Singapore is not uniformly majority Chinese with Indians and Malays as the other two significant minority groups. Depending on where and when you look, you can get a different mix. Most of the time, it is of little significance, but sometimes there is reason to ask if more underlies what we see.
Peter Lloyd made an observation in his book Inside Story, based on his experience spending time in Singapore’s prison system. Three in four inmates, he wrote, were Malays and Indians. Behind bars, the Chinese were a minority. Undeniably, his observation was not broad data-based, but drawn from what he could see around him when he himself was a prisoner. On the other hand, the Singapore public doesn’t get much data either; the Prison Service’s website (www.prisons.gov.sg) provides no statistics. There is no easy way I can disprove him.
Lloyd, a well-known correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with a track record covering the October 2002 Bali bombing and the attempted assassination of Benazir Bhutto in October 2007, was arrested in Singapore in July 2008 and subsequently sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment for possession (of 0.51 grams) and consumption of methamphetamine (Page 75). With time-off for good behaviour, he served five and a half months in Tanah Merah gaol.
His data sample was not large. At any given time, he mixed around with only a few other inmates. Singapore’s prison system, for example, does not have large mess halls. In the interest of security, prisoners are confined to smallish groups called “landings” — I suppose it means the group of prisoners who share the same cluster of cells and exercise yard. Nonetheless, over the months, as prisoners were released and new ones came in, he might have seen a fair number. Furthermore, he met others when he was (twice) in Queenstown Remand Prison in the initial stages, and for a few weeks at Tanah Merah, he conducted several sessions with inmates from other parts of the prison on anger management.
In his book, this observation is a springboard for some ranting about how the Chinese in Singapore lord over the other races, supported by a few juicy quotes he attributes to non-Chinese prison officers themselves. But this should not distract from the nagging questions his observations pose. Is it true that Malays and Indians are a disproportionate number of inmates in our prison system? Does that indicate bias in sentencing? Alternatively, in the absence of bias, does that indicate that Malays and Indians are becoming a permanent underclass.
Permanent underclasses, handicapped by poor education and burdened by poorer job prospects, end up resorting to crime disproportionately.
I don’t know the answer, but it struck me as I read the book that nobody is asking these questions in Singapore. One suspects that it is too “inconvenient” for most Chinese to ask such questions, too threatening to the government to have to deal with such questions, and too muzzled for anybody else to try. Not good.
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Two other observations that Lloyd made are worth reporting. The first was about the diary he kept while in jail. He had been warned that its contents would be reviewed by the prison authorities before he could take it out with him upon release. An example of the things he should not include, it was described to him, would be details of security cameras and gates.
That is obviously understandable, and by all indications he was not the least interested in recording such details. Yet on the day of his release, the authorities seized the diary from him. After some to and fro, he learnt that the reason was connected to the thoughts he had penned about the Lee family.
For example, he had noticed how Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter, Lee Wei Ling, (and sister of current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong) had a regular column in the Sunday Times:
At fifty-four and never married, Wei Ling is a doctor with an important job in pediatric neurology, but she does not feel the need to restrict herself to her area of obvious expertise. Obligingly, the Straits Times newspaper provides her with a weekly column in which she sets the world to rights, like an old-fashioned preacher with a bully pulpit.
Lee’s first contribution of 2009 was a startling assertion that Singaporeans are guilty of becoming too soft and comfortable in their affluence.
— Peter Lloyd, Inside Story, Page 270
The above is what he wrote in the book; there’s no way of knowing the tone of what he wrote in the diary. Nonetheless, it begs the question, how does having an opinion of something totally unconnected with prison security be a reason for seizure of a diary? Why is the Lee family’s private reputation being protected by officers of the state whose salaries are paid from the public purse?
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Most prisoners have neither work nor rehabilitative training. They spend their time totally locked up, except for a few hours a day in the yard. What little work there is (and for only a handful) is just that of collecting meals from the kitchens and distributing it to other prisoners in the same landing.
There used to be prison workshops, but these have closed, Lloyd wrote. He was told that it was because of the economic climate — Lloyd’s time in jail was the first half of 2009 when the global financial meltdown punched economies in the solar plexus. He made the astute observation that it could only mean that the chief rationale of prison workshops was to exploit cheap labour, because if their aim was rehabilitation (inculcating good work ethic and self-esteem) then some way would have been found to keep them going.
Indeed, an irrefutable point!
The daily routine of prison life was one of obeying orders. Roll calls came several times a day. Inmates had to snap to attention, saying “Yes, sir” this and “Yes, sir” that when spoken to by prison officers. Prisoners were never told much in advance, not even about their work assignments or movements for the following day. Information was closely guarded on a “need to know” basis.
This is actually the antithesis of rehabilitation. Inducing a culture of meekly obeying orders and not asking too many questions undercuts the person’s ability to re-adjust to life outside. The outside world is not a regimented one. Since external controls on behaviour are few and far between, successful rehabilitation involves acquiring self-awareness and self-discipline. One has to learn to make good decisions for oneself, and making good decisions requires information and practice at balancing different stimuli and conflicting choices.
Making robots out of prisoners almost ensures a high recidivism rate, when they are so ill-adapted to life outside.
Do we have a high recidivism rate? There are no statistics on the Home Ministry or Prison Service websites either. Like prisoners, the Singaporean outside is not encouraged to be curious. Don’t ask too many questions. Be grateful for the tray of food pushed through your hatchdoor. Accept your fate in life. Don’t forget to say, “Yes, sir”.
Addendum (15 March 2011, 01:35h)
A reader informed me that Non-constituency Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim (Workers’ Party) had in fact asked a question about recidivism rates during the recent budget debate. Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam provided some figures that trended upwards:
2 March 2011
Two-year re-offending rate up
The proportion of former jailbirds who commit new offences within two years of being freed is growing.
The uptrend in the two-year recidivism rate can be seen in the figures given by Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Monday.
The rate rose from 25.1 per cent in 2006 to 26.5 per cent the following year and 27.3 per cent in 2008, Mr Shanmugam disclosed in a written reply to Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim.
She wanted to know what the rate of re-offending was for people released from prison, reformative training and juvenile homes from 2003 to 2005.
The picture is similar for those who complete reformative training, with the recidivism rate climbing yearly from 20.1 per cent to 23.1 per cent to 28.4 per cent from 2006 to 2008.
The recidivism rate for those in juvenile homes, which comes under the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), is measured differently.
Its rate is the proportion of local and foreign offenders charged with a new offence within three years of their release from an MCYS programme, like probation.
In 2003, the recidivism rate for those in juvenile homes was almost half, at 48.1 per cent. The figure has since fallen slightly. From 2004 to 2006, the rate was 43.6 per cent, 33.6 per cent and 38.8 per cent respectively.
Many thanks to the reader whom I believe wishes to remain anonymous.