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Will tougher laws make a difference to those at risk?

Will tougher laws make a difference to those at risk?

Source: Straits Times
Date Published: 21 May 2019
Author: Tan Tam Mei and Cara Wong

Recent changes to the Penal Code have introduced tougher penalties against those who abuse domestic workers, children and people with disabilities, and identified new groups of vulnerable persons. Tan Tam Mei and Cara Wong look at whether harsher punishments would translate into better protection for five groups of vulnerable people.

A society is judged by the way it treats its weakest members and Singapore's move to recognise more vulnerable groups who need protection is a reflection of a more compassionate nation, say experts.

Under laws passed in Parliament earlier this month, those who abuse vulnerable victims will face up to twice the maximum punishment for similar crimes against others.

For instance, offenders who cause grievous hurt face up to 10 years' jail with a fine and caning, but if the crime is committed against a vulnerable victim, the jail term can go up to 20 years.

The scope of those considered vulnerable will also be widened under the new laws.

Besides the existing vulnerable categories of domestic workers and people with mental or physical disabilities, three groups will be added: children under 14, victims in close relationships with their offenders, and victims in intimate relationships with their offenders.

The need to deter abuse of the weak through extra legislative protection was first recognised more than 20 years ago.

In 1998, the Penal Code was amended, introducing 11/2 times the maximum punishment for certain offences committed against foreign domestic workers.

Last year, similar enhanced punishments were introduced for abusers of vulnerable adults - defined as those aged 18 and above who are unable to protect themselves due to disabilities - under the Vulnerable Adults Act.

During the Bill's debate, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin said the changes were borne out of the desire to deter abuse.

He also said the move was an opportunity "for this House to register our strongest condemnation against acts that harm the most vulnerable among us".

The new laws are encouraging, said experts like Mr Norman Kee, an early childhood and special needs education lecturer at the National Institute of Education, who was of the opinion that the law now gives these "silent groups" a voice.

He said: "The changes do signal the need to move towards a more humanistic, compassionate and inclusive society... (It is also a) representation of their distressing and 'unbearable' suffering."

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser said the move to recognise victims in intimate or close relationships with their abusers signals that such acts, which are sometimes dismissed as "domestic problems", cannot remain private if they involve abuse.

"It is a recognition that we have a responsibility to raise the alarm and not close one eye... that we must feel outraged and act to prevent or stop abusive behaviour," he said.

But on the ground, welfare and social service groups say the new laws will not necessarily translate into better protection.

Under-reporting is also common when it comes to abuse cases, said the experts who noted that published statistics could represent just the tip of the iceberg.

To be effective, the new laws must come in tandem with measures to protect and educate the victims and those around them, say the various organisations who look out for the vulnerable.

In Parliament, Mr Amrin acknowledged that the law has its limits.

"The law can shape social norms, but it is only one factor," he said, adding that while the legal direction is now clear, the Government needs to work with community partners, including non-governmental organisations, to be effective.


PUBLIC RESPONSIBILITY

It is a recognition that we have a responsibility to raise the alarm and not close one eye... that we must feel outraged and act to prevent or stop abusive behaviour.

SOCIOLOGIST TAN ERN SER, on the move to recognise victims in intimate or close relationships with their abusers.

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

 

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