Oh dear, why the personal attack, Mr Shanmugam?
Law Minister K Shanmugam, not one known for mincing his words, has taken aim at Donald Low, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Mr Shanmugam, posting on his Facebook page on Thursday, took Mr Low to task over the latter’s remarks regarding how public opinion should be taken into consideration when deciding on criminal sentences.
The Law Minister, in an interview with the TODAY newspaper which was reported on 24 April, had said that the government would take into consideration “the weight of public opinion” on criminal sentences in particular laws.
“Penalties and criminal laws can only be enforced if people believe that they are fair and that certain conduct ought to be made criminal,” he said. “Otherwise, they lose credibility.”
However, being aware of public opinion does not mean the government is bending to public opinion.
“You enhance the penalty (for a certain law) to reflect what people feel is the right penalty, what conduct should be more severely punished — that is not bowing down; that is understanding where the weight of public opinion is,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“When there is a reaction to a sentence by the public, as in the Joshua Robinson case, then I think it is important for us as policymakers to sit down and understand why people are upset … It is important because these people represent the ground feelings — they are mothers, they are sisters, they are people who want their children to be safe.”
He added: “But it doesn’t mean automatically you agree with it. You must assess it, whether it is also fair. So, there are two parts to it — one, whether it is fair; two, what does the public believe is right.”
Well, that is clear enough.
Or is it?
Going by reaction online to the minister’s comments, it would seem that not a few people have viewed it with alarm, with some assuming that the minister had meant that public opinion was the only consideration the authorities would take into consideration in sentencing.
This was also perhaps the impression Mr Low gave with his Facebook response to Mr Shanmugam’s comments.
“For the same reasons that public policy cannot be a popularity contest, neither should the penalties for crimes simply take reference from what the public thinks is correct at any point in time,” Mr Low posted. “Making laws on the basis of public opinion is populism by another name.”
He added: “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.”
Mr Shanmugam’s reaction, in turn, was explicit – and rather disappointingly personal.
The minister said that comments like those of Mr Low “have seriously misconstrued what I actually said.”
“Public opinion alone cannot be the deciding factor – Government has to do what it considers to be right and fair, in the public interest,” Mr Shanmugam said. “Public opinion can sometimes be inaccurate, because of a lack of understanding of the facts – and it would be wrong for the Government to simply follow public opinion in all situations. There is a need to assess it, and in the end Government has to decide what, in its view, is right and fair. And explain to the people why such an approach is the right one, in public interest.
“Thus, public opinion cannot be the sole or decisive factor.”
And then the minister added:
“Academics, like Donald, have every right to criticise statements made by others, in particular 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. Otherwise the commentator does no credit to himself or his institution. Particularly an institution which carries Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s name.”
That is a rather below-the-belt, personal attack on the person of Mr Low, one feels.
Mr Low, as is clear to anyone who frequents his Facebook page, was posting in his personal capacity, and not as a representative or staff member of any organization, as indeed even PAP MPs and former member of the Media Literacy Council, Calvin Cheng, have claimed when their online comments run into controversy – that they were made in their personal capacities.
For the Law minister to mention Mr Low’s institution in a debate over policy is quite regrettable. This is especially so when Mr Shanmugam’s case is quite clear for all to see – Mr Low was wrong.
But to hurl personal attacks at and make insinuations about Mr Low’s personal integrity or ability distracts from the issue – an important one – which should be the focus.
Having said that, some online commentators felt it is Mr Shanmugam who is not without fault, and that his interview with TODAY was lacking.
One felt that Mr Shanmugam didn’t craft his original message well enough in his interview with TODAY and could have done better.
Another felt that it does not reflect well on Singapore if we cannot have a civil and open debate without the need to make personal attacks.
The Law minister is a Senior Counsel in his own right, and has been Law minister for a decade, and a polished politician who certainly stands on his own. It would thus be good if he stuck to the debate and not be driven to making personal attacks.
Otherwise, the weight of public opinion may not be on his side, even if he is right on the issue at hand.
So ya, yellow card to you, Mr Shanmugam.
Nonetheless, some saw the lighter side of the episode, and asked why the minister, if he were worried about how Mr Low conducts himself while being a staff at the LKY School, had not taken issue with Mr Low’s use of Singlish in his post.
“I’m surprised Donald Low didn’t get rebuked for his Singlish,” said poet Gwee Li Sui on his Facebook page. “How can? Particularly since his institution carries Ah Kong’s name.”
He was referring to the late Lee Kuan Yew, of course.
Finally, it is worth noting that at the end of the day, Mr Shanmugam and Mr Low actually agree on the basic point – that when it comes to formulating criminal sentences, public opinion cannot and should not be the only consideration.