ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN WEEKEND TODAY ON 12 JULY 2008
The stiff punishment that the Supreme Court Judge gave to a National Servicemen who fled his camp with a rifle and five bullets and the exceptional empathy he showed the youth have put the focus on a rarity in Singapore’s justice system: A judge who plays good cop, bad cop.
Playing good cop, Justice Tay Yong Kwang told Dave Teo Ming: “Dave, you have had a very hard life. I hope this unfortunate and traumatic wrong turn in your life will make you more mature and a whole lot wiser and that you will spend the next few years reconstructing your life.”
Teo’s youthful life was one sad twist after another.
His mother was abusive and temperamental. He was looked after by his grandmother, who died recently, after his parents divorced. His lost his brother after the sibling was run over by a lorry.
He turned to his girlfriend for love and emotional strength. Alas, even that did not last — she split with him after four years.
In a moving judgement, Justice Tay said: “My heart hurts for you ...”
But then how do you deal with a “reclusive and self-destructive’’ 20-year-old who had created a scare by escaping from an army camp with a rifle and bullets and then holing up in a Cathay Orchard Cineleisure toilet?
Justice Tay had to play bad cop too and give Teo a deterrent sentence: Nine years and two months’ jail, 18 strokes of the cane. After all, deterrent sentences are seen as playing a key role in keeping crime under check in Singapore.
As Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong noted in 1996 when he was Attorney-General: “If anything has been made clear in Singapore, crime control has always been and is a high priority on the Government’s action agenda.
“The efficient and effective maintenance of law and order in Singapore is considered absolutely essential to its social, economic and political well-being.”
It was thus no surprise that Justice Tay ruled: “I trust that you understand a deterrent sentence is unavoidable in the circumstances.”
Also, Teo will be able to take advantage of the opportunities available in prison to rebuild his life.
Justice Tay said: “I hope that you will pursue your studies, listen to good advice from counsellors and learn many skills while in prison.”
Furthermore, his accomplice in the offence, Ong Boon Jun, who did no more than be in Teo’s company, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison .
Another factor that the Court took into account in sentencing Teo was how his actions had affected the good reputation of the Singapore Armed Forces.
Since not all has been heard about Teo’s escape, I would reserve judgment on this issue.
The bigger issue here is the well-being of similarly-troubled youths who are floating around in our society. Unchecked, even unnoticed.
They do show signs of depressive behaviour before they do something irrational.
In their edgy and emotional state, all it takes is an innocent and innocuous incident for them to explode. It happened to Dave Teo at the Mandai Hill Camp on Sept 2 last year.
Justice Tay did his best with the good-cop-bad-cop approach by sending a moving signal to the National Serviceman.
We need more than signals. We need to identify these youth early and get them the help they need so that they will not have to face the courts.
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