The Risk of Wrongful Conviction Given Singapore’s Legal Landscape

By Mark Cheng

“It is better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn an innocent one,” wrote Voltaire. But one, at first glance to the criminal legal system of Singapore, might have his reservations as to whether this vision, or guiding principle, holds much weight here. The alleged culprits to blame lie within our legal infrastructure: legal institutions and law enforcement agencies with their operating procedures, our laws allowing authorities to detain individuals without trial1, our policemen and their harsh questioning techniques, and so forth; the Singapore system is almost commonly understood as hard-wired to speedily convict, in a bid to uphold public safety.

But in our defence, to pursue such efficiency is not all bad and no good. Indeed, one can see the pros and cons of a swift and decisive criminal legal system: it gets the job done without excessive spending of resources, but its thoroughness of investigation may be compromised. Is Singapore’s system, then, really geared away from justice to the individual in the face of the whole? How reliably, or deliberately, does Singapore’s system work towards avoiding wrongful conviction? In their article, “Wrongful Convictions in Singapore: A General Survey of Risk Factors”2, as Professor Chen Siyuan, who lectures in SMU, and Assistant Registrar Eunice Chua put it: amazingly, rather so, but with occasional tendencies to do otherwise, though these may be addressed accordingly.

‘These studies and pilot schemes are positive steps towards the ideal that guilty men be caught, while no innocent need be condemned’

This conclusion follows from the authors’ thorough, broad-based review of Singapore’s legal landscape as they critique every step of the criminal process: from the detaining of a suspect to his questioning, the trial process and the reviewing of evidence. Their article also explores the standard with which Singapore would have her officers execute each step of the process, and the attitudes and perspectives of individuals in authority as they go about their work. Through their work, Chen and Chua reveal that Singapore’s criminal process is in fact systemically competent, and imbued with the right values and direction, with a certain cautiousness to – as far as possible – prevent wrongful conviction.

However, no system is infallible, as the authors point out: the risk of wrongful conviction lies in several areas, including the ready acceptance of false confessions, the room for more rules governing admission of evidence, and so on. These are real risks, and there is much room for tightening of the joints where these risks occasion. That being said, Chen and Chua’s article is a welcome step in identifying these unoiled regions wanting of remedy in the local context. If even more of these risk areas can be identified, solutions may be developed to plug the gaps, as they may be.

It is thus that the Innocence Project is one such welcome addition to the overall process, functioning so as to bring those already convicted (allegedly, wrongly) to the attention of the broader system. These studies and pilot schemes are positive steps towards the ideal that guilty men be caught, while no innocent need be condemned: they grow Singapore’s criminal legal system, as to which there is much potential for refinement. It is hoped that Singapore continues to build upon its system with awareness and verve.

Mark Cheng, 21, is a first-year student at National University of Singapore (Law).

This article is written in response to Wrongful Convictions in Singapore: A General Survey of Risk Factors ( [2010] SingLRev 6 ), by Chen Siyuan and Eunice Chua, which can be found  at: https://mercury.smu.edu.sg/rsrchpubupload/17580/WrongfulConvictionsInSingapore%5B1%5D.pdf (reproduced with author’s and publisher’s permissions).

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1Internal Security Act (Cap 143, 1985 Rev Ed Sing), s 8

2https://mercury.smu.edu.sg/rsrchpubupload/17580/WrongfulConvictionsInSingapore%5B1%5D.pdf

Wrongful Convictions in Singapore: A General Survey of Risk Factors ( [2010] SingLRev 6 ), by Chen Siyuan and Eunice Chua, reproduced with publisher’s and authors’ permissions.

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