NUS student's case sparks MHA review of penalty framework
This follows outrage over his community-based sentence for choking girlfriend who broke up with him
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) will be reviewing the legal policy framework for certain criminal offences, including the relevance of factors such as an offender's educational background in sentencing, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.
He was speaking to the media amid a public backlash over the penalties given to National University of Singapore (NUS) dentistry student Yin Zi Qin, 23, who tried to strangle his girlfriend after she broke up with him.
He also pressed his thumb against her eye, causing it to bleed. It led to an eye infection that took five months to resolve, but she had no permanent injuries.
Yin was given a community-based sentence with no criminal record. It includes a short detention order of 12 days, which he will serve in prison.
The outcome sparked outrage online. There are at least two petitions with over 15,000 signatories, each calling for harsher penalties and Yin to be expelled.
Yin, who has been suspended and barred from campus, is now facing disciplinary proceedings that NUS could initiate only after the court proceedings.
In a move one observer described as unprecedented, the People's Action Party (PAP) Women's Wing joined in the criticism yesterday.
"Like many members of the public, we are dismayed that the sentence in this case appears disproportionate to the offence," said a statement shared by PAP MPs of both sexes, including Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, who said he hoped for an appeal.
While he would not comment on the specifics of the case, Mr Shanmugam said in a video conference that he understood the strong feelings, even among officers in his ministry.
He said: "It is natural when people are unhappy, they look at the courts and the judges.
"The courts are not the issue. The courts are independent. When we disagree, the approach should be to look at the legal policy framework, which the Government can change."
Mr Shanmugam said MHA will consult stakeholders and work with the Ministry of Social and Family Development.
The review will cover three areas:
- Penalties for similar cases;
- The extent to which educational background and other factors should be relevant in sentencing; and
- The relative punishments between different offences.
Mr Shanmugam did not give a timeline for the review but said MHA would do it quickly. He will make a statement in Parliament once it is complete.
Yin pleaded guilty in February to voluntarily causing hurt, with a criminal trespass charge taken into consideration.
He was sentenced last Friday and given the short detention order and 80 hours of community service for the assault at the victim's home on May 9 last year.
He was also given a day reporting order of five months, and must report to a centre for monitoring and counselling, wear an electronic tag and stay indoors from 10pm to 6am.
During sentencing, District Judge Marvin Bay said he was satisfied Yin did not have a high risk of reoffending.
While probation was not appropriate, Yin's relative youth, rehabilitative prospects and lack of previous convictions meant community-based sentences were viable, he added.
The prosecution had initially asked for a fine, but eventually sought a short detention order of the maximum 14 days.
Yin's lawyer raised several mitigating points, including the fact that Yin voluntarily returned to the victim's house after the assault, kneeling and apologising to her parents.
The victim's stepfather later punched and slapped Yin and burned his face with a cigarette. The New Paper understands the stepfather was given a warning by the police.
Lawyer Gloria James-Civetta said the outrage likely stemmed from unhappiness over past cases of undergraduate offenders, including that of NUS student Terence Siow, who was given probation for molesting a woman in an MRT station.
The judge had cited factors including Siow's good academic performance, sparking strong debate and an online petition signed by 130,000 people.
Siow was jailed for two weeks after the prosecution appealed.
On Yin's case, Ms James-Civetta said: "The fact that a community-based sentence was given is an indication the prosecution, the defence and the court were on the same page.
"The public must understand that certain offences attract community-based sentences."
Mr Chooi Jing Yen, a partner at law firm Eugene Thuraisingam LLP, said Yin's sentences are forward-looking.
"He still has to go to prison, albeit for a short time. That is in the hope of forming a deep impression on his mind so he really doesn't offend again," he said.
That Yin will have no criminal record after completing his sentences was a sore point for some. This again stems from Judge Bay's decision to choose rehabilitation over deterrence, said Mr Chooi.
"We don't want to unduly stigmatise him for the rest of his life," he added. "What the judge had said is that (Yin) had rehabilitative potential and that's going to be present in cases whenever we deal with younger offenders. (Yin) just happened to be an NUS student."
The Attorney-General's Chambers told TNP last night that it will not be appealing against Yin's sentence.
Youth voices to be well represented in MHA framework review: Sim Ann
Young people care deeply about societal issues, and their voices will be represented in an upcoming review of penalty frameworks by the Home Affairs Ministry (MHA).
Speaking to the media yesterday, Senior Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Sim Ann said her ministry and the National Youth Council will ensure the youth are among the stakeholders who are consulted, and discussion sessions will be organised to gather their voices.
This comes in the wake of public outcry, again over a case of a university student being handed what many have deemed a lenient sentence.
National University of Singapore dentistry student Yin Zi Qin, 23, was given a 12-day short detention order and a day reporting order of five months for trying to strangle his ex-girlfriend, leading to backlash online.
Ms Sim said it was a positive sign that young people are speaking up about criminal justice.
"Our youth have been quite prepared to speak their minds on these issues and it boils down to whether or not outcomes in these cases have been able to keep up with evolving norms and expectations in society."
Young people who spoke to The New Paper said their concern was that justice should be meted out regardless of one's background or qualification.
Ms Karmen Siew, 30, a victim in a criminal case involving a university student, said sentencing needed to take into account the victims and the precedence set.
"Facing the trauma and going through the process of a police report and court case is stressful. It potentially deters victims from speaking out, especially when there are light punishments which only make the whole process seem pointless."
Miss Dorcas Tan, 24, a human resources executive, felt the psychological harm done to victims should be given more weight.
But both women agreed that the move to engage the youth in the penalty framework review was a step in the right direction.
In a statement on Facebook yesterday, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) said it, too, was surprised by the sentence.
"Such a sentence has a detrimental impact on public perceptions of violence against women," it said.
Aware's executive director Corinna Lim told TNP that it welcomes the move to review the legal framework.
"We are glad that the public is engaged on this issue and willing to voice their opinions when they perceive injustice - this is how societal change comes about," she said.
The People's Action Party (PAP) Women's Wing also issued a statement criticising the sentence and said it strongly denounced violence against women.
Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan had no qualms about the concerns raised by individuals and civil society groups but warned of a trial by public opinion.
Calling the response by the PAP Women's Wing strong and unprecedented, Associate Professor Tan said there appeared for the PAP MPs to be a desire to be seen to be in step with public opinion.
"However, this can create an unhealthy precedent where influential groups or individuals are seen to be applying pressure on the courts.
"This is not good for the administration of criminal justice," he said.
Noting that it was also unusual for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth's Ms Sim to be making a statement about the case, he added: "Judicial independence is critical - not only must it be the actual state of affairs but it must also be seen to be so."