The 5 Toa Payoh Vandals are not Heroes
Following the vulgarity and anti-establishment graffiti atop of Blk 85A Lorong 4 Toa Payoh, 5 17 year old teenagers were arrested and charged in court for vandalism last Friday. They were remanded for a week for further investigations and are believed to involved in another case.
Much has been made about their reasons for doing so. To some opposition supporters, this has links to the draconian way the PAP runs Singapore. To some others, it's an overkill by the authorities and they worry about the fate of the boys. To these groups, these boys are 'heroes' for standing up and they feel they should be praised rather than condemned. I disagree, and in the final analysis, all these efforts by certain people and groups are doing a great dis-service to the boys. It's turning a rather straight forward case in something that's much bigger. This can easily prove detrimental to their plight rather than helpful. If I were the parent of any of the boys, my simple message to everyone – thanks for your concern, but please, let's leave the matter in the hands of our lawyers and mind your own business.
The 5 youths being transported in a police van on their way to the State Courts. (ST photo)
Graffiti type vandalism is not new to Singapore. It carries a jail term and a minimum of 3 strokes of the cane. Whether you think it harsh or brutal, let's not forget why it was introduced here in the first place. Back in the 1980s. such sights were common place, and with the introduction of the MRT, there was a fear if left unchecked, our trains would end up looking like the subways in America. Graffiti may appear as art to some, but it's also widely used to mark gang territory and what is art to some, is very much an eyesore to others. The stiff penalties imposed here was NOT met by derision by the general public. There was consensus back then (and even now) that if left unchecked, many of our public places, buildings and amenities would soon be swamped and defaced by graffiti. It's 1 thing to say, 'Hey, it's just some kids spraying paint on a wall, but how would you like it if the walls outside your flat or house were defaced?'
Their 'full handiwork' on display. Some of the anti-PAP and establishment words have sent some opposition supporters into a tizzy.
And this case and the punishment it entails should not come as a surprise to anyone. The most famous reference case is the "Michael Fay case" back in the early 1990s and even recently we had the Samatha Lo and Cenotaph vandalism' cases. Much can attributed to the reasons behind the boys actions, some say it's because of how unbearable life has become in recent years (that's for the "Fuck the PAP" wording), others say because Singaporeans are too passive and unwilling to take a stand ('Wake Up Singapore portion of the graffiti) and even some say it's because of National Service (NS), the boys aged 17, are almost certainly due for conscription soon. This may well be the reasons, but let's face it, all of us have been young and some have been rebellious too. My assumption is that this was a teenage dare that went too far. One or more of them may have come up with an idea to do something 'famous' and each egged the other on. The fact that the 'Anarchy' symbol was sprayed and the reference to 'Omega' (a mostly Malay drug gang) indicates to me that this was more a prank than a concerted effort to rally Singaporeans. It was a gutsy act yes, but not for altruistic reasons, it was gutsy because of how dangerous it was, standing on a barely 2m ledge atop 22 storeys. 1 wrong move and death would have been certain.
What's next then with their arrest and being made to face charges? There's still some ways to go before an outcome is reached but here's some advice for those 'taking an unduly and unwelcoming interest' in this case. I break it down as follows:
1) Opposition supporters
Unfortunately there seems to be a growing effort by some opposition supporters to try and tar everything that doesn't go as planned to the PAP. Some of it is of course justified, you can very well tie train breakdowns to them, you can tie rising housing prices to them, you can tie the value of NS to them, but this is not the case to tie to the PAP with, even though the boys had sprayed anti-PAP graffiti on the wall.
Michael Fay leaving the High Court with his lawyers. The media circus and spotlight on our laws, essentially sunk his chances for a lighter charge.
Like it or not, graffiti spraying on public walls is an offence of vandalism under our laws. It's law that was accepted with its introduction. The penalties are not new and the public disquiet during the 'Michael Fay case' cemented its place in our laws. You cannot make the boys into heroes for doing this highly unsocial act. Yes, you don't have to label them criminals, but you can't label them heroes either.
2) Lawyer M Ravi
I understand well known human rights lawyer M Ravi is representing some of the accused. This is a high profile case for sure and something Mr Ravi would be well aware of. However this is not the case to make into a 'cause celebre.' There have been other high profile cases where Mr Ravi has raised some very pertinent legal questions into the validity of our laws and the High Court or the Court of Appeal had to pause and give its pronouncement. Mr Ravi deserves praise for that and it's also known he's facing some legal issues of his own.
I read that M Ravi is involved in the case. He should be mindful of his client's best interests as opposed to whatever other causes he's representing.
Whatever it is, the primary duty of any lawyer is to defend his client to the best of his ability and to obtain a charge and sentence that's fair to the accused if a conviction is unavoidable. If any of his clients are innocent (and they still are at this point), by all means use every legal angle to ensure they get off. However if the evidence suggests otherwise, Mr Ravi must ensure he serves their interests first and not any other ongoing causes that he's pursuing. I don't think this is a case to mount legal challenges after legal challenges, it might well prove futile and add to unnecessary legal costs and psychological trauma to the families and the accused themselves.
NB: A source close to M Ravi, has stated that the lawyer is not representing any of the 5 as first thought. So my references here to Mr Ravi are mis-placed. However, I assumed earlier that Mr Ravi was involved because of comments on FB by persons close to him, who were expressing legal positions on the case that Mr Ravi had briefed them on. I believe as a professional, Mr Ravi would not interfere or make known his views publicly on an on-going case defended by one of his peers. However he must take care to ensure his private views on the case or opinions asked of him about it, are not then shared publicly which could indicate his involvement. Finally although Mr Ravi is now not directly involved, the lawyers for 5, I'm sure would be aware of the legal implications and the pitfalls mentioned above are avoided.
3) 'Concerned supporters'
There's another group which may include foreigners (I think 1 of the accused is one), that are concerned with the manner the boys were arrested and the heavy charge they are facing. I've noticed that some have even started an online petition to plead for the boys case. Some are suggesting that praise for such 'gutsy acts' not charges, should have been preferred.
Some are against the whole law itself, vandalism and caning especially is brutal. As such the whole debate of corporal punishment is now thrown into the forefront.
Caning might be unacceptable in other jurisdictions, but its place in our legal system has not been opposed by a sizable majority of Singaporeans. This should not be the case to debate it.
I think whilst such concern is admirable and while the issue of corporal punishment is something we must look into in future, this is not the time or case for either of it. My reasons are listed below:
A) They are youthful offenders
The 1 crucial factor in the boy's favour is their age. Unlike older, more mature or seasoned criminals, the primary concern of a sentencing court for youthful offenders like them is rehabilitation not punishment. Even though the charges they face carry mandatory caning and jail, there's a very good chance that this punishment will not be meted out. Instead the boys can be looking at reformative training and better yet, probation.
B) Do not push the Prosecution
Like it or not, the Prosecution (the DPPs) play a crucial role in the administration of our laws. They act on society's behalf to prosecute offenders. They have to balance the public's desire for justice to be meted out fairly (as do the Courts) and to ensure that charges reflect society's disdain for anti-social and criminal conduct, and act as a deterrence to like minded individuals and groups.
However when certain segments challenge their rights and role to prosecute, the DPPs are forced to defend themselves. This inevitably has a detrimental effect on the very persons facing the charges as the DPPs might not want to budge (which they are legally entitled to). M Ravi and the other lawyers will know where they stand and how strong is the case against their clients. Is it advisable to go guns-blazing and make this case a much bigger issue than it needs to be? Political undertones or not, are matters that are best settled by the electorate at the ballot box, not by a court dealing with criminal charges.
Public money had to be spent to remove the graffiti. The defense should offer compensation as a mitigating factor.
Instead of challenging if the evidence is hugely unfavourable, wouldn't it be better to mitigate and ask for lower charges? Vandalism can be reduced to a charge of mischief. Damage done can be countered by a declaration to pay for them. The anti-social aspects can be met by a contrite apology and a promise of no repeat.
But sticking to one's guns can have the opposite effect, it can show a lack of contrition and a disrespect for the laws. Worse it can be met by further charges – criminal trespass, is one I can foresee for going on top of the block. Breaking open a closed receptacle is another. And there could be others depending on what evidence has been obtained. (Don't forget lifts have cameras).
C) Lie low, do not make the case too big
This case can go the way of the 'Michael Fay' incident or 'Samantha Lo's'. In the former it became such a huge issue that it became impossible for the prosecution or the Govt to back down. It became an issue of applying the same law to everyone. In the latter case, Ms Lo lied low and made efforts to offer settlement and to show contrition. The prosecution was satisfied and reduced the charge and she escaped jail.
Samantha Lo, kept a low profile and showed contrition. As such, her charges were reduced and she was fined instead.
Opposition supporters and concerned citizens are not helping by their never ending efforts to make this case a bigger issue than it needs to be for the accused or their families. Rallies, petitions, tying this case politically or to try and make tenuous links to unrelated cases, gives the case an unnecessary spotlight. This is not the first time youths have faced serious charges which entailed jail or caning.
The Centotaph was similarly vandalised. Fortunately this defacement by the 5 was not an act of desecration on a national monument. If not a strong message must be meted out. .
However forever harping on it, could force the Prosecution to decide that a deterrent message must be sent out – that displeasure against the Govt cannot be done by criminal acts and they could ask the courts to send a message. If the Courts accept their arguments, who are the ones that's going to pay? Is it the opposition supporters, is it the concerned supporters? No, it's the 5 boys. Why put this needless pressure on a pretty straight forward case that can be resolved through the normal avenues that see most youthful offenders serve some form of rehabilitative justice, and then be allowed to be useful citizens?
The boys will be released on bail eventually. They should lie low, they should not join or give support to causes unhelpful to their case. Instead they should show contrition and try to make up in some way, like doing something useful, why not do social work in the constituency where the crimes took place? They should avoid bad company, if they are still schooling, concentrate on it. If they are working, do their jobs properly and get testimonials. Better still work with their parents to pay up for the damage caused and apologise unreservedly.
The State Courts have not made their decision on the case. We should at least let the Court look through the evidence, reach a verdict or sentence, before offering our input on what kind of justice should be meted out.
So in the final analysis, please consider what you do or say about this case. In your rush to help or express your frustrations, think about the boys. Think about the damage, think about vandalism and anti-social acts. Ask yourself, is it fair to make 5 17 year olds, your 'vehicle' for whatever you are trying to achieve? Isn't it better to let justice, that hasn't yet failed them to at least be allowed to take its course before you offer your pronouncements?