Youth Offenders In Singapore

By January 13, 2023 Research Publications

In Singapore, a recent incident has left Singaporeans with a confronting set of questions surrounding juveniles who commit crimes. The 10-year old boy who threw a cat from the 22nd floor has made headlines and stirred local emotions over the past few weeks, with a petition calling for punishment reaching over 80,000 signatures.

The debate between the utility of rehabilitation versus punishment rages on around the world. However juvenile cases are even more complex due to factors such as the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex reducing criminal culpability, and the potential for early intervention. Singapore’s own legislation has set the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility (MCRA) at 10 years old (raised from 7 years old in 2019), and steps have been taken across the past decade to protect youth offenders on a judicial level, with a focus on corrective rather than retributive punishment.

However, the outcry over the 10 year old’s offence has raised the question of how society views crime and punishment. Calls for the parents to be punished and for the young offender to be jailed or permanently institutionalised pepper the petition. Recently, another case involving a 17 year old girl accused of throwing boiling water over a special needs individual sparked outcry over her identity being protected as a minor.

How do Singaporean feel about youth who commit serious offences? Should they carry the consequences of their actions into adulthood? Is detention better than counselling and rehabilitation? We asked 188 Singaporeans for their thoughts on juvenile offenders and the specific case involving animal cruelty.

In response to a broad question about juvenile offender’s culpability for their actions, a majority of 47% either strongly agreed or agreed. However, this was far from an overwhelming majority, with 34% on the opposing side and 19% unsure. This divided response can be found in later answers as well.

While a small majority of 29% agreed with the current Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility, (with only 8% feeling like individuals younger than 10 should be held criminally responsible) there was a close split between the “Above 14” and “Above 16” responses as well – with 24% and 25% respectively.

We also probed further into the types of actions taken against juvenile offenders. Respondents expressed a preference for rehabilitation over detention or incarceration, with 55% either agreeing or strongly agreeing that rehabilitation should be prioritised where possible – with institutionalisation as the last resort.

This tracks with the ranking of end goals, where preventing re-offending and rehabilitation ranked first and second respectively on average. Interestingly, punishment being an end goal ranked lowest on average, with over 44% of respondents placing it dead last out of 5 options.

While the answers to these first questions reveal the nuance in how different Singaporeans view juvenile offenders, specific questions about the infamous case provided a more tangible case study for respondents.

Although the boy is allegedly just under or directly at the age of Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility, 60% felt that criminal charges should be pressed – this despite the earlier question on MACR where 63% opted for “Above 14” or older.

However, answers were more divided on the question of a jail term or fine being imposed as punishment, with over 29% choosing “unsure”. While most respondents did agree with the petition, more than half did not select either “agree” or “strongly agree.”

While the petition has garnered a great deal of attention, responses suggest that the strong opinions expressed through the petition are not necessarily shared by all Singaporeans. This carried through to the repeat question about rehabilitation versus institutionalisation where the answers were notably similar; both generally and in the specific context of this case.

These results suggest a resistance towards incarceration and, when looked at in conjunction with the other results, also uncertainty over the best way to handle them. This possibly stems from a core uncertainty over how far responsible minors are for their actions.

Despite 47% agreeing that juvenile offenders are fully responsible for their own actions, 71% also agreed that the parents in this case are responsible for their child’s offence. Further, while incarceration was less desired by respondents, over half felt that a measure of responsibility had to be taken by juvenile offenders into adulthood.

These dissonant answers are perhaps reflective of an ongoing debates within Singapore – where no consensus has been reached, and Singaporeans are still grappling with how to collectively define guilt and responsibility.

This case is not only an example of juvenile crime in Singapore, but a conversation starter that might help to crystalise certain viewpoints in future cases or in the public consciousness. While this survey reveals split opinions and uncertainty, it also reveals a clear desire among Singaporeans for rehabilitation – not only for the juvenile offender, but for public safety as well. It suggests a desire for some sort of responsibility being taken by the offender, but with limited consensus on what exactly that responsibility should ideally be.

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