Those who are 17 years old in Singapore are not old enough to vote. They’re not old enough to get married without parental consent, they’re not old enough to serve National Service, they’re not old enough to drive, they’re barely old enough to have legal sex. They’re also not old enough to walk into the supermarket and buy a can of beer.
But apparently they’re old enough to be publicly named and shamed for crimes that they haven’t yet been convicted of.
A group of five 17-year-olds, the alleged Toa Payoh vandals, have had their full names and faces splurged across local media from the day they were charged with vandalism on May 10, right from the get-go. But technically, they’re still innocent; accused, but not convicted. They haven’t been found guilty of any of the charges against them yet.
Yet, local entertainment blog Alvinology published an article studded with personal photos of the five, obviously taken from Facebook. We live in a digital age, we all know how easy it is to access a mine of personal information on practically any known individual (look at the Anton Casey saga) – even more so if those individuals are young and have a large social media footprint.
Once publicly-named, a person’s network – information of not just their friends and colleagues, but possibly that of their siblings and parents too – can be dug out and, potentially, tarnished by association. One quick Google search and a person’s name can unlock a heap of personal data.
Kudos then to the coordinated statement signed by over 100 civil society activists and others on May 15, which calls for the five teenagers to be treated in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Article 40(1) of the CRC urges “the desirability of promoting the child’s reintegration and the child’s assuming a constructive role in society’’ among other considerations.
Though a party to the convention, Singapore’s Children and Young Person’s Act (CYPA) ly protects only “minors aged 16 years old and below (the CRC defines a child as someone not over the age of 18).
But like a 16-year-old, a 17-year-old offender has his or her whole life ahead of them. Does one year really make or break much in the grand scheme?
The Singapore justice system is based on the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty”, something that has been reiterated by no less than Justice V. K. Rajah in his written judgment acquitting former teacher William Ding.
When the lawyer for one of the accused teens failed in his attempt to secure a gag order, the prosecution cited the fact that this was because it was being sought in respect of an accused person (not a victim, or a witness). Taken to its extreme, this reasoning seems to show an almost callous lack of concern for the important distinction between “accused” and “guilty”, for the rights of accused persons.
It’s hard to see what constructive purpose the naming and shaming of accused minors sets out to achieve, even if they are eventually found guilty. Certainly, it doesn’t seem to be rehabilitation. How could it, when your name is inextricably locked with a crime in the public consciousness even before conviction?
The media’s naming and shaming of accused 17-year-olds is, at best, an act of unthinking callousness; at worst, a punishment meted out prematurely.