A High Court judge faced with the prospect of applying benchmark 20-year jail terms to two drug traffickers-cum-addicts, aged 59 and 60, urged the community to ask what else could be done for such "victim-offenders, trapped in an unending cycle".
"Unlike young offenders, these two men will not have much of a life left to turn around by the time they are released, and we ought to give them hope for however little is left," said Justice Choo Han Teck in his judgment issued on Thursday.
The two Singaporeans were spared capital drug charges in May after the High Court was not convinced they knew they had 2lb (907g) of a granular substance which contained 21.58g of diamorphine, or pure heroin. The men had claimed they thought they only had one pound of it.
Justice Choo had amended the charge and convicted the duo - pimp Ng Peng Chong, 59, and former cabby Cheng Pueh Kuang, 60 - of jointly trafficking in 10.17g of diamorphine, based on the evidence from a six-day hearing in February.
There was no dispute that both were also drug addicts, having consumed drugs and been punished for related offences since 1980.
Collecting and selling drugs to feed their addiction had taken up the best part of their lives, noted Justice Choo.
For the substituted lesser charge, they faced a minimum jail term of 20 years or life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane, which they escaped because of their age.
Both had nine other charges, which were stood down when they faced the capital charge. After their conviction, two of the nine charges involving drug possession and consumption were restored by the prosecution, with the rest taken into consideration for sentencing.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Rachel Ng called for "benchmark sentences", arguing for lengthier jail terms since they had a " huge discount" in being spared caning.
Justice Choo accepted that to add 12 months' jail in lieu of caning was in line with the benchmarks, but ruled the minimum jail terms imposed were sufficiently severe.
He said the DPP's stand was consistent with the strong stand taken by Parliament and the courts against drug offences because of the damage they do to society. But he said consistency in benchmarks and other factors had to be weighed against the need for each case to be judged on its own merits.
Benchmarks, minimum mandatory jail terms and other factors are "the analogue version of language that can quite easily be digitised to obtain a computer-generated sentence". But the computer cannot do this for lack of sympathy and compassion, said Justice Choo.
The judge added that the offenders may look like villains from a distance but "close up, they also resemble the victims for they are themselves victims".
"Their situation raises questions that a court may ask but may not be able to answer," said Justice Choo.
Ng, defended by lawyer Cheong Aik Chye, was sentenced to 25 years' jail for two of the charges and seven years for the third, which is to run concurrently.
Cheng, represented by lawyer Peter Low, was jailed for 27 years for two of the charges, with another 10 years for a third charge to run concurrently.