were rising. So were rape cases. And yet the British courts in the colony were treating criminals far more lightly than the Hong Kong public was demanding.
Japan has a different penal concept. Consider a case about a murderer who was sentenced to 15 years' jail for smashing his neighbour's head with a hammer.
During his whole time in jail, no one in his family visited him. On his release, he was met by his wife and son who told him never to return to their village.
Japanese society ostracises criminals even after they have been punished.
This is in contrast to the West which believes that people should be allowed to lead a normal life after they have paid their debt to society.
Incidentally, Japan has the world's lowest crime rate.
Seah Chiang Nee is a freelance writer and the former editor of Singapore Monitor.
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