Friday, September 25, 2009

Singapore. A stiff day in a stiff courtroom

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Appearing in court is not a pleasant occasion anywhere in the world, but in Singapore, the judges and lawyers take that additional effort to make it that much more unpleasant; I don't know why.

In California, the courts realize this and they try to make it a little friendlier, a few greetings thrown in here or there, so that the Defendant even though he is punished, keeps his dignity and goes away realizing that justice is there to help him, not demean him. The judge greets the Defendant with a Good Morning, addressing him as Mister. The Defendant has no problem speaking to the Judge and if he had a lawyer, the Defendant is seated next to him in a suit, unless of course he is in custody. And when the judge passes sentence, he explains fully in detail why he is imposing that particular sentence and none other. The Defendant knows why he is punished, had an opportunity to explain his case to the judge and the judge actually listened to him, looked him in the eye, and empathised with him. He treats the Defendant as a human being and so did the Defendant the judge; with mutual respect and mutual decency. This is California. This is a human place.

On the other hand, if you look at any Singapore judge's face in Court, it is as if he was suffering from an acute bout of indigestion or perhaps his wife had not been good to him last night. There is no smile, there is no humour, all you see is a stern face which hardly even looks you in the eye; as if you are not worthy even to be looked at! It is as if, Lee Kuan Yew had particularly given instructions to his judges that they have to always keep up the no nonsense look. Perhaps this is one way they hope to command respect; perhaps because they know they don't have any!

A trip to Court 26 Singapore Subordinate Court is worthwhile to study their judicial mentality. In it, numerous petty criminals in prison clothes, who were unable to get bail,are kept in a sort of enclosure in the court, in full view of everyone else, handcuffed to each other, like animals.

Those with bail sit in the court itself, waiting their turn. The entire atmosphere is intimidating. There is no good mornings, no smiles and no greetings at all. Before the court starts a Malay policeman barks out an order in the Singaporean accented English, a cross between the Hokkien singsong and English, known as Singlish, that cell phone have to be off and no talking! From that moment the courtroom turns as silent as the cemetery.

I was there one morning as a result of one of my run in with "my good friend Lee Kuan Yew" in 2008. Before the court even started, when I was reading the Singapore state controlled paper the Straits Times, a Malay policeman barked at me with his insufficient English and said "No reading newspaper OK"! For one moment I had thought of questioning him on his order since the court had not yet started, but decided against it. In a country like Singapore, where the judges always defer to Lee's wishes and where obedience is the order of the day, it is usually pointless to argue with a policeman no matter how right you are.

A Malay or Indian woman court clerk, with a face completely devoid of any expression shouts out the name of the first defendant. A policeman barks out an order to him to stand up and behave. This expressionless clerk then reads out the charge, that on such and such date, he had got upset and punched a man thereby having violated such and such section of such and such Penal Code. She shouts "Guilty or Not guilty?"

If he has a lawyer, he stands up meekly and overly respectful, as if he was going to crawl at the feet of the judge that very minute, pleads guilty. The judge without even looking up asks a policeman about the Defendant's record which he reads out, in a thoroughly mechanical fashion, as if he didn't care one bit whether you heard or understood anything he said, since the judge himself had a copy. Next he turns to his lawyer who says the defendant is a family man with 3 children, that he is 24 years of age, the ages of his children, his highest education level, that he had aged grandparents whom he was supporting and that he was a Christian!

And the funny thing is, these lawyers, almost everyone of them, have almost the same thing to say about everyone of their clients regardless of the nature of the offense!

Naturally I was wondering why in Heaven's should his being 24 years old, being a family man with 3 children and supporting his aged grandparents and being a Christian has any mitigating qualities for his punching his victim in the nose! But you see, this is Singapore, and thats how it is done there!

After the poor lawyer fawning and crawling had said the few words which was supposed to be the plea in mitigation, there is a few minutes of total silence, while judge looking very stern, glances at his papers, while the poor defendant awaits his fate. He then looks up and says "$2000.00 fine or 2 months jail"; thats all! The court staff next to him scribbles something on a paper and hands it to him. End of case. The entire exercise takes no more than 5 minutes, when this whole procedure is repeated once more for the next Defendant.

He does not bother to say why he gave this sentence? Was it severe or lenient? Did he find anything the Defendant did particularly objectionable? Did the Defendant's lawyers plea have any impact on the sentence? Nothing at all! Just a total blank and the words "$2,000 or 2 months jail"!

Had you been I, witnessing this routine, you would have wondered why they bother to even have a judge siting there in the first place? Why not have a computer and feed the information into it, and 5 minutes later, you will get the verdict!

What you have are humourless individuals, lacking any emotion or human qualities sitting as judges in Singapore. I guess they are this way because this is how Lee Kuan Yew expects them to behave in his highly disciplined robotic Singapore island.

You know why they are this way? They are afraid of Lee Kuan Yew, and the Defendants are afraid of their judges in their island of fear.

Gopalan Nair
39737 Paseo Padre Parkway, Suite A1
Fremont, CA 94538, USA
Tel: 510 657 6107
Fax: 510 657 6914

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Anonymous said...

Mr Nair's observations and inferences are 100% correct. I can verify his allegations/claims to be true because I was a police prosecutor for 2 years back in the 1980s.

I had always thought there was something wrong with our judicial system in the courts after having seen other courts in action via TV programs and movies. But I thought it happens only in movies/tv and would be no different from S'pore in reality.

Looks like our claim to be first world is a real sham.
We have no compassion nor empathy for our downrodden people and failures....what a shame.

Anonymous said...

I am quite sure that the judges have a responsibility to explain the sentencing and rationale between it.
What the point of going to trial when we can just have a computer system that issue the sentence based on the offences we input into the system when they are all devoid of emotions in the 1st place.
It seems as if they are in a rush to sentence as many people as possible to get it done with.

Anonymous said...

And to be fair to you , after posting the previous link, I must also highlight what the judges Do say to the accused.This was said by the judge in "jest" so your idea of having no humour is incredible. Ha Ha

“Homeless and unemployed, Noor Mohammad Yassin Ismail pitched a canvas tent at East Coast Park in May, 2007, and lived there for almost a month – without a lease or licence to do so. He was discovered on June 26 of that year, after he was apprehended by park rangers.

In court on Tuesday, Noor was asked to produce his Identity Card or passport but he said that he had lost both items.

It prompted District Judge Mr Shaiffudin Saruwan to retort in jest: ‘I suggest you use a bicycle chain to tie yourself to a tree or you may lose yourself as well.’

Pleading for leniency, Noor, who is tanned and skinny, said that he seldom ate, only doing so if friends gave him food. He added that his mother is paralysed and looked after by a younger sibling, while an elder sister does not care about him. He was fined $800 but could not afford to pay the fine so he was jailed four days instead. He could have been fined up to $2,000.”

Is there any other country in the world that sends a homeless person to court because he has to sleep in a park – and then fines him $800? Of course, if you are homeless and hungry, how could you afford to pay the fine? So, you end up in jail, just as Noor did.

Anonymous said...

all in the bid to be an "Efficient" judicial system. and unfortunately, efficient in our singaporean interpretation means closing as many trials as possible within the shortest period of time.

Anonymous said...

Gopalan's short writeup here brought back some not so pleasant memories.

I used to work as a litigation lawyer and was faced with this scenario almost every day.

The atmosphere in the courts was almost choking and I was especially saddened to see those unfortunate souls who could not afford bail sitting in those cages (like animals) waiting for their cases to be mentioned.

It was clear that in Singapore, a person is guilty until proven innocent.

One day (back in 1998), as I was sitting in the Lawyers Rest Area (the Bar Room - though mind you, they only served hot or cold beverages and no alcohol!!!) I pictured myself 20 years down the road doing the same ol' thing and coming into this almost faceless and inhospitable environment and that broke the camel's back.

I left practice at the end of 1998 and have no regrets whatsoever.

I now live in a foreign land and am saddened that ten years on, things seemed to have gotten worse in S'pore.

In their attempt to clear up the so called backlog of cases, justice has been sacrificed. THe human element seemed to have been completely evaporated. Judges seem to be waiting for instructions 'above' rather than using their own intellect and judgment. (I have experienced such cases myself.)

A change is needed and it should happen soon before it is too late!