Thursday, October 20, 2005

Issues that needed to be properly debated in Parliament.

Oct 19, 2005

More questions than answers, unfortunately
By Lydia Lim

THREE controversial issues cropped up in the House yesterday.

What they had in common was a focus on persons who, either because of who they are or
the circumstances they find themselves in, would reasonably be considered disadvantaged, if not vulnerable, members of society.

The plight of criminals of below-average intelligence, accused persons in police custody and opposition MPs came up for debate.

The brief but lively exchanges on the rights and protection due to them proved to be the highlight of an otherwise dry session spent mostly on administrative changes.

Mr Sin Boon Ann (Tampines GRC) kicked off question time by asking about people of low intelligence who commit crimes.

The practising lawyer called for a review of laws so that these individuals would be sentenced differently from convicted criminals of normal intelligence.
Some members of the public have of late made similar calls.

This followed the case of 18-year-old molester Iskandar Muhamad Nordin, who has the mental age of an 11-year-old.

After he was sentenced to nine months' jail and three strokes of the cane, he appealed to be spared the rotan and be given a longer jail term instead. In August, his appeal was rejected. His sentence was also more than doubled to two years' jail and nine strokes of the cane.

Yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Law S. Jayakumar refused to be moved by the appeals of three MPs on the subject.

Sentencing decisions, he said, were best left to the judge. He added that no one would be held criminally culpable if his mental capacity was so limited that he did not understand what he had done was wrong.

Nominated MP Eunice Olsen then spoke up for accused persons held in police custody without access to legal counsel. This has long been a concern of lawyers.

She asked what rights an accused person had to legal counsel and what safeguards there were to ensure that his constitutional rights were not violated during police investigations, conducted without a lawyer present.

Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng stood firm in his defence of current practices.

The courts, he said, have ruled that an accused person's right to legal counsel is to be exercised within a reasonable time after arrest, and not immediately after being apprehended.

He also cited various instances when a lawyer's presence might impede police investigations.

Finally, it fell to opposition MP Chiam See Tong (Potong Pasir) to raise his question. The person he chose to champion was none other than himself.

He complained that popular singers from China and Taiwan were performing at constituency events and urging residents to vote for his rival, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin.
Such endorsements flout the Government's own stand that foreigners should not meddle in local politics, he said.

But Mr Wong disagreed. Foreign artists are free to sing the praises of their hosts. Besides, no one can say for sure that Mr Sitoh will be fielded as a candidate in the next election.

Unfortunately, the brevity of yesterday's exchanges meant they threw up more questions than answers, giving the issues an unsettled air about them.

On foreign interference in local politics, for instance, it remains unclear just what foreigners are allowed to say or do. Just an example: Yes, during an election, most Singaporeans would not want a foreigner on a campaign walkabout or making stump speeches or even just singing a song in support of someone.

But what about outside of an election? Would those same actions constitute meddling? And what if Mr Sitoh were already an MP? Could he still invite foreigners to help him garner support?

As for persons in police custody, it remains unclear what would be considered a 'reasonable time' for someone to be held without access to a lawyer.

Mr Wong said yesterday that it was in the public interest for police to conduct thorough investigations.

Is it not also in the public interest to ensure that the rights of accused persons are protected? How can a balance be struck between these two objectives?

As for criminals of low intelligence, can it not be argued that they should be treated as minors when some of them have the mental age of children? Also, are police officers trained to question these individuals, who tend to be more easily influenced by others?

These are just a sampling of questions that have surfaced and will likely continue to simmer.

MPs should find ways to air them again, especially the latter two relating to the rights of individuals before the law.

These are matters of public interest and deserve to be debated thoroughly. And no better place than Parliament to do it.

I have no answers to these questions, however I do agree that these issues needs to be thoroughly in the Parliament.

In the meanwhile at Mr Wang's blog, there are interesting debates son both the lawyer access issue and the low IQ issues. Have a look if you are interested in what the former Deputy Public Prosecutor had to say.


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