SINGAPORE - The prosecution is duty-bound to consider all relevant evidence and mitigating factors in cases of sexual misconduct on campus, Attorney-General Lucien Wong said on Monday (Jan 6), while acknowledging the need to be tough on such offences.
Speaking at a ceremony to mark the opening of the legal year, Mr Wong addressed the challenge to maintain public trust and confidence in the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) as a fair and independent institution devoted to the rule of law.
He noted that there has been a lot of debate recently over the issue of sexual misconduct on university campuses.
“I can understand how the disparity in outcomes for such cases may touch a raw nerve if people feel that we had given preferential treatment to a particular offender, or that we had simply been too lenient. The simple reality is that no two cases are exactly alike,” he said.
“While I acknowledge the importance of being tough on such offences, my prosecutors and I are also duty-bound to consider all relevant evidence and mitigating factors, such as whether the offender came clean on his own initiative; or whether the offence arose from a mental condition that can be treated.”
The issue was brought to the fore when National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduate Monica Baey took to social media to vent her frustrations last year as she felt that the perpetrator who filmed her while she was in the shower in her university hall of residence had got off lightly.
Mr Nicholas Lim, who was 23 at the time, was given a 12-month conditional warning by the police. The university suspended him for one semester and banned him from entering the hall of residence.
The incident triggered a national debate on whether Mr Lim had been treated too leniently.
In his speech on Monday, Mr Wong said he accepted that there will still be cases where people may disagree with the prosecution’s decisions.
Public opinion can be a “common sense check” on whether a prosecutorial decision was so removed from logic or acceptable moral standards that it should be relooked, he said.
He added that public opinion is also a useful indicator of the effect of certain types of offences, which in turn affects the need for general deterrence.
He cited how public disquiet over accidents caused by errant cyclists and personal mobility device users had shown a greater need to deter careless or reckless riding.
"At the same time, let me make it clear that our prosecutorial decisions will not be made on the basis of public opinion, because if a decision is grounded on facts, law, and precedent, the fact that it is unpopular does not make it any less right," he said.
“We will not take action against an accused person if the legal elements of an offence are not made out, even if he or she had done something to provoke a strong reaction. Neither will we pursue a sentence which is disproportionate to the offence simply for the sake of quelling public outrage,” he said.
Moving forward, he said, the AGC will, in appropriate cases, explain more clearly the basis behind some of its decisions, while helping the public to understand that sometimes, the rule of law requires it to act contrary to the wishes of the majority.
Mr Wong also anticipated increasing demands on AGC officers, arising from a mix of domestic and international factors, such as bilateral issues with Singapore’s neighbours.
On the domestic front, the AGC would need to be prepared for an increase in litigation arising from new laws that have been passed, such as amendments to the Penal Code.
“We anticipate that this will lead to more contested cases in the short term as accused persons charged under new offence provisions seek to clarify the boundaries of the law,” he said.
He added that the AGC is also readying itself to deal with appeals under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), which must be heard within extremely short timelines.