07:48, January 15 265 0 theguardian.com

2019-01-15 07:48:05
A London DJ's punishment sheds light on Singapore's caning shame

Any day now, 29-year-old Ye Ming Yuen could be escorted out of his cell at Singapore’s Changi prison and whipped 24 times with a rattan cane. This comes on top of the 20-year sentence he’s already serving after being convicted of seven drug offences in a country that takes pride in its uncompromising approach when it comes to law-breaking.

The story of Yuen, a former British public schoolboy and London DJ, has captured the attention of the British press, but he’s far from the only one awaiting caning. Judicial corporal punishment has been a long-time fixture in the south-east Asian city state. It was first introduced by British colonialists in the 19th century, but has been retained and even expanded by the post-independence government. Today, it’s applicable to more than 30 offences, from violent crimes like rape and robbery to nonviolent breaches of the law such as vandalism or overstaying one’s visa for over 90 days. Between January and October 2016, the courts handed down caning sentences to 1,257 people; 987 sentences were carried out in that time.

Caning is only carried out on men between the ages of 18 and 50; a 1.2m-long cane of about 1.2cm in diameter is used. I’ve met men who’ve been subjected to such punishment, listening to them describe being lined up with others due to be caned that day. One said he was made to watch the man before him get caned, acutely aware that he’d be next. The pain, these men say, is excruciating.

All human rights-related campaigns tend to be an uphill battle in Singapore, where a single political party dominates and doesn’t tend to look kindly on dissent or challenges to its power. But caning is an especially tough nut to crack.

Like the death penalty, it’s central to a criminal justice system that takes the logic of “spare the rod, spoil the child” to its extreme conclusion on a state level, and the establishment is highly reluctant to budge from that position. The courts have ruled that caning – an act of violence that causes the skin to split and the buttocks to bleed – does not “breach the high threshold of severity and brutality that is required for it to be regarded as torture”.

The rhetoric of deterrence is strong in Singapore, where political leaders remind the populace of its tiny size and need to succeed in a messy, complicated world. Government officials point to other countries’ struggles with drugs and crime, arguing that Singapore’s tough stance keeps the streets clean and safe. The evidence that capital or corporal punishment deters crime is not as clear as they’d have everyone believe, but in a country where the mainstream press is kept under the government’s thumb, there aren’t that many avenues to question assertions made by the powerful.

As with many other cases, public attention is often drawn to those with some measure of social capital or support. Little is heard about low-wage migrant workers caned for falling foul of the country’s immigration laws, or Singaporeans whose families have little hope of challenging the sentence and little wish to attract public attention. High-profile cases of caning tend to be those of citizens from developed countries in the west: the US teenager Michael Fay in the 1990s, the Swiss graffiti spray-painter Oliver Fricker in 2010, and German citizens Andreas von Knorre and Elton Hinz who vandalised a train in 2015.

When foreign countries speak out on behalf of their citizens, it shines a much-needed light on this draconian and ruthless practice. Yet such outcries can be a double-edged sword, as the discourse in Singapore shifts away from the barbarism of the penalty towards the chest-thumping nationalist pride of a tiny nation intent on punching above its weight.

In an obituary for Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in 2015, the local media pointed to his steadfast response to the US’s uproar over Fay’s caning as an instance where he was “not afraid to stand up to a greater power where needed”. Advocacy and lobbying by foreigners for an end to judicial corporal punishment is quickly interpreted in Singapore as impinging on our sovereignty, bigger countries thinking they can push us around.

It’s an anxious, fearful time for Ye Ming Yuen and his family. For Singapore, it’s yet another case to be fed into a narrative of “zero-tolerance” deterrence and national pride. But perhaps Singaporeans should ask ourselves: what does it say about our nation when this is what it takes to make us feel strong?

Kirsten Han is a freelance journalist and editor-in-chief of New Naratif, a platform for south-east Asian journalism

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