Donald Low, Associate Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy has once more apologised to Law Minister, K Shanmugam, over a Facebook posting the former had made on 24 April.
In what is his 4th apology in 2 separate letters since then, Mr Low said that his first apology on 28 April “was insincere.”
“I had misrepresented your views in the Today article, and had presented them in a careless, thoughtless and flippant way,” he said in his second letter to Mr Shanmugam. “To make things worse, my apology was self-exculpatory.”
“I accept that my criticism of your views was untruthful, unfair and unsubstantiated. I have let the LKY School down.”
In his first letter to the minister, Mr Low had apologised 3 times in it.
It all started when Mr Low responded on his Facebook page to remarks by Mr Shanmugam reported in the TODAY newspaper on the issue of penalties for offences.
Mr Shanmugam, who had earlier said that he had asked the ministries of Home Affairs and Law, which he oversees, to see if certain sentences for various offences needed to be reviewed.
The TODAY article, titled “Penalties for crime must reflect public opinion: Shanmugam”, reported the minister as having said that “if penalties do not reflect the weight of public opinion and people do not find them fair, the law would lose its credibility and would not be enforceable.”
“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.
He further explained: “(Paying attention to public expression) is important because these people represent the ground feelings … Penalties and criminal laws can only be enforced if people believe that they are fair and that certain conduct ought to be made criminal … Otherwise they lose credibility.”
In his response, Mr Low said relying on public opinion to formulate legal sentences was not “right”.
Public opinion, he said, “can be ignorant or ill-informed, excessively emotional (especially after a crime), unguided by reason, driven by our impulses, and biased by recent events that are vivid and memorable but are hardly representative.”
“We want our elected representatives to make laws impersonally and dispassionately, after proper deliberation and debate. We want Parliament to be insulated (to a large extent) from the prevailing moods and sentiments of the public at any point in time, because these are prone to sudden changes.”
“Making laws on the basis of public opinion is populism by another name,” he added.
On 27 April, Mr Shanmugam responded to Mr Low’s posting, and said that the latter had “seriously misconstrued what I actually said.”
“What I said reflects the established Government position on penal policy, and how we review our criminal legislation; there was nothing new or novel about it,” the minister said.
“I was clear that public opinion, while relevant, cannot be the sole or decisive factor in proposing legislation. It is surprising that some like Donald misunderstood what I meant..”
He said, referring to public opinion, that “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.”
“It is the task of the Government to decide what is the appropriate legislative provision. And that is the mixture of… what is fair, what is right and also where is the weight of public opinion.”
The next day, 28 April, Mr Low sent Mr Shanmugam his first letter in which he apologised to the latter 3 times.
Then, on 9 May, Mr Low once again issued another apology through another letter to the minister.
What does one make of this mini-saga?
Mr Shanmugam is, of course, right in that he had said nothing about public opinion being the sole determinant of legislations or penalties for offences. In the TODAY report in question, the Law Minister had made it quite clear that he had only meant that public opinion should be considered when proposing legislations or reviewing legislations.
So, in that vein, Mr Low’s rather uncharacteristically flippant criticism of the minister’s remarks were misplaced and unfair.
Having said that, the irony here is that the two men actually agree on the point – that public opinion cannot be the sole or decisive factor in proposing legislation.
The issue here is, instead, how one party had ascribed an opinion to another which the latter did not hold – that Mr Shanmugam’s views is that public opinion should be the deciding factor in how legislations are framed.
The lesson, therefore, is a simple one. In the words of Mr Shanmugam: “[It] will be first useful to read and understand what has been said, before jumping in to criticise.”
But it is also good for the minister to allow that at times, people do get it wrong, and a little leeway should be given in such instances. It is felt that there is no necessity to refer to Mr Low’s position in the LKYSPP as Mr Low was quite clearly expressing his views in his personal capacity.
But certainly, we do expect that someone in Mr Low’s position should take more care in expressing his opinions, given how he is held in high regard by not a few people. Mr Low’s expert knowledge and views on economics, in particular, which he shares regularly on his Facebook page, are enlightening and often stir meaningful debates and discussions, leading to deeper understanding of issues for the lay person.
We hope he will continue to share his views on these.
We hope the two sides, now that apologies have been tendered, will move on from this mini-saga, and we look forward to further news of the reviews being done to various legislations and penalties for certain offences.