Nellie (not her real name) was 11 when she faced the unwelcome advances of her own father.
‘’He used to make inappropriate comments about my T-shirts, and skirts. But none of us bothered about them at the time, although I did feel uncomfortable hearing them. Mummy told me not to worry too much about them as they were ‘nonsense’,’’ she recalls.
At the time, she was living with her mother, brother, father and elder sister in a flat with four bedrooms. Nellie and her sister slept with their parents in two rooms without a fixed arrangement. Her brother had his own room, and the remaining bedroom served as a study.
Nellie recalls how, one night between October and December 2018, her father touched her inappropriately and told her not to tell anyone.
‘’After that incident, I avoided sleeping alone with him, but I did not tell my mother about what happened as I did not want anything to happen to my family.’’ she says.
One afternoon, sometime after the earlier incident, Nellie’s father went into the master bedroom where she was watching YouTube videos and sexually assaulted her.
Her mother and sister were out grocery shopping at the time.
‘’I did not tell my mother or sister what Daddy did to me as I did not want my family to break up. I was also afraid that my mother would blame me, because she told me that I should not let anyone touch me (wrongly),’’ she says.
But Nellie’s behaviour in school was severely affected by the incident and her grades suffered. When she was questioned by her form teacher on 28 August 2019, she revealed what her father had done.
The matter was then reported to the police and late last year, her father was sentenced to 23 years’ jail.
He pleaded guilty to one charge of aggravated statutory rape and one charge of aggravated sexual assault by penetration.
As he was already 50, he was spared the cane for the offence.
Spared from judicial caning
There have been many cases where adult men have sexually abused kids from within their own families.
In October last year, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) president Margaret Thomas told The Straits Times that child sexual abuse can have a long-term impact on the psychosocial development of children, as the abuse changes the way they view themselves, others and the world.
She said: ‘’Children typically experience a lot of guilt and self-blame. They may view themselves as shameful, unworthy and dirty and the world as an unsafe and volatile place.”
But these offences are often reported and investigated years later, by which time the perpetrators have reached beyond 50, and are exempt from caning by law.
In Singapore, judicial caning is applicable to more than 30 offences which include robbery, drug trafficking and vandalism, and there is a legal limit of 24 strokes for adults and 10 for juveniles during the same sitting. But a medical officer must be present during the caning to certify that the offender is fit to be caned continuously.
An offender who is deemed unfit for caning may be given up to 12 months of imprisonment in addition to his existing jail sentence to compensate for the caning.
Caning, however, cannot be conducted in installments and must be stopped mid-execution if the medical officer certifies that the offender is unfit to continue. Should the caning be stopped mid-session, the offender may be given up to 12 months of imprisonment to compensate for the unfinished strokes.
Living longer, healthier lives
However, many child molest cases go unreported until the victims have grown and the offence gets reported only years later. These offenders would have turned 50 and older and today, men in their 50s tend to be as fit or fitter than their younger counterparts. So, does this exemption make sense? Can the law now be reviewed to remove the blanket exemption, and instead review each offence on a case-by-case basis with each perpetrator’s health taken into account?
While the cut-off age was enacted during the 1960s or 1970s, a time when life expectancies were shorter, Singaporean men and women live longer and healthier lives today.
Head of the Crime Department of Quahe, Woo & Palmer LLC Sunil Sudheesan, the cut-off age of 50 for caning was established by the British in the 1900s, during colonial rule in Singapore.
Concurring, Ms Gloria James-Civetta, Head Lawyer of GJC Law, says that judicial caning was set up historically during the Straits Settlements period of British rule of Malaya (which also included Singapore).
‘’Back then, the life expectancy was much lower, thus the age limit of 50,’’ she says.
Last September, Member of Parliament Murali Pillai recommended in Parliament that serious sex offenders should be caned regardless of their age to serve as a stronger deterrent against such offences as he felt that the current cut-off age of 50 years for caning was “not fit for purpose’’.
Speaking to the House, Mr Murali observed that middle-aged sex offenders tended to target younger victims, and therefore needed to be strongly deterred from such actions. He suggested that instead of a cut-off age, each offender should be examined to determine if he is medically fit for caning, and it should be allowed if he was certified fit for it.
Such a review may give more closure to victims of sexual offenders, he said, as the heinous abuse of the perpetrators may have deeply traumatised their victims psychologically and physically, and caning will send a clear deterrent message.
Malaysia, like Singapore, also imposes judicial caning for certain serious offences, including sexual ones.
In 2008, The Star reported that a 56-year-old man was sentenced to 57 years’ jail and 12 strokes of the cane for raping a 20-year-old woman. This was because in 2006 Malaysia amended its laws to allow for offenders who were above 50 to be caned.
But Ms James-Civetta feels that a case-by-case approach would be unproductive as it would be hard to ‘’draw the line’’.
Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam also feels there was no reason to raise the age limit for caning, as the number of men over the age of 50 arrested for serious offences that attract caning is significantly lower, compared to men under the age of 50.
In his reply to Mr Murali, Mr Shanmugam said: “Where an offender is not eligible for caning, the court can still impose an additional imprisonment term of up to 12 months in lieu of caning, if it assesses that there is a need to do so.”
He admitted that keeping the cut-off age in tandem with life expectancy was ‘’logical’’ and ‘’cogent’’, but ‘’we have been quite cautious about extending the categories of people who are caned.”
Mr Rajan Supramaniam of Regent Law LLC says that the age limit for caning need not be reviewed further as the scope of the offences requiring caning is currently fair.
He adds that there are already checks and balances in place in the form of the Singapore Prison Service and the prison medical services to assess medical health and suitability of the convict for caning.
Ms James-Civetta says: ‘If the law does undergo a review, perhaps it is to consider the age when one is considered a senior citizen or age of retirement as a benchmark to the appropriate age of caning.
‘’As prison already has a regimen in place where one has to be assessed to be suitable for caning before it is carried out, that takes care of any unwarranted issues that might arise.’’
Mr Sunil acknowledges that a case-by-case review for caning of sexual offenders could be foundational, given the severity of the offences and the ‘’visceral responses’’ that result from them.
‘’So, caning those above 50 for sexual abuse of young victims works to fulfil retributive aims of sentencing (for these offences),’’ he says.
But Mr Sunil suggests that the courts should still be empowered to look at a convicted person’s age at the time of the offence.
‘’If the convict is below 50 at the time of offending, there can be a presumption of caning should the convict be medically fit at time of conviction,’’ he adds.
Yet others strongly feel that caning is ineffective and should be replaced by longer jail terms instead.
The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) opposes caning as a punishment for criminal offences. Its Head of Advocacy and Research Shailey Hingorani says that corporal punishment such as caning suggests that authority and norms are implemented through physical domination.
She feels that concept “predicates abusive and violent behaviour, thereby helping to normalise violence and further its cycle”.
Ms Hingorani says: “While we believe that sexual violence should be taken seriously by the law, we absolutely oppose the idea that male sexual offenders over the age of 50 should be caned … Lastly, we have not seen clear evidence that caning is a deterrent in sexual abuse cases, or is superior to prison terms, rehabilitation programmes or other non-violent penalties.
‘’We therefore strongly recommend that criminal punishments centre on the latter.”
Ms James-Civetta says that having a sex offender registry for sexual offenders, as is available in Australia and the USA, would also be an added deterrent as it ‘’hurts his rice bowl’’.
For more on sex offender registry, read Public sex offender registry: Doing more to stop sex predators from re-offending