It’s not public opinion that always matters, minister. It’s yours

Apr 28, 2017 07.50PM |
 

by Bertha Henson

WHAT is the weight of public opinion? It is heaviest during election time, when everybody gets to vote. How they vote is science and for political parties and academics to interpret. Only the individual knows why he voted the way he did – and sometimes not even that.

Public opinion, that vague phenomenon, can be viewed in a positive way as reflecting the community sentiments which may or may not be based on rational grounds. Politicians know that they have to get public opinion on their side to be voted in or to simply garner support for an agenda.

Or, public opinion can simply be viewed as the baying of the mob. Whether you think it’s positive or negative depends on which side of the fence you are on. So if public opinion is aligned with your own views, it must be correct and something must be done about it. If it doesn’t, then those who hold such views are misguided, ill-informed or just plain idiots.

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When Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam talked to TODAY about the weight of public opinion in the review of laws, I did a double-take. It seemed odd to me that such a tough minister would consider public reaction a factor until I read this further along in the story: ‘’But it doesn’t mean automatically you agree with it. You must assess it, whether it is also fair. So, there are two parts to it — one, whether it is fair; two, what does the public believe is right.’’

He’s speaking generally, he said in his rebuke of academic Donald Low.

As an example, he spoke of American Joshua Robinson, a mixed martial arts instructor who had sex with two 15-year-olds and showed an obscene film to a six-year-old. Many saw the four year jail term as too lenient. Mr Shanmugam had directed his ministries to re-look this.

In the TODAY story, however, is this:

A deputy public prosecutor, who declined to be named, had reservations about reviews being announced soon after a case concludes in court.

“When the Government says these things, it ties our hands,” he said.

This is a pertinent point. Sometimes it’s not so much public opinion that matters – since they can always be dismissed – but the opinion of a powerful person.

The former G lawyer didn’t give an example but you wonder what prosecutors will do now since the minister announced last month that there will be a review of maid abuser penalties. This comes after a Singaporean couple was convicted for starving their maid. The man was sentenced to three weeks’ jail and a S$10,000 fine while his wife was sentenced to three months’ jail.

Commentators are also waiting to see what sort of measures will be taken against so-called fake news, and announcement that came immediately on the heels of the G’s failure to get the courts to agree that it can use the Protection from Harassment Act.

Unlike past Home Affairs and Law ministers, Mr Shanmugam – who holds both portfolios – is well-known for speaking up about court cases.

And unlike members of the public who can face contempt of court charges, he said in Parliament last year (Mar 1), “public officials like myself can make statements if they believe it to be necessary in the public interest – even if there is a hearing pending. Amongst other things, public confidence in the police must be maintained.”  This is in response to public speculation that 14-year old Benjamin Lim had committed suicide as a result of police investigations.

There is also the forum of Parliament which conveys immunity to its members.

He has never been one to keep quiet.

Some examples:

a. Mr Shanmugam’s comments at a public forum in May 2010 on Malaysian drug trafficker Yong Vui Kong sparked a judicial review of Yong’s clemency process. Mr Shanmugam said: “If Yong escapes the death penalty, drug barons will think the signal is that young and vulnerable traffickers will be spared and can be used as drug mules.”

Yong’s lawyer, Mr M Ravi, felt that Mr Shanmugam’s comments could prejudice the decision of the President to grant clemency. The review was dismissed in August 2010 because it was argued that – constitutionally – Cabinet, in which Mr Shanmugam is a member, could in fact advise the President on matters of clemency.

b. In April 22, 2015 he said the actions of the boy who attacked foreign worker to practice martial arts was “sickening conduct, the kind of conduct that you would not approve if somebody did it to animals.” Earlier that week, the boy was sentenced to 10 days jail. The Attorney-General Chamber’s appeal a few days later for stiffer sentencing was dismissed. You can say that the judge wasn’t influenced by what he said. But it does cast a pall over the verdict if it went the G’s way.

c. In April 2015, he came out strongly to castigate the man who slapped teen terror Amos Yee, saying in a Facebook post: “Rule of Law means respecting the legal process. If everyone starts taking the law into his or her own hands, then we will no longer be a civilised society. I hope that the attacker will be caught quickly, and is dealt with appropriately.”

He is right to warn against vigilante action, but it would have been better coming from the police. Because people would expect that the culprit, since he’s been the subject of ministerial comment, would be dealt with heavily by the courts. The man was sentenced to three weeks jail.

d. He nearly made a police report when Ms Sangeetha Thanapal misrepresented his comments online in August 2015. Her Facebook post was “inaccurate and seditious”, he said. But he later decided not to do so after meeting her as she had no ill-will. Ms Thanapal on her part apologised on Facebook, saying what she had posted earlier was “unjustified”.

e. More recently (Oct 22, 2016), he announced that he would be filing a police report over “completely false” allegations made by sociopolitical site States Times Review. The site claimed that Mr Shanmugam had said that “Eurasians are considered Indians” for Presidential candidacy and downplayed the chances of a Eurasian becoming the President.

In his Facebook post, Mr Shanmugam expressed shock that “such outright falsehoods” could be spread online.  A check by TODAY the day after his post found that no report had been filed yet. It is unclear if a report was eventually made.

Now, a minister making a police report carries a lot more weight than reports filed by ordinary people. Face it, not everybody’s opinion is equal.

It is correct that public opinion should play a part in our laws. Some archaic holdovers like the criminalisation of oral sex has been thrown out of the window and the death penalty is only mandatory for egregious cases. Marital rape might well make it into the books. These are a reflection of changing societal norms and expectations.

But what if some people think that the laws of defamation here are too strict? And that more young people are getting soft on drugs as was reported in MSM today?

Then a judgement call must be made about what is fair and what is right for Singapore. This is what we elected people for, as representatives of Parliament and not as delegates. We vote them to exercise their judgement on our behalf.

It’s not always public opinion that matters or has an impact, minister. It’s yours. If you’re carrying a big stick, maybe you should tread softly.

 

Featured image from Minister K Shanmugam Sc’s Facebook page.

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