Evaluating the Legal System in Singapore for Prospective Expats

For Westerners, the intricacies of criminal justice in Southeast Asia can seem either baffling in their contradictions, or needlessly severe. As to the former, many will have difficulty understanding why a country like Thailand, notorious for the Bangkok ‘sex tourism’ industry, enforces a blanket ban on pornography. As to the latter, Singapore has become famous for its habit of meting out corporal punishment. Ever since the 1994 incident in which Michael Fay, the young scion of a multi-million dollar Ohio company’s CEO, was sentenced to being lashed with a cane upon engaging in some vandalistic activities, the practice has become something of a cause célèbre in the West (with a majority of polled American recipients saying, to Fay’s chagrin, that they approved of this punishment.) Unfortunately for commentators who want to see this practice as a sort of uniquely "Singaporean" or "Asian" type of severity, corporal punishment and caning were first written into law during the British rule of the region.Corporal Punishment

Certain groups are exempt from caning, including women, male offenders over the age of 50 or under the age of 16, and men considered “medically unfit” to receive caning. And, no, expatriates or foreign visitors cannot claim immunity from this, from prison sentences that feature compulsory labor, or from any of the other forms of punishment about to be discussed. The procedure itself is certainly not a glorified spanking, as it can result in permanent scarring. Of particular interest is that recipients of the death penalty are also exempt from caning – in such cases, the courts probably feel that no further example needs to be made of the sentenced individuals.

The Death Penalty

Speaking of the death penalty, Singapore is one of numerous developed Asian nations to make use of it (placing them in the company of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan) and one of 40 world nations to retain the death penalty. Though no person has been subject to state execution in Singapore since 2010 (after which a year-long review process suspended such executions in 2011), a number of different offenses exist which can lead to being sentenced as such: these include treason, kidnapping, murder, distribution / sale of either heroin or morphine in amounts meeting or exceeding 15g, or distribution / sale of cocaine in amounts meeting or exceeding 30g.

Though the country remains under fire by groups such as Amnesty International for its retention of the death penalty, Singapore seems to be in no hurry to do anything other than reform it somewhat, and “maintains that its capital punishment system has kept murder rates at one of the lowest in the world.” [ii]

Benefits for Expatriates?

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Female expatriates living in Singapore may actually take some solace in the country’s strict laws regarding “outrages of modesty”: offenses falling under this category include the use of vulgar language in the presence of women, and unsolicited touching / groping. As for the types of penalties that can be incurred by engaging in these activities, a recent news story provides as good an example as any: a 22-year old male who was caught groping women upon their exiting the lift of the Tampines housing estate will, if convicted for his crimes, be “jailed for a minimum of three years and caned.” [iii]

Common Courtesy and Laws of Etiquette

On a less severe note, but still important to know, is the fair number of Singaporean laws regarding common courtesy, which can earn one a fine if not followed to the letter. For example, you are not allowed to leave Singapore in a vehicle that contains less than a ¾-full tank of gas. Never spit in public view, or leave a public toilet without flushing it (as comical as it may be to imagine undercover police officers monitoring toilet stall routines.) If you are caught jaywalking or crossing streets at anything but a designated crosswalk area, your wallet may be lightened by about $620 in the local currency. Also pertaining to city streets: chewing gum is a “banned substance” in the country owing to the local authorities’ continued frustration at having to clean it off of streets and sidewalks – so you are advised to find another nerve-calming habit to replace it, and certainly not to partake in or initiate a “black market” for the stuff.

While this is not the place to resolve the vigorous debate over whether or not the ends of Singapore’s justice system justify its means, it is clear that this issue will “make or break” the country’s reputation for many prospective residents. However, if you are at all offended by the country’s methods of maintaining public order (and likely to speak out about this often), it might be best to seek out an alternative place of residence. Simply put, these methods are not going to go away without a massive overhaul of public opinion in Singapore, which does not seem to be on the cards in the near future.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/1994/04/17/crime-punishment.html. Retrieved March 29, 2013.

[ii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-18778442. Retrieved March 28, 2013.

[iii] http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/man-arrested-outrage-modesty. Retrieved March 28, 2013.


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