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Singapore's oldest prisoner is a 90-year-old man serving a 20-year jail sentence

Singapore's oldest prisoner is a 90-year-old man serving a 20-year jail sentence

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 05 Aug 2022
Author: Toh Yong Chuan

Details about the man emerged in Parliament in response to a question from Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim who had asked how many prisoners have died of natural causes related to old age in the past five years. This also raises another question: Can a person convicted of a crime here be too old to be sent to jail?

Somewhere behind the high walls of Changi Prison, there is a little-known facility that houses elderly prisoners - and provides them with senior-friendly living conditions.

The facility has amenities such as beds, handrails and seated toilets, and it is home to Singapore's oldest prisoner - a 90-year-old man.

The nonagenarian is currently serving a 20-year jail sentence for a drug-related offence.

Some details of the man emerged in Parliament on Monday (Aug 1) in Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam's written reply to a question from Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim.

She had asked how many prisoners have died of natural causes related to old age in the past five years.

"He was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment for the offence of unauthorised import or export of a controlled drug and was admitted to prison on April 30, 2014, when he was 82 years old," said the minister of the oldest prisoner.

He added that the man is staying in the Assisted Living Correctional Unit - the official name of the facility - to reduce his risk of falling.

The Singapore Prison Service does not routinely provide information on the age profile of prisoners, but The Straits Times reported in 2019 that the number of seniors jailed had risen.

The unusual disclosure on Monday raises the question: Can a person convicted of a crime here be too old to be sent to jail?

The answer is "no". There is no maximum age of offenders who can be jailed under Singapore laws, unlike the minimum age of 14 for an offender to be sentenced to jail.

The rationale is straightforward: A jail term is a deterrent against crime. If older people know that they can escape jail time, then there is no deterrence. This may then embolden old people with a criminal bent to commit offences.

In the case of the young ones, the focus is to rehabilitate young offenders, such as by placing them in a juvenile rehabilitation centre, rather than punish them.

In the case of the older ones, while advanced age does not keep offenders out of jail, it can be considered when judges decide how long to jail older offenders.

On Aug 5, 2008, the Court of Appeal - Singapore's highest court - made an important decision on how old age can affect sentencing.

It said: "In general, the mature age of the offender does not warrant a moderation of the punishment to be meted out. But, where the sentence is a long term of imprisonment, the offender's age is a relevant factor as, unless the legislature has prescribed a life sentence for the offence, the court should not impose a sentence that effectively amounts to a life sentence."

It sentenced a 55-year-old man - known as "UI" due to a gag order - who repeatedly raped his young daughter, to 24 years in jail.

Incarcerating the rapist for 30 years - a heavier jail sentence permitted under the law - would have been crushing on him, the Court of Appeal said.

This decision set out an important principle of proportionality. The highest court did not show leniency to the offender because of his old age per se. Rather, it considered how a long jail sentence could affect older offenders disproportionately because of their shorter remaining lifespan.

Still, a key question remains unanswered: Why did the courts in 2014 sentence the then 82-year-old offender - the oldest prisoner - to jail for 20 years?

Without the usual one-third remission for good behaviour, he would have been released at age 102. It is possible that 20 years was the mandatory minimum sentence for the offence, but this is speculative because no further details, including the precise charges, were released by the authorities or in Parliament.

When contacted, the Central Narcotics Bureau declined on Tuesday to release more details of the oldest prisoner.

While an offender is never too old to be sent to jail, he can be too ill to be jailed or tried in court. And he does not have to be old. There were two recent acts of such mercy.

In July 2020, the Court of Appeal fined a woman $5,000 instead of her original sentence of one week's jail after she was convicted of contempt of court. The woman, who was embroiled in a bitter divorce fight, had advanced Stage 4 breast cancer.

On Jan 8, 2020, Captain Tan Baoshu, the Singapore Armed Forces army officer who was charged over his role in the death of full-time national serviceman Dave Lee in 2018, was given a discharge not amounting to an acquittal after he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. The 31-year-old died one month later.

On paper, with one-third remission for good behaviour, the oldest prisoner in Changi can be released as early as 2027 or 2028, when he is about 95 years old, or when he is terminally ill.

The reply in Parliament on Monday painted an upbeat picture: "He has been observed to be fairly independent and does not require any assistance for his daily activities, nor does he display any sign of mental deterioration."

While he may be healthy now, he has already exceeded the life expectancy of Singaporean men of 83 years by seven years, which means he faces dimming odds in his twilight years of being able to walk out of Changi Prison a free man.

Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

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