A cruel heritage

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 April, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 April, 1994, 12:00am

CRIME is a parasite on society. Throughout the ages governments have pondered deeply on the best ways to cope with it. Rightly, they reason that it should be punished; that the punishment should fit the offence; and that it should act as a deterrent to others.

It is in this context that we should consider the case of the Hong Kong student Shiu Chi-ho and his American accomplice Michael Fay, who have been sentenced by a Singapore judge to caning and imprisonment for the wanton and repeated spray-painting of other people's cars.

It is not for us to question whether the two youths carried out the attacks. They have been found guilty by a properly established court of law. Neither would it be right to join in the chauvinistic chorus that says, all too simplistically: ''We don't cane our citizens, so neither should you''. A sovereign country is entitled to administer justice within its own borders. People who live in, or visit, Singapore are aware of the severity of the penal code.

People in any free society, however, are entitled to question whether the sentence is appropriate and whether it discourages others, if only to ascertain whether their own community could learn something.

Caning is without doubt a brutal method for dealing with transgressions. It leaves both physical and mental scars which can last a lifetime. It is not a peculiarly Asian practice. Rather, it was brought here by Western colonialists.

In 1990, Hong Kong's Secretary for Security, Alistair Asprey, abolished it as ''outdated and unnecessary'', despite an opinion poll which indicated that most people favoured its retention. Judges and magistrates are now encouraged to order probation for first time offenders and some form of rehabilitation for recidivists.

Hong Kong has not as a result suffered any marked increase in crime. Indeed, the territory's crime figures are, per capita, below those of Singapore. Rather, the real deterrent to potential offenders appears not to be the threat of punishment but the likelihood of apprehension - a likelihood which is far higher in the smaller and well-policed communities of Hong Kong and Singapore than in countries such as Britain and the United States.

Singapore's judicial system is now under the international spotlight, principally because Fay is an American. President Bill Clinton appears to have been drawn into opposing the caning by domestic pressures. Such interference is almost bound to increase the resistance of the Singaporeans to any change in the way they handle their affairs.

That such a situation should result from what is regarded in many countries as a trivial crime is a shame. The two teenagers deserve punishment for their actions. However, spray-painted cars can be restored; humans cannot. When the clamour dies down, perhaps the Singapore Government can be persuaded it is time to rid their country of this rare vestige of colonial heritage.