Caning in Singapore
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Caning is a widely used form of legal corporal punishment in Singapore. It can be divided into several contexts: judicial, prison, reformatory, military, school, and domestic or private. These practices of caning are largely a legacy of, and are influenced by, British colonial rule in Singapore.
Of these, judicial caning, for which Singapore is best known, is the most severe. It is reserved for male convicts under the age of 50, for a wide range of offences under the Criminal Procedure Code, and is also used as a disciplinary measure in prisons. Caning is also a legal form of punishment for delinquent servicemen in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and is conducted in the SAF Detention Barracks. Caning is also used as an official punishment in reform schools.
In a milder form, caning is used to punish male students in primary and secondary schools for serious misbehaviour. The government encourages this but does not allow caning for female students, who instead receive alternative forms of punishment such as detention.
A much smaller cane or other implement is also used by some parents to punish their children for misbehaving. This is allowed in Singapore but not encouraged by the government.
- 1 Judicial caning
- 2 Prison caning
- 3 Military caning
- 4 Reformatory caning
- 5 School caning
- 6 Parental caning
- 7 Objections to corporal punishment
- 8 In arts and media
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 External links
Caning, as a form of legally sanctioned corporal punishment for convicted criminals, was first introduced to Malaya and Singapore by the British Empire in the 19th century. It was formally codified under the Straits Settlements Penal Code Ordinance IV in 1871.
In that era, offences punishable by caning were similar to those punishable by birching or flogging in England and Wales. They included robbery, aggravated forms of theft, burglary, assault with the intention of sexual abuse, a second or subsequent conviction of rape, a second or subsequent offence relating to prostitution, and living on or trading in prostitution.
Caning remained on the statute book after Malaya declared independence from Britain in 1957, and after Singapore ceased to be part of Malaysia in 1965. Subsequent legislation has been passed by the Parliament of Singapore over the years to increase the minimum strokes an offender receives, and the number of crimes that may be punished with caning.
Sections 325–332 of the Criminal Procedure Code lay down the procedures governing caning. They include the following:
- A male offender between the ages of 18 and 50 who has been certified to be in a fit state of health by a medical officer is liable to be caned.
- The offender shall receive no more than 24 strokes of the cane on any one occasion, irrespective of the total number of offences committed. In other words, a man cannot be sentenced to more than 24 strokes of the cane in a single trial, but he may receive more than 24 strokes if the sentences are given out in separate trials.
- If the offender is under 18, he may receive up to 10 strokes of the cane, but a lighter cane will be used in this case. Boys under 16 may be sentenced to caning only by the High Court and not by the State Courts.
- An offender sentenced to death shall not be caned.
- The rattan cane used shall not exceed 1.27 cm in diameter.
Any male convict, whether sentenced to caning or not, may also be caned in prison if he breaks certain prison rules.
The following groups of people shall not be caned:
- Men above the age of 50
- Men sentenced to death whose sentences have not been commuted
Offences punishable by caning
Singaporean law allows caning to be ordered for over 35 offences, including hostage-taking/kidnapping, robbery, gang robbery with murder, drug abuse, vandalism, rioting, sexual abuse (molest), and unlawful possession of weapons. Caning is also a mandatory punishment for certain offences such as rape, drug trafficking, illegal money-lending, and for visiting foreigners who overstay their visa by more than 90 days (a measure designed to deter illegal immigrant workers).
While most caning offences were inherited from British law, the Vandalism Act was only introduced in 1966 after independence, in what has been argued to be an attempt by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to suppress the activities of opposition political parties in the 1960s because their members and supporters vandalised public property with anti-PAP graffiti. Vandalism was originally prohibited by the Minor Offences Act, which made it punishable by a fine of up to S$50 or a week in jail, but did not permit caning.
In 1993, the number of caning sentences ordered by the courts was 3,244.
By 2007, this figure had doubled to 6,404, of which about 95% were actually implemented. Since 2007, the number of caning sentences has experienced an overall decline, reaching just 2,500 in 2012.
Caning takes place at several establishments around Singapore, most notably Changi Prison, but also including the now defunct Queenstown Remand Centre, where Michael P. Fay was caned in 1994. Canings are also administered in the Drug Rehabilitation Centres.
|Year||Number of sentences||Sentences carried out||Notes|
|2008||4,078||98.7%||January to September only|
|2009||4,228||99.8%||January to November only|
The prison officers administering canings are carefully selected and specially trained for the job. They are generally physically fit and robustly built. Some hold "quite high" grades in martial arts even though proficiency in martial arts is not a requirement. They are trained to use their entire body weight as the power behind every stroke instead of using only the strength from their arms, as well as to induce as much pain as possible. They can swing the cane at a speed of up to 160 kilometres per hour.
A rattan cane no more than 1.27 cm in diameter is used for judicial and prison canings. It is about twice as thick as the canes used in the school and military contexts. The cane is soaked in water overnight to prevent it from splitting and embedding splinters in the wounds. The Prisons Department denies that the cane is soaked in brine, but has said that it is treated with antiseptic before use to prevent infection. A lighter cane is used for juvenile offenders.
Caning is in practice always ordered in addition to a jail sentence and never as a punishment by itself. It is administered in an enclosed area in the prison, out of view of the public and other inmates. A medical officer and the Superintendent of Prisons are required to be present at every caning session.
The offender is not told in advance when he will be caned; he is notified only on the day his sentence is to be carried out. Offenders often undergo a lot of psychological distress as a result of being put into such uncertainty. On the day itself, the medical officer examines him by measuring his blood pressure and other physical conditions to check whether he is medically fit for the caning. If he is certified fit, he proceeds to receive his punishment; if he is certified unfit, he is sent back to the court for his prison term to be extended. A prison officer confirms with him the number of strokes he has been sentenced to.
In practice, the offender is required to strip completely naked for the caning. Once he has removed his clothes, he bends over a padded crossbar on the A-shaped wooden trestle and has his hands and feet secured tightly by leather straps to the trestle, such that he assumes a bent-over position on the trestle at an angle of close to 90° at the hip. Protective padding is tied around his lower back to protect the vulnerable kidney and lower spine area from any strokes that might land off-target. The punishment is administered on his bare buttocks. The caning officer takes up position beside the frame and delivers the number of strokes specified in the sentence at intervals of 10–15 seconds. He is required to exert as much strength as he can muster for each stroke. The offender receives all the strokes in a single caning session – not in instalments.
If during the caning, the medical officer certifies that the offender is not in a fit state of health to undergo the rest of the punishment, the caning must be stopped. The offender will then be sent back to the court for the remaining number of strokes to be remitted or converted to a prison term of no more than 12 months, in addition to the original prison term he was sentenced to.
Medical treatment and the effects
The immediate physical effects of caning have been exaggerated in some accounts; nevertheless, there may be significant physical damage, depending on the number of strokes inflicted. Michael P. Fay said, "The skin did rip open, there was some blood. I mean, let's not exaggerate, and let's not say a few drops or that the blood was gushing out. It was in between the two. It's like a bloody nose." A report by the Singapore Bar Association stated, "The blows are applied with the full force of the jailer's arm. When the rattan hits the bare buttocks, the skin disintegrates, leaving a white line and then a flow of blood." Usually, the buttocks will be covered with blood after three strokes. More profuse bleeding may, however, occur in the case of a larger number of strokes.
Men who have been caned before described the pain they experienced as "unbearable" and "excruciating". A recipient of 10 strokes even said, "The pain was beyond description. If there is a word stronger than excruciating, that should be the word to describe it".
After the caning, the inmate is released from the trestle and receives medical treatment. Antiseptic lotion (gentian violet) is applied. The wounds take between a week and a month to heal, and the marks are indelible.
- Michael P. Fay, an American teenager whose conviction for vandalism and sentence of six strokes of the cane attracted worldwide publicity and sparked off a minor diplomatic crisis between Singapore and the United States. The Singaporean government reduced Fay's sentence from six to four strokes. Fay was caned on 5 May 1994 in Queenstown Remand Prison.
- Dickson Tan Yong Wen, a Singaporean who received three more strokes than he was sentenced to because of an administrative error. He was sentenced on 28 February 2007 to nine months in jail and five strokes of the cane for two offences involving abetting an illegal moneylender to harass a debtor. However, he received eight strokes on 29 March 2007. Tan sought S$3 million from the government in compensation but was rejected. He did receive some compensation after negotiations, but the amount was kept secret.
- Dave Teo, a Singaporean Full Time National Serviceman who made headlines in Singapore when he went absent without official leave (AWOL) on 2 September 2007 from an army camp with a SAR 21 assault rifle. He was arrested by the police at Cathay Cineleisure Orchard with the rifle, eight 5.56mm rounds, and a knife in his possession. Teo was sentenced in July 2008 to nine years and two months imprisonment and 18 strokes of the cane under multiple charges under the Arms Offences Act.
- Oliver Fricker, a Swiss national who was sentenced on 25 June 2010 to five months imprisonment and three strokes of the cane for breaking into the SMRT Trains Changi Depot and vandalising an MRT train by spraypainting it.
- Two Taiwanese nationals, Su Wei Ying and Wu Wei Chun, were sentenced in September 2010 to 21 and 24 months' imprisonment respectively, and both received 15 strokes of the cane each for loansharking offences. Another Taiwanese national, Chen Ci Fan, was sentenced in January 2011 to 46 months' imprisonment and six strokes of the cane, also in connection with loansharking.
- Two Germans, Andreas Von Knorre and Elton Hinz, were each sentenced on 5 March 2015 to nine months' imprisonment and three strokes of the cane for breaking into a train depot in November 2014 and vandalising a train cabin by spraypainting it.
- Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian national who was caught trafficking heroin in 2007, was spared the death penalty and re-sentenced to life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane in 2013 after changes were made to Singapore's laws on drug trafficking. (See Yong Vui Kong v Public Prosecutor for the background of the case). Yong, acting through his lawyer M Ravi, made an appeal to the Court of Appeal against his caning sentence by arguing that the corporal punishment violated the Constitution. Ravi also contended that the practice of caning was racist and discriminatory. In 2015, three judges, including Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, ruled that caning was not unconstitutional and dismissed Yong's appeal.
Differences between judicial caning in Singapore and in Malaysia
- Juveniles sentenced to caning: In Singapore, only the High Court may order the caning of boys under 16. In Malaysia, local courts may do so.
- Age limit of 50: In Singapore, men above the age of 50 cannot be sentenced to caning. In Malaysia, however, the law was amended in 2006 such that convicted rapists above the age of 50 may still be sentenced to caning. In 2008, a 56-year-old man was sentenced to 57 years jail and 12 strokes of the cane for rape.
- Terminology: In Singapore, in both legislation and press reports, the term "caning" is used to describe the punishment. In Malaysia, the term "caning" is often used informally, while the phrases "strokes of the cane" and "strokes of the rotan" are used interchangeably, but the correct official term is "whipping" in accordance with traditional British legislative terminology.
- Dimensions of the cane: The cane used in Malaysia is marginally smaller than the one used in Singapore but there are no discernible differences when first-person accounts from both countries are compared. In Malaysia, a smaller cane is used for white-collar offenders. There are no reports of any such distinction being made in Singapore.
- Modus operandi: The trestle used in Singapore is not the same as the A-shaped frame used in Malaysia. In Singapore, the offender bends over on the trestle with his feet together, and has protective padding secured around his lower back to protect the kidney and lower spine area from strokes that land off-target. In Malaysia, the offender stands upright at the frame with his feet apart, and has a special protective "shield" tied around his lower body to cover the lower back and upper thighs while leaving the buttocks exposed.
Male convicts who are not sentenced to caning by the courts are still liable to be caned in prison if they commit offences while serving time in prison.
A Superintendent of Prisons may impose corporal punishment not exceeding 12 strokes of the cane for aggravated prison offences after due inquiry at a "mini-court" inside the prison, during which the prisoner is given an opportunity to hear the charge and evidence against him and present his defence. The Prisons Director must approve the punishment before it can be carried out. The modus operandi is the same as that of judicial caning.
Inmates of Drug Rehabilitation Centres may be caned in the same way.
In 2008, the procedure was revised to introduce a review of each prison caning sentence by an independent external panel.
In the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), a subordinate military court, or the officer in charge of the SAF Detention Barracks, may sentence a serviceman to a maximum of 24 strokes of the cane (10 strokes if the serviceman is below 16) for committing certain military offences or for committing aggravated offences while being detained in the Detention Barracks. In all cases, the caning sentence must be approved by the Armed Forces Council before it can be administered. The minimum age for a serviceman to be sentenced to caning is 16 (now 16.5 de facto, since entry into the SAF is restricted to those above that age). This form of caning is mainly used on recalcitrant teenage conscripts serving full-time National Service in the SAF.
Military caning is less severe than its civilian counterpart, and is designed not to cause undue bleeding and leave permanent scars. The offender must be certified by a medical officer to be in a fit condition of health to undergo the punishment and shall wear "protective clothing" as prescribed. The punishment is administered on the buttocks, which are covered by a "protective guard" to prevent cuts. The cane used is no more than 6.35 mm in diameter (about half the thickness of the prison/judicial cane). During the punishment, the offender is secured in a bent-over position to a trestle similar to the one used for judicial/prison canings.
Caning is used as a form of legal corporal punishment in reformatories, such as the Singapore Boys' Home and Singapore Girls' Home, to which the courts may send juvenile delinquents up to the age of 16 for up to three years, which means they may be aged 18 when they leave.
The superintendents of reformatories are allowed to impose corporal punishment on both male and female residents for serious misconduct. They are required to maintain a record of the details and evidence of the offender's misconduct and their reasons for deciding to cane him/her.
The punishment is administered in private by the superintendent or an authorised officer of the same sex as the offender, using a cane of a type approved by the Director of Social Welfare. A maximum of eight strokes may be inflicted. For a male offender, the strokes may be inflicted on either the palm of the hand or the buttocks over ordinary cloth shorts. For a female offender, the strokes may be inflicted on the palm of the hand only.
Caning is also used as a form of corporal punishment and disciplinary measure in primary and secondary schools. It is applicable to only male students; it is illegal to inflict corporal punishment on female students. The punishment may be administered by only the Principal, Vice Principal, or a specially designated and trained "Discipline Master". The student's parents must be informed immediately of all the details of the offence and punishment. Parental consent might be sought in some instances before the caning is carried out.
The Ministry of Education encourages schools to punish boys by caning for committing serious offences such as fighting, smoking, cheating, gangsterism, vandalism, defiance and truancy. Students may also be caned for repeated cases of minor offences, such as being late repeatedly in a term. At most schools, caning comes after detention but before suspension in the hierarchy of penalties. Some schools use a demerit points system, whereby students receive mandatory caning after accumulating a certain number of demerit points for a wide range of offences. The Ministry recommends that the student receives counselling before and/or after the punishment.
Under the Ministry's regulations, a maximum of six strokes may be inflicted using a light rattan cane. The student may be caned on only the buttocks over clothing or the palm of the hand. Most school canings generally range from one to three strokes administered with full force. Boys of any age from six to 19 may be caned, but the majority of canings are of secondary school students aged 14–16 inclusive.
School caning is a solemn and formal ceremony, and is typically administered in a manner similar to school canings in England in the early to mid 20th century. A protective item (book, file, rolled-up newspaper) might be tucked into the student's trouser waistband to protect the lower back from strokes that land off-target. He is then directed to place his hands on a desk or chair and bend over or lean forward, and receives the strokes on the seat of his uniform trousers or shorts. He normally experiences superficial bruises and weals for a few days after the punishment. Canings on the hand are rarely implemented, with one notable exception being Saint Andrew's Secondary School, where students may be caned on the hand for committing less serious offences while caning on the buttocks is reserved for more serious offences.
Canings in school may be sorted into these categories:
- Private caning (most common): The student is caned in the school office in the presence of the Principal and another witness. His parents might be present as well.
- Class caning: The student is caned in front of his class.
- Public caning: The student is caned in front of an assembly of the whole school population to serve as a warning to potential offenders as well as to embarrass the student. This form of punishment is usually reserved for very serious offences and repeated offences.
- Others: There may be intermediate levels between a "class caning" and a "public caning". Some schools give these special names, such as "cohort caning" (in front of all classes in the same year as the student).
Certain schools adopt special practices. For example, following British traditions, some schools (mainly boys' schools) require the student to change into physical education (PE) attire for the punishment because PE shorts are apparently thinner than normal uniform trousers/shorts, even though the main purpose is probably to enhance the formality of the occasion. In some schools, if the caning is conducted in public, the student is required to make a public apology before or after receiving his punishment.
Routine school canings are normally not publicised, so only rare and special cases are reported in the media.
Caning is used as a form of punishment in the home for children (both boys and girls) and is usually meted out by their parents, the most common offences being disobedience and lying. This form of punishment is legal in Singapore, but not particularly encouraged by the authorities, and parents are likely to be charged with child abuse if the child is injured.
The most commonly used implement is a thin rattan cane with a plastic cover shaped like a hook serving as a handle on one end. They are available in grocery shops in neighbourhoods and are normally used for disciplining children and adolescents at home. Each cane costs about 50 Singapore cents, with best sales during times when students prepare for examinations.
Sometimes parents use other implements such as the handle of a feather-duster (made of rattan), rulers or even clothes hangers. The misbehaving child is usually caned on the thighs, calves, buttocks or palms. This type of caning usually leaves the child with marks that will fade within days.
According to a survey conducted by The Sunday Times in January 2009, out of the 100 parents surveyed, 57 said that caning was an acceptable form of punishment and they had used it on their children.
Objections to corporal punishment
Amnesty International has condemned the practice of judicial caning in Singapore as a "cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment". It is also regarded by some international observers as a violation of Article 1 in the United Nations Convention Against Torture. However, Singapore is not signatory to the Convention. Human Rights Watch similarly referred to the practice of caning as "an inherently cruel punishment".
Singapore is a member of the Convention on the rights of the child and therefore is obliged to "take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse". However, it stated that it considers "the judicious application of corporal punishment in the best interest of the child."
In arts and media
- Behind Bars (Chinese: 铁狱雷霆; pinyin: Tiě Yù Léi Tíng; Iron Prison and Thunder), a 1991 Singaporean television series produced by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation in collaboration with Changi Prison. The drama portrays the lives of prison officers and convicts in prison. There is a brief scene about judicial caning in one of the episodes.
- Love is Beautiful (Chinese: 美丽家庭; pinyin: Měi Lì Jiā Tíng; Beautiful Family), a 2003 Singaporean television series produced by MediaCorp Channel 8. In the drama, Huang Leshan (played by Andrew Seow) is sentenced to 18 years imprisonment and 12 strokes of the cane for raping Song Hui (played by May Phua). The caning scene is briefly shown in one of the episodes when Leshan recalls his ordeal.
- One More Chance (Chinese: 3个好人; pinyin: Sān Gè Hǎo Rén; Three Good Men), a 2005 Singaporean film by Jack Neo which portrays the lives of three convicts in prison. It also reflects the social stigma towards ex-offenders. A judicial caning scene is featured in the film in which one of the three convicts (played by Henry Thia) receives his caning sentence of six strokes. The scene is not featured explicitly and only the audio is heard in place of visual images.
- I Not Stupid Too (Chinese: 小孩不笨2; pinyin: Xiǎohái Bù Bèn Èr; The Children Are Not Stupid Part II), a 2006 Singaporean film by Jack Neo which reflects the lives of three ordinary Singaporean youngsters in school and their relationships with their families. One of the main characters, Tom Yeo (played by Shawn Lee), is publicly caned in school for hitting his teacher. The caning scene is graphically portrayed, with Tom bending over a desk on the stage in the school hall to receive three hard strokes on the seat of his trousers in front of the assembled student body. This faithfully reproduced the procedure used in real life at the school where the scene was filmed, Presbyterian High School. The public caning issue sparked off a debate in which it was revealed that some Singaporeans were not aware that corporal punishment is common in secondary schools.
- The Homecoming (Chinese: 十三鞭; pinyin: Shí Sān Biān; Thirteen Strokes), a 2007 Singaporean television series produced by MediaCorp. In the drama, four men were convicted of arson in their youth and sentenced to imprisonment and three strokes of caning each. One of them (played by Rayson Tan) received one more stroke than either of his three friends, supposedly for being the mastermind. Several years later when he becomes a successful lawyer, he sets off to find out who betrayed him and takes his revenge. The caning scene is featured briefly in flashbacks.
- Don't Stop Believin' (Chinese: 我们等你; pinyin: Wǒ Mén Déng Nǐ; We Will Wait For You), a 2012 Singaporean television series produced by MediaCorp. In the drama, a secondary school student, Zhong Junliang (played by Xu Bin), is wrongly accused of molesting a female student. He is caned in front of the school assembly by the Discipline Master (played by Brandon Wong), who turns out to be his father.
- Ilo Ilo, a 2013 Singaporean family film directed by Anthony Chen. In one scene, the main character Jiale (played by boy actor Koh Jia Ler) receives a public caning in school for fighting with his classmate.
- The Caning of Michael Fay: The Inside Story by a Singaporean (1994), a documentary book by Gopal Baratham published in the wake of the controversial caning of Michael P. Fay. It concentrates on the personal aspects, the punishment and the sociology of caning in Singapore. The book includes some descriptions of caning and photographs of its results, as well as two personal interviews with men who had been caned before.
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