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How criminal suspects are handled in Singapore – and it has nothing to do with race

Why are some faces revealed, and others' hidden? We answer the burning questions you have about how suspects are handled in Singapore.

Nigel Chin

Published: 12 March 2020, 5:41 PM

Is there an agenda against people of certain races in Singapore, especially when it comes to exposing them or their crime?

That’s what at least some Twitter users claimed, taking issue over the choice of photos used in media reports regarding the Teck Whye Lane fight suspects’ identity.

In case you were wondering, 14 suspects, aged between 17 and 29, were arrested for their involvements in the fight that occurred on Feb 27 across various locations in Singapore. Media reports said that some of them had knives, parangs and a knuckle-duster. They were charged with rioting and unlawful assembly.

Questions were asked as to why the faces and identities of the suspects, all belonging to the same race, were revealed, as well as why they were portrayed in a negative manner.

Youth.SG attempts to answer questions raised over the treatment of the Teck Whye Lane fight suspects.

Gag order 

The biggest question raised was why the Teck Whye Lane fight suspects’ names and faces were revealed, while suspects or even convicted criminals of other races in previous cases had their identity hidden, or their faces blurred out.

Identities are kept hidden because of gag orders imposed by the court to protect the identity of the victims in the cases, especially those who are young or vulnerable. Some examples include victims in rape cases, or the Chin Swee Road murder case last year, where the names of the two accused were kept hidden to protect the identity of the two-year-old victim.

In a reply to a Straits Times forum letter in September last year, the Ministry of Law said that the gag order is in place to “protect the identity of the alleged victim so as to avoid or minimise further trauma to him or her”.

A gag order not just prevents names from being revealed. It also covers addresses, photos of the subject, as well as any information that will identify the person. This is important, as in some cases, both victims and the accused might be related or closely connected.

Anyone found violating a gag order is liable to a year’s jail, or a fine up to $5,000, or both.

However, there are times when a media outlet may choose to blur the faces of subjects out even without a gag order. This may be because they have not been officially arrested, or even classified as suspects.

Revisiting crime scene

For certain cases, especially the higher profile ones, suspects may be brought back to the crime scene for a crime scene reenactment. This is to help police investigators to better understand how the crime happened.

In the Teck Whye Lane case, the suspects were brought back to the crime scene and that was how the media were able to capture their photos. Questions, however, were asked as to why the suspects’ legs had to be chained, apart from being handcuffed – with some hinting towards the ‘special treatment’ meted out to certain races.

However, a quick check on several past media reports on previous cases show that criminals of other races have gone through the same treatment – they were all dressed in the same red polo tee, black shorts and slippers, and had their hands and legs cuffed together. Two officers would flank the suspect on each side.

This include the high profile Orchard Towers murder case and the jewellery store robbery in Ang Mo Kio last year. The amount of time spent during crime scene reenactments can vary. It can be as quick as five to 10 minutes, or longer than 30 minutes.

How are sentences decided

Criminal sentences are usually decided by the judge presiding over the case. There is no jury – just in case you’ve watched the popular dramas such as Suits or Better Call Saul!

According to the AGC, there are four principles in guiding this sentencing process – retribution, general or specific deterrence, prevention and rehabilitation. From the four principles, the court will decide a suitable punishment based on the suspect’s culpability and the seriousness of the crime committed (retribution), to discourage others from engaging in similar behaviour (general deterrence) or to discourage the offender from re-offending, especially if it is not the first time if the crime has been committed (specific deterrence).

In cases where the chances of re-offending are high and serious, the offender may be given a longer sentence so no further harm can be caused (prevention). In other cases where the offender is capable of reform, the court will decide which punishment regime is most suited to help reform him (rehabilitation).

Those who have been charged will be allowed to engage his or her own lawyer to help defend or mitigate for him, before the court decides what punishment is most suitable. There is always time given by the court for the accused to find a lawyer. However, if the accused is unable to do so, he or she may have to defend herself in court.

Other relevant factors come into play too – such as the nature and impact of the offence, or whether there is public interest in the case, too. The number of charges usually play a part as well.


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