Disclaimer: Given that I currently work for NUS and that what I’m going to be writing about in this note concerns NUS, it is perhaps appropriate for me to start with a disclaimer that all opinions expressed herewith are mine and do not in any way represent those of my employer. In other words, I’m just being a big kay poh and that’s that.
This is really a response to my student Orry who alerted me to this notehttp://kentridgecommon.com/?p=14416, which ostensibly defends Sun Xu, who has been accused, charged and essentially “convicted” of insulting Singaporeans.
It turns out that I once spent two years of my life meting out punishment for the Singapore Civil Service. Can’t recall the numbers exactly, but probably saw at least 200 to 300 cases and sacked a couple of dozen people. I also worked with lawyers and read judgments for fun just to better understand what I was doing. Suffices to say that I suspect that I am rather familar with offences and punishments. Hence, the first thing that came to mind when I read about the case was: was the case handled correctly?
Sorry, this is called ex-occupational hazard.
First,when there is an offence, the charges must be framed correctly and clearly and the accused must be given the right of reply. That part is not the problem. Quite sure Sun Xu is guilty as charged. So, that’s all cool. Check.
Next, after someone is found guilty, we have to decide exactly what punishment is appropriate for the “crime”. There are these things called the Principles of Natural Justice. I am not a lawyer and I don’t want to embarress myself by trying to explan this, and it suffices to say that one of key elements is that the “punishment must fit the crime”.
Think Goldilocks. Cannot be too light. Cannot be too heavy. Quite common sense really.
And it is on this point where I’m somewhat confused by the outcome of the whole business.
Before I continue, let me just say that for all intents and purposes, the case is closed.The case was “judged” and a punishment was decided on and Sun Xu was given the chance to appeal. He has given up his right to appeal. So the case is open and shut. It is also not my intention to ask for the case to be re-opened. I am merely excercising my right of free speech and being a big kay poh.
According to reports, Sun Xu was fined $3,000, asked to pay back S$8,200 for his current semester’s scholarship benefits and also made to do three months of community service before he can be allowed to graduate. In terms of monetary penalty, he slapped with essentially a financial penalty of $11,200.
Let’s ignore the community service part for a moment. I am curious to know what crimes, and I mean *real* crimes under our Penal system, would attract a fine of more than $10K?
I am also a little confused about the victim. Who exactly was the victim? Who died? Who was maimed? Who suffered financial loss, and how much?
When judges mete out punishments under the Penal Code, they often have to write judgments. In my past life, when I was the one meting out punishment on the civil servants who commit offences, we have a file for every case and we will have a detailed submission (10 or 15 pages not uncommon) explaining the facts of the case and the reasoning behind the final punishment that was dished out. There are these things call precedences which will be surfaced for comparison to make sure that the punishment is commensurate with the offence.
I would be curious to understand exactly how the NUS Disciplinary Committee came to the conclusion that $3,000 and to pay back the scholarship was “just” punishment. This might make for a good homework question for law school — “Sun Xu’s punishment was just w.r.t. the Singapore Penal Code. Discuss. ”
The second point that I would like to make is about the issue of anonymity.
It’s good that someone spoke up, but I am really not impressed by the fact that the student who wrote the article in defence of Sun Xu had to do so under the cloak of anonymity.
Given the present Internet climate, perhaps he was justified to be worried about being lynched by the online mob, but seriously, speaking under the cloak of anonymity is not healthy and not something that we want to encourage.
Moral courage is something that we want to encourage in Singapore and among our students.
It is because many Singaporeans are chicken and do not have the courage to speak up under their real names that we have the cowboy town we see on the Internet today. I hope that our NUS graduates can do better.
On ths note, I would like to take this opportunity to commend my student Orry for expressing his opinion that the punishment for Sun Xu was excessive in his own name.
To conclude, I would like to pose a thought experiment for the reader: suppose you were walking down the street and an angry dog starts barking at you. The dog is leashed, so it cannot come bite you. Do you:
(A) Ignore the barking and go about with your business because you have better things to do with your life, i.e. you have a life.
(B) Stare at the dog. Stare some more and try to out-stare the dog. Then bark back and try to out-bark the dog.
(C) Take out a shotgun and blow its brains out
(D) Make a police report
(E) Write to Baey Yam Keng
Further addiiton comment from Ben Leong
One, of the biggest problems with the current situation is that our education system has failed to teach people how to determine what they actually know and what they often don’t know. We have a lot of smart alecks who think they know a lot and anyhow spout crap under the pretense of freedom of speech or academic freedom.
What they seem to fail to understand is that what statements are made, they need to be robustly defensible when challenged. In minor cases, someone will come along and show that you’re wrong and make you look stupid. In major cases, it can lead to defamation. Rights come with responsibilities. Too many do not understand this leading to the sort of chaos that we are seeing online.
Two, forget the legal positions, just pause for a moment and take a step back and take a close look at what is happening:
o Stupid kid makes a stupid comment to his group of friends (or supposed friends) that some segment of this society finds offensive and gets slapped with a $10K fine for what is essentially a private message.
o Stupid girl makes some stupid remark on Twitter and the next thing we know, someone makes a Police report and another school has to initiate disciplinary proceedings.
These people are still in school for goodness sake. Kids say stupid things from time to time. That’s EXPECTED lah. *sigh* What’s going on.
I don’t think that when Parliament passed the Sedition Act, they had any inkling that we were heading towards what we see today. The Act is actually v scary ‘cos its powers are extremely broad. The general expectation in such circumstances is that such powers should only be exercised only under v dire circumstances. We really cannot be invoking the Sedition Act on a minor like the poly girl.
To some extent, this note is less about Sun Xu, and more about posing the question: what the heck is going on with our society today? Where are we heading?