K. Shanmugam rebukes academic Donald Low over remarks misrepresenting his comments on criminal sentencing

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam speaks during the Roses of Peace Youth Forum on April 8, 2017.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam speaks during the Roses of Peace Youth Forum on April 8, 2017. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Thursday (April 27) rebuked academic Donald Low for misrepresenting his comments about considering public opinion when deciding on criminal sentences.

Mr Low, an Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, had written a Facebook post on Monday in response to an interview Mr Shanmugam gave to Mediacorp freesheet Today.

In the Today article, Mr Shanmugam had said that criminal penalties should reflect public opinion, but that this does not equate to bowing to public pressure.

Mr Low then wrote: "No la, how can this be right...we want our elected representatives to make laws impersonally and dispassionately, after proper deliberation and debate... Making laws on the basis of public opinion is populism by another name.

"If criminal punishments are to reflect only public opinion, why bother having judges do sentencing? Just run an opinion poll each time someone has been convicted."

In a Facebook post on Thursday, Mr Shanmugam said some have assumed that he was suggesting sentences in individual cases should be dictated by public opinion.

He then took aim at Mr Low's comments, which "have seriously misconstrued what I actually said".

First, the minister said his remarks "had nothing to do with how individual cases should be decided and what sentences should be meted out by judges".

Sentencing has always been the exclusive province of the courts and judges - who decide based on the prescribed laws, the facts and precedents, he said.

Rather, Mr Shanmugam said his remarks covered factors that the Government should take into account when deciding what conduct should be criminalised, and the appropriate range of penalties that should be meted out for different categories of offences.

Second, the minister said he had earlier made clear that public opinion, while relevant, cannot be the sole or decisive factor in proposing legislation.

Mr Shanmugam added that "it is surprising that some like Donald misunderstood what I meant", as the Today article had clearly set out the considerations that he said the Government should consider in deciding on legislation.

"Government should consider what is right, what is fair, and it should also take into account the weight of public opinion," he said.

For instance, if an overwhelming majority of the public does not consider some conduct to be criminal, that sentiment is relevant when deciding whether to criminalise such actions, Mr Shanmugam added.

It would be wrong for the Government to simply follow public opinion in all situations, as it can sometimes be inaccurate due to a lack of understanding of the facts, he said.

However, public opinion is still relevant, the minister added.

"If some law completely lacks public support, and the Government is not able to persuade the public on that law, then that particular law, over time, could become difficult to enforce," he noted.

Mr Shanmugam said such considerations have long been the basis on which laws are passed in many countries, including Singapore, and "are not some new-fangled theory".

He added that academics like Mr Low have every right to make criticisms, especially on issues of public importance.

"But to be meaningful, and sensible, it will be first useful to read and understand what has been said, before jumping in to criticise," Mr Shanmugam said.

"Otherwise the commentator does no credit to himself or his institution. Particularly an institution which carries Mr Lee Kuan Yew's name," he added.