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27 Sing. L. Rev. 1 (2009)
Crime and Punishment: The Problems of Sentencing

handle is hein.journals/singlrev27 and id is 3 raw text is: Singapore Law Review
(2009) 27 Sing.L.Rev. 1-11
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT:
THE PROBLEMS OF SENTENCING
WALTER WOON*
My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime -
The punishment fit the crime;
W S Gilbert, The Mikado
Letting the punishment fit the crime - this is a problem as old as justice itself. In talks like this,
one usually approaches the problem as a classic academic exercise - look at the cases, dissect the
cases, analyse the reasoning. I am going to take a different tack today. I am going to deal with this
as a practical issue, looked at from a different angle - the prosecution's, not the judge's.
Several preliminary points should be noted:
Firstly, what is considered just depends very much on a society's values. The word justice
can be translated into any language known to man; but one cannot translate the underlying
assumptions and values. What is just to an American may not be just to an Englishman. What
an Englishman considers just may not accord with what we in Singapore consider just. This
means that sentencing precedents from other countries are of limited utility for us. They are useful
only as examples. They cannot be directly applied.1 Therefore, I am going to examine principally
cases from Singapore rather than do a review of authorities from all around the world.
Secondly, what a society considers just changes over time. In the United Kingdom, for
instance, there is a body of opinion against the death penalty for murder. A poll by the Economist
in 2008 comparing British to American attitudes put the figures as follows: around 20% were
against capital punishment under all circumstances, roughly 50% thought that capital punishment
is sometimes justified and about 25% felt that it should be applied in all cases of murder - clearly
not a majority against, though the opponents of capital punishment routinely speak as if there is
consensus in their societies on this matter. These figures were different a generation ago.2 Even
further back in time, one would not have found much sympathy for the view that the death penalty
was inappropriate for the war criminals convicted in the Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Trials
immediately after the Second World War. Values change over time. The notion ofjustice changes
with them. This should be kept in mind when dealing with the older precedents.
* This paper is a revised version of the Singapore Law Review Lecture 2008, incorporating some material
from a subsequent lecture delivered to the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore in December. I
acknowledge with gratitude the assistance of Ms Ong Luan Tze, who helped greatly in gathering the raw
material for the two talks.
1  See Pubic Prosecutor v. Law Aik Meng [2007] 2 Sing. L.R. 814 (V K Rajah J) citing Chia Kim Heng
Frederick v. Public Prosecutor [1992] 1 Sing. L.R. 361 (Yong CJ).
2  See eg OngAh Chuan v. Public Prosecutor [ 1981] 1 M.L.J. 65 (Privy Council on appeal from Singapore).

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