Lenient laws stop justice
THIS may not be the right time to lament judicial judgments because the whole legal system is in the throes of anxiety over the Court of Final Appeal issue.
But outrage is how many in this community are feeling after the High Court sentenced to 20 years (actually 16 after deductions for holidays and 'good behaviour') the killer of 12 people (13 if counting the unborn), most of whom succumbed slowly, agonisingly to the effects of smoke inhalation. The penalty for the massacre works out to about a year in prison per victim. Is life so cheap? During the trial much was said about the 'plight' of the assailant and how it was all a tragedy in which somehow he was not entirely to blame. Not enough, however, was said about the victims. Who were they? What were their aspirations and hobbies? Who were their children, confidantes and relatives? Where did they go to school? What were their favourite colours? Who were their idols? What was the last movie they saw, the last magazine read, and what did they eat at their last meal? I wanted to know because I refused to let them be mere names in news reports and ciphers in grim crime statistics. To me they were no less human than the arsonist who cut short their lives.
As I followed the judicial proceedings in the press, it dawned on me that the plea for clemency was based on the same preposterous arguments heard in the American courts in which no one is supposed to be liable for his actions (or atrocities) and that the culpable party in murder, mayhem, grand larceny and rape was always society - that is, us.
Similarly light sentences - a few months in jail for a pervert who lured a couple of gullible girls to open their door and molested them once he was in the flat, a few thousand dollars in fines against a reckless truck driver who destroyed a family on the side of the road, a slap on the wrist of a hit and run motorist who had no valid licence, and eight and seven years of incarceration respectively for a duo who conspired to attack, dope and kill a Baptist University student - suggest judicial leniency is not an aberration but a trend.
The blame for such tolerance of crime falls partly on those in the Legislative Council infatuated with western concepts of human rights and individualism which, they forget, cannot mean someone doing whatever he pleases and leaving society to pick up the pieces. Liberty is licence unless the free person is willing to suffer for his misdeeds. If not, then this is not progress but a retrogression to a savage state.
The proponents of libertarian laws seem to want the best of both worlds - with society being responsible for the welfare and well-being of the individual but without the individual being answerable to the community. To me, this is muddled thinking.
The only option for us in Hong Kong is to eschew the extreme liberalism of the west and preserve certain Confucian precepts as our community modernises. In East Asia the cohesive family is paramount and it is here that a person is nurtured, disciplined and inculcated with respect for others. The typical family takes pride in the achievements of its own and, conversely, shame in a member's fall from grace.
The alternative is to have society assume family duties at huge expense and often to no avail. The money needed to support, guard and rehabilitate a prisoner for a year can pay for the education of a youth from secondary school through to university graduation. No programme anywhere is as cost effective as a caring family.
None, however, is costlier than the legal and penal system required to remedy the mistakes of the individual and the family.
More and more in the west are realising the folly of unrestrained individualism and that is why the sanctity of the family has become a hot political topic in the United States, Australia, Canada and countries of the European Union. No wonder experts from those nations are not just examining the East Asian economic miracle but evaluating the culture which enables overcrowded, natural-resource poor communities to go through great industrial change while avoiding the crime spree that stems from a society in flux.
Two major pieces of local legislation - the Bill of Rights and the subsequent abolition of the death penalty (not used since 1966) - have marked a move away from traditional values and towards the liberal excesses now regretted in many parts of the west.
The more sensible legislators are nevertheless doing their best to resist the anomaly and that is why the omnibus crime bill was passed a couple of months ago after a long dither, despite scaremongering talks about infringement of individual rights and civil liberties.
But the defenders of a forthright approach to law and order are under siege. The liberal press does not give their ideas adequate coverage. They are a minority whose number could shrink some more after the September Legco elections. Fewer in the legislature today are for upholding the panoply of powers that the Independent Commission Against Corruption needs. Not many are willing now to cede the same authority to Inland Revenue investigators whose power to seize files and freeze bank accounts is being challenged.
The court may have been conned by the loudest political voices into thinking the public is also soft on crime. Whatever the cause, some judges seem intent on interpreting the law in the most liberal way. The ICAC is still smarting from a judge who ruled that civil servants should not be required to explain wealth and a living standard beyond their means. The police are indignant about investigations leading nowhere because some judges tend to trust the crooks' testimonies more than those of law-abiding residents while allowing niggling details to cloud the procedures, to the detriment of the body of evidence.
I ask Hong Kong's legislators, other politicians and policy makers to question whether the punishments meted out these days fit the crime and, if their conscience is twinged, what is to be done about the discrepancy.
I hope justice will triumph for the innocent - and particularly for a boy killed on a roof-top, another kidnapped, smothered and dumped on a desolate hillside, and yet another chopped to death in a bungled $200 robbery. I am a father and so my condolences go to the grieving families who have had their loved ones snatched from them. If this appeal for justice is mistaken as a call for retribution, so be it.