Friday, 29 November 2013

The case for judicial discretion

Brave New World (The Star)
27 November 2013

In recent surveys, most Malaysians backed the death penalty – but not the mandatory version.


IN principle I have no problems with the death penalty. There are three basic theories of punishment: deterrence, rehabilitation and retribution.
I am uncomfortable with the concept of deterrence because I am uncertain that fear of punishment is necessarily the primary factor when a person commits a crime.
Furthermore, taken to its logical conclusion, the punishment can be extremely disproportionate to the crime in order to make it “scarier”.
Neither am I convinced by the idea of rehabilitation; after all, who is to determine when a person is rehabilitated or not.
I believe in the retribution theory of justice, which is to say, you are simply punished for the crime you committed, not as an example to others and not subject to the whims of authorities who may or may not believe that you have repented and are now a good person.
And in violent crimes, then a simple punishment would be equally violent.
After all, you reap what you sow.
In practice, however, I do not believe in the death penalty.
This is because the justice system is run by humans and humans are fundamentally flawed.
Therefore, there will always be a chance that an innocent person is convicted. That is a chance I am not willing to take.
The Death Penalty Project in association with the Malaysian Bar Council completed earlier this year a report which was the analysis of over 1,500 surveys conducted amongst Malaysians.
The result of the survey was astonishing. Basically it was trying to gauge the Malaysian public’s view on the death penalty.
What was to be expected was that a vast majority of the respondents agreed with the death penalty.
What was unexpected, to me at least, was that the majority was not in favour of mandatory death penalty sentences, especially for drug and firearms offences.
Let us be clear on the distinction.
A mandatory death penalty means that if a person is found guilty of an offence which carries such a punishment, then the judge will have absolutely no choice but to mete out said penalty.
This means that the discretion of the judge to take into account the surrounding factors of the case is non-existent.
This can lead to cruel decisions and it could, oddly enough, lead to decisions where a person who has committed a crime is let off on slight technicalities because a judge is loath to send a person to his death.
The resentencing of Yong Vui Kong, the young Malaysian found guilty of drug trafficking in Singapore, is an example of how a change in the law has avoided what could have been a most unjust killing.
By most accounts, Vui Kong was very young, naïve and not particularly bright: a candidate who in most likelihood is the perfect mule for the drug kingpins who want their product moved.
Not a hardened criminal, he was to suffer for the activities of more nefarious parties who, of course, would not be caught in such a compromising position.
It is a great relief, particularly to the hard-working and persistent Save Vui Kong group who have been fighting tirelessly for his pardon, that this Malaysian youth will not die as the Singaporeans amended their laws by taking away the mandatory death sentence and giving the judge discretion as to the punishment he sees fit.
It is noted that even the Malaysian Government had tried to appeal to the Singaporeans for clemency.
If they could see the potential injustice of a mandatory death sentence and if the majority of the Malaysian public are not in favour of it as shown by the Death Penalty Project report, isn’t it time we had a serious rethink of our own mandatory death penalty laws?

Why study history

Sin Chew Jit Poh
23 November 2013
I enjoy history. I enjoy it much more now as an adult than I did as a child. I love buying history books and am always on the lookout for good history documentaries.
This was not always the case. In my youth, even though I studied the subject from standard four all the way to my sixth form, I can’t say with all honesty that I loved it as much as I do now. Perhaps it was the subject matter or the way which it was taught, but the kind of excitement I get nowadays when faced with an interesting programme or a new book, simply was not there.
Be that as it may, it was far from my most hated subject. That honour lies with maths. I was interested enough with history, just not in love with it. Well, if I found it quite dull, despite my basic interest in it; imagine what it was like for my school friends who hated it.
This is why making history a compulsory pass for fifth form students, I think is a bit silly. Basic history should be taught in primary school and even the early years of secondary school, but by the time a young man or woman is sixteen then they really should be free to pursue the subjects that they are interested in.
Not only does it, in a rather abstract way, give them a taste of the responsibility of decision making, but on a more practical level, students tend to do well in subjects they enjoy.
It appears that the reason why there are plans to make history compulsory is in order to instil a sense of patriotism in the youth. This kind of thinking concerns me. Firstly it is logically flawed. When has forcing something on anyone made them feel anything other than resentment? You can’t force patriotism just as you can’t force love.
Secondly, whenever patriotism is used as a reason for anything, I get suspicious. As Samuel Johnson said “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. I am very worried that the word “patriotism” is merely a cover for the real objective of this exercise which is “propaganda”.
History must never be dictated by politicians with their political agendas and I fear this is what is happening now. If we look at the fifth form syllabus of history as it stands, we see a seriously disproportionate emphasis on Islamic (read Arab) history and very little on the early, extremely diverse history of this country and the region.
With regard to recent history, the independence movement is seen from a very narrow perspective, focussing only on UMNO (and to a lesser extent MCA and MIC); when the truth is the independence movement started with the Malayan left wing. Furthermore the constant use of derogatory terms on non-Malays such as “pendatangs”, just adds to my sense of unease. History as it is taught appears to be an effort to push forward the Malay/Muslim agenda and little else.
The current history syllabus is divisive and selective and it does not give our fifth formers a clear or holistic picture of our history. And knowing our history is really about knowing ourselves. It does not need to be like this. It must not be like this, especially if it is to be made a compulsory subject.
So what kind of history do I want taught? One that delves into the great civilisations of the world, particularly Asia more deeply. One that explores the rich relationship between this land and the lands that surround it. For example the fact that Malays owe so much of our culture to India and that for centuries, we were all Hindus.
It is true that the land was almost homogenous in the 19th Century and the demographics changed with high immigration, but instead of harping on about how so many of our people have their ancestors from faraway lands, what about delving into how much those self-same ancestors contributed to the wealth of the nation. And definitely I would like to see the credit for independence spread around to all who worked and suffered for it, not just the forefathers of our current political masters. This is not only unfair, but also untrue.
Teaching history must have a purpose, and that purpose may well be nation building. What it must not have is a political agenda, and that is exactly what the contents of school history in this country and the proposal to make it a compulsory subject looks like to me.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

BFM A Bit of Culture: The Pursuit of Happiness

16 November 2013

The Danger of Intolerance

Sin Chew Jit Poh
15 November 2013


The papers have been filled with scary news recently. Serious crime seems to be screaming at you from every headline. The murder of Ahmad Rafli of the Pahang Religious Department was particularly horrific and one can’t help but feel sympathy for his family whose distress was so clearly displayed on the front pages.


The police have some suspects in mind, and one hopes that after a thorough and just investigation that those who are responsible are brought to trial.


However, there was one undercurrent throughout the reporting of this sad affair that bothered me. Due to Ahmad Rafli’s job, his murder has been linked to groups which have been deemed “deviant”, as it was amongst his duties to investigate them. In fact the suspects that the police want to question come from a particularly odd sounding cult.


Personally I don’t believe in stopping any group from practicing their beliefs, “deviant” or not. Unless of course they are violent or they do things which are patently wrong, such as holding members against their will and conning people. So, unless a group is peaceful, then why should we bother them?


Any infringement of people’s right to do what they wish, must only be done if there is clear evidence that they are up to hurting people or stealing from them or something of that sort. Which is why I was upset that the Muslims practicing Shia Islam has been, without any indication that there exists some evidence, linked to this crime and even when they are not directly being linked to it, they are consistently mentioned in newspaper reports as though they are not only deviant, but dangerous.


The Amman Message which was endorsed by then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, clearly states that the Shia branch of Islam is valid. How can it be then that the followers of this ideology are now being demonised and their teaching, in some states, banned?

It is patently unfair and hypocritical for a government to, on the one hand accept a principle as all-embracing and inclusive as the Amman Message, and yet on the other hand take such measures as to fly in the face of that same message.


It is bad enough for the Shias of Malaysia to be persecuted in this way, but the demonising and the not very subtle associating of them to violent acts of which there is no proof offered, is very cruel and dangerous indeed.

One of the biggest threats in this country, is not the fact that there are many people with many different viewpoints. The single biggest threat is to not respect those viewpoints and to not allow people to peacefully live their lives. Words and actions which supress people and which give rise to hatred for the “other” not only comes dangerously close to justifying wrongful actions against them, but it also creates a sense of persecution and anger amongst the victims. This sense could very well lead to an explosion borne of frustration and a feeling of grave injustice.


Having different ideologies and beliefs is not the danger that is so often perceived by the powers that be. On the contrary, it is disrespecting the rights of people to peacefully live as they wish is what can cause the greatest danger.




Wednesday, 13 November 2013

More than just business

Brave New World (The Star)
13 November 2013

At the end of the day, whether in print or online, credibility is crucial to real success.


I LIKE newspapers. I like books and magazines.
I don’t like reading things on a computer screen, tablet or electronic book.
Even in my work, if I’m sent something lengthy to read by e-mail, I will usually print it out first. I guess I’m old fashioned that way.
There is something oddly unsatisfactory in reading a computer screen. Maybe it’s the loss of the tactile element of being able to touch something and (in the case of new books) to sniff it.
Also, I just find it so much easier to have an entire document in my hand, something I can flick through with ease if I wanted to.
It is quite natural, therefore, for me to feel a little twinge of distress every time I read or hear some report declaring that the time for newspapers is almost up.
The electronic world is going to end news reading as we know it. No more crackling crisp sheets of virgin paper. No more ink stains on fingers; just the cold tap-tapping of a tablet screen or the mechanical clicking of a mouse.
Maybe this is all inevitable, but I hope that it is a long way off because really, one of life’s little pleasures is sitting in the dingy confines of a kopitiam going through the daily cartoons and sports with a hot cup of black coffee in the early morning cool.
Be that as it may, newspapers must adjust if they are to survive.
It is the way of any business endeavour. In the face of change: adapt or die.
And many newspapers are indeed struggling. Readership is down and with fewer eyes scanning one’s pages, businesses are less willing to pay to advertise.
What can be done? I am not so sure, being a non-business type person. A greater online presence will help, seeing as most young people now find their news that way.
But at the end of the day, a newspaper, whether in print or electronically disseminated, must be credible.
Without that credibility, if the reader cannot trust what you say, then it doesn’t matter how great your business plan is, you will fail.
An untrustworthy newspaper is about as attractive as, I don’t know, one of my interminably dull lectures on the enforcement of foreign judgments, I suppose.
What a newspaper should not do is to expect government help to direct GLCs to advertise with them.
This merely serves to diminish credibility further by making it clear to all and sundry that your paper is beholden to the powers that be (for how, pray tell, are you going to report objectively when you are beholden).
It is also patently unfair and a waste of money on the part of the GLCs who are being asked to do something which they, with all their business sense, had good reason not to do in the first place.
Furthermore, it perpetuates a culture of dependence and entitlement. If your business is not doing well, instead of going around with cap in hand demanding help, isn’t it better to try to root out the cause of your troubles and solve it (for example, the issue of credibility)?
And we are not talking about some fledgling publication here. The papers in question have been around for decades.
If a business can’t survive on its own steam with scores of years of experience and existence under its belt, then perhaps it doesn’t deserve to survive at all.