Caning in Singapore

Caning is a practice that the Singaporeans picked up from the British during the 19th century while under colonial rule. At the time, Britain itself was using this method as an accepted and legal form of punishment for criminal offenses. Well, caning had been outlawed throughout the entire United Kingdom itself by the turn of the 21st century.  However, on the Malay Peninsula (including Singapore), this practice has not only remained on the books but the number of offences under which a person can receive a caning has been steadily increasing. Simultaneously the number of canings which the judicial system hands out has been increasing also. 

For reference, the number of cases in which an offender was sentenced to caning in Singapore has doubled in an extraordinarily-fast amount of time, from about 3,200 in 1993 to approximately 6,400 as of 2007.

Offences for which one can be caned in Singapore

Traditionally speaking, one could be caned for serious offences such as rape, robbery and other, less-violent forms of stealing (theft, burglary). And as time progressed most of the crimes which have been added to this list, such as kidnaping and drug trafficking, are also what would be defined as major offences. 

But there are also many relatively-minor infractions – such as selling fireworks, vandalism, unlicensed moneylending or even being addicted to drugs – for which a person can be caned. And at the end of the day, looking at the length of the list of offences for which caning is applied implies that the best option, to avoid falling victim to such, is simply not to get into any issues with the law in Singapore which can result in imprisonment. That is to say that judicial canings are not carried out as a singular punitive measure. Rather they are a de facto component of receiving a jail sentence in and of itself.

Who can be caned in Singapore

However, in these cases, it isn’t as simple as a person breaking the law and then finding himself on the caning block. Rather there are certain stipulations and even exemptions.  For instance, only males can be caned. Moreover said males, generally speaking, have to be between 18 and 50 years old, and also they must also be deemed healthy enough to receive the punishment (at the actual time of the caning) by a medical professional. If the criminal is under 18, the cane can only reach a certain prescribed level of thickness. And if he is under 16, he can only be sentenced to receive this punishment by Singapore’s highest courts. Moreover if a prisoner is on death row, he cannot be caned.

How the canings occur

These canings occur behind closed doors (i.e. in the prisons themselves). And they are actually administered by designated caning officers – individuals carefully selected and even trained to perform this task. However, this isn’t necessarily for the benefit of the victim, although such training does decrease the officers’ likelihood of landing a blow outside of the designated target area (the buttocks). Rather such individuals are instructed on how to use the cane as effectively as possible, as in doling out the maximum amount of pressure (i.e. pain) per blow. Moreover the caning officers in and of themselves tend to be muscular, and many of them are also trained in martial arts.

The recipients of judicial lashings are notified of the exact time upon which they are to receive their punishment, albeit only a single day in advance. This is perhaps to maximize their anxiety, as they are said to be quite distressed upon receiving such notification. And indeed, they know that a harrowing experience lies ahead.

The Steps

First of all, they are stripped totally naked.  Then they are bent over and strapped onto an apparatus referred to as a “British dual-purpose prison flogging frame”. In addition to the caning officers, as aforementioned, being trained professionals, additional safety measures are taken in that padding is placed around the offenders’ lower spine and kidneys, just in case a stroke goes off target and hits one of those sensitive areas. Or looked at alternatively, there is the potential for permanent damage to be inflicted. And in some cases, the punished still sustain long-term wounding to their kidneys despite the protective measures taken. 

And for those who are to receive numerous strokes, they are only given about 30 seconds between each lash. Moreover, the maximum amount of strokes which an individual can be sentenced to is 24. But regardless of the number, he must receive all of them in a single session.

So much pain!

As alluded to earlier, ultimately the primary goal of a caning is to inflict as much pain on the receiver as possible without killing or permanently incapacitating him. And yes, they do experience a lot of pain, especially for those who receive three or more lashes.  Moreover as the caning proceeds, the victim increasingly becomes bloodier and in some cases even loses flesh meat. Of course there is a medical officer on hand, just in case the prisoner reaches a state where his very life is at jeopardy. But overall, the situation reads as if a caning being stopped once it has already commenced is a rare occurrence. 

Such an experience of course leaves permanent scarring on the body of the recipient.  Moreover, as expected he will be in a considerable amount of pain afterwards, with such symptoms sometimes lasting for a month. For instance, for a time, such individuals will not be able to lie down on their backs or even sit down. Moreover they may experience bleeding or uncontrollable bowel movements. That’s why it is procedure for the system itself to treat the wounds immediately after the caning, in addition to giving the recipient antibiotics and painkillers.

The humiliation

There is also the potential humiliation that comes with crying out during a caning.  The recipients are not gagged, because doing so would increase the potential of them suffering a serious injury. And of course in prisons for instance, machismo is a big part of the overall culture. So no recipient of this punishment wants to be heard screaming in the process. However, at the same time, the pain is so severe that they are compelled to do so. Indeed it has been put forth that even more than physically harming those who receive such punishment, the intended purpose of the caning experience is to in fact humiliate them. And even beyond humiliation, the recipients of the procedure also develop mental issues (i.e. painful memories) as a result.

Institutions where caning is allowed in Singapore

In addition to prisons, other Singaporean institutions in which caning is allowed include the following:

  • The military
  • Schools
  • Children’s homes
  • Private residences 

In the latter three cases it is of course used as a means of disciplining children, and accordingly there is no apparatus or what have you involved. Moreover military canings are conducted in a much more-humane manner than in prisons. 

A punishment supported by society

Overall, it can be said that caning is pervasive and even encouraged. For instance, civilians (i.e. parents) can even purchase canes inside grocery stores. Furthermore, the government has continued to keep such statutes on the books despite receiving unfavorable international criticism as a result.

Notable caning cases

Yet and still, there have been some particular cases which garnered more attention than usual. For instance, there have been at least two incidences where Singaporeans received more lashes than they were sentenced to and in the aftermath were able to successfully secure compensation from the government. But of course the most-notable incidences tend to be when foreigners are involved, i.e. those who come from countries where judicial corporal punishment is not commonly practiced or has been outlawed altogether.

Michael Fay

For instance, perhaps the most-famous caning in Singapore’s history was that of an American named Michael Fay in 1994, who was a teenager at the time. It appears that Fay was not only the first American ever sentenced to caning in Singapore but still the only one to have received this punishment as of 2020. In fact his case caused so much attention even President Bill Clinton of the United States himself intervened. And ultimately he did help save Fay some additional harm, for as a result of international pressure Singapore did reduce his sentence – for theft and vandalism – from six strokes down to four (in addition to four months in jail).

Ye Ming Yuen

Another popular case involved Ye Ming Yuen, a DJ from London who worked in Singapore. He faced severe criminal charges upon being caught in 2016 with 18 ounces of weed. He was ultimately slapped with a 20-year sentence, in addition to 24 cane strokes, after once again being arrested on weed charges in 2018 (while out on bail from the original charge). This reawakened international interest in Singapore’s draconian caning laws. And Yuen himself appealed his conviction numerous times. However, his caning was indeed carried out, according to the government of Singapore, on 12 August 2020.

In Conclusion

Conclusively, if you plan on spending any time in Singapore, it would be wise to familiarize yourself with the nation’s laws. This is especially true for foreigners who were not brought up in a system similar to that in the Lion City. For instance, certain crimes, such as vandalism or holding a joint, that are perceived as minor offenses in some countries are considered to be severe acts of criminality by the government of Singapore – so much so that offenders may well be facing a traumatizing cane lashing on top of a prison/jail sentence.

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2 Responses

  1. September 30, 2020

    […] pointed out in this blog before, Singaporean law enforcement have little qualms with resorting to corporal punishment, i.e. caning, in the name of punishing various types of offenders. Most of the crimes for which a convict can […]

  2. October 2, 2020

    […] Generally speaking, Singapore is an anti-fireworks’ nation. This is to prevent accidents related to them which cause serious harm or even death. And whereas the laws against fireworks have become more lax throughout the decades, even to this very day they cannot be used without the government’s consent. This includes the buying and selling of fireworks, which can land the offender a prison sentence and even a caning. […]

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