Sunday Times: WP asks Govt to explain Penal Code amendments

It wants Government to justify why it is necessary to increase maximum jail terms by three times or four times

Zakir Hussain

THE Workers’ Party wants the Government to justify its proposals to increase maximum jail terms for certain offences.

The proposals, part of amendments to the Penal Code, are expected to be tabled in Parliament in the first half of this year.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim made the call yesterday at a public forum. The party’s views will be presented to the Home Affairs Ministry.

“Since the Government says it has not increased imprisonment terms unnecessarily, we must ask the Government why it is necessary to increase the maximum jail terms by three times or four times,” said Ms Lim, a Non-Constituency MP.

The proposals, announced in November, are the first major review of the Penal Code since 1984 and aim to bring the law in line with the times.

Ms Lim said changes had to be justified “to convince us that imprisonment terms are not increased unnecessarily”.

A polytechnic law lecturer, she cited two examples:

Twenty years for assaulting an MP with the intention of preventing him from doing his job, up from seven years now.

Two years for being part of an unlawful assembly, up from the current six months. The changes here are significant, she said, as this is coupled with a broadened definition of what constitutes unlawful assembly.

She said that guest panellist and lawyer Thomas Koshy told her that one danger of having much higher jail terms is that people who are charged may be pressured into pleading guilty.

“As we know, people who claim trial get higher sentences than those who plead guilty. Faced with a high maximum jail term, some will not be willing to take that risk,” Ms Lim asserted.

Mr Koshy, Ms Lim and two other panellists spoke at the two-hour forum at the WP’s Syed Alwi Road headquarters.

The forum was the first in a series of events to mark the WP’s 50th anniversary this year.

It was attended by 60 people. They included WP members and supporters, students and activists, among others.

The other panellists were WP youth wing council member Firuz Khan; and another guest, consultant therapist Anthony Yeo.

Another proposal Ms Lim cited was changes allowing judges to hand down sentences that can be a combination of a jail term, a fine and caning. Currently, they can sentence an offender only to two out of the three possible punishments.

But Ms Lim had no quarrel with plans to increase fines for offences by three or five times, noting that many fines were set in 1952.

She also saw the removal of some mandatory minimum sentences as a good thing, and welcomed moves to prosecute Singaporean child sex tourists.

The question-and-answer later also touched on the continued criminalisation of gay sex and the party’s stand on it.

Ms Lim said the WP would not dispute this law being on the books. Party leaders discussed the issue extensively but were divided on it.

Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong, who attended the forum, felt more people should take an interest in these proposed changes: “I wish there were more such forums like these, organised by anyone, to raise public awareness.”

Playwright Ng Yi-Sheng, 26, agreed: “People want to hear new ideas and proposals, but I felt there was a shortage of suggestions raised today.”

zakir@sph.com.sg

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