Let teen who committed suicide not die in vain

A fourteen year-old teen committed suicide last Tuesday. This was just hours after he was interrogated by the police for allegedly outraging the modesty of a eleven year-old girl. As expected, the report had people up in arms. Accusations about police procedures flew fast and furious. Most of the comments online are baying for blood.

But for all the discussion, one side of the story has gotten very little attention. No. Not the police. They have issued their statement. The side that almost no one has given any attention to is that of the girl who supposedly got molested. So far, I’ve only seen one post by The Facebook Page, SMRT Feedback/The Vigilanteh, who said this: “Respect the family’s privacy by not being a dick about police procedures. What about the victim of the molestation? What if she was your daughter?”

As much as we need to seek justice for the teen who died, we need to remember that we have to seek justice for the girl whose modesty was outraged. And for all other victims of crime. It cannot be that we lose our ability to seek justice for victims of crime just because we want to protect the rights of those being investigated for allegedly committing the crimes.

But… What is justice? No. I won’t get into a philosophical discussion of justice. Nothing from Plato’s Republic. In the instance of crime and punishment, I think that justice is that the perpetrator of the crime should be pay for his crime. How much should he pay? As much as what society, through its laws feel justified. Not any less. Not any more.

Why?

By committing a crime, the perpetrator of the crime has hurt his fellow members of society. He has damaged the fabric of society. For that he needs to face retribution. The retribution serves two functions. The first is to hurt the perpetrator of the crime. An eye for an eye. But beyond hurting the perpetrator, it also serves as a deterrence. Both to the perpetrator – “Don’t do it again!”, and also to others – “See this guy? If you do what he did, you are going to be punished like him too!” To achieve those objectives, the retribution should not be any less than what society, through its laws have decided to be justified.

But punishing a person for a crime alone, is not enough. It must be the right person facing the retribution. While this seems obvious enough, in practice, it isn’t always the case. How does one come to conclude whether the right person has been apprehended? How does one conclude that the person apprehended is the one that needs to face the retribution for the crime he allegedly committed?

As Lord Chief Justice Hewart put it, “it is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”. It is of paramount importance that the way we decided that the alleged perpetrator is indeed the one who deserves the retribution for the crime committed stands up to scrutiny. And this is where the interrogation process by the Singapore police is, in my opinion, lacking. Particularly in this case.

I do not want to cast aspersions on the Singapore Police Force. It is unfair to say that the police in Singapore are not interested in uncovering the truth and bringing the right person to justice. It is unfair to say that the police in Singapore are only interested in closing the case – never mind who is being arrested, so long as someone is convicted, then that’s all that matters. No. I think the police in Singapore do their utmost best, given constraints on time, manpower and other resources, in their attempt to apprehend and bring the correct person to justice.

I can also understand how it can get frustrating. Imagine. You are a police officer. You have been involved in investigations where you are sure the defendant is guilty, but walks away scot free because of some loophole, or some technicality. It doesn’t just happen in TV or movies. I’m sure it happens in real life too. After seeing enough of such cases, you adopt a position where you treat the alleged perpetrator of the crime as guilty first. The tone of your interrogation and investigation is out to prove the guilt of that person.

And that is how things can go wrong. That is how in the pursuit of justice, the police investigation can lead to injustice. Take this case for example. Imagine the interrogation. Teenager brought in for interrogation. Police officer adopts an aggressive tone. Keeps insisting that the teenager committed the alleged offence. Teenager is already scared, frustrated, felt that he had “lost face”. Is it inconceivable that the teenager, in a fit of anger, rebelliousness and frustration said, “Aiyah! If you said I did it, then I did it la!” The police officer then records: “XXX admitted to committing the offence.”

Does this mean that the teenager really admitted to committing the offence? Was this what happened? We don’t know. Without video footage of the entire interrogation process, we won’t be able to know. And it’s not just teenagers who are susceptible to be “guided” (or “misguided”) by the police to say something that isn’t true during an investigation. Watch this:

Did you say that there were people killed by gunshots? See. Even when not under the stressful conditions of an interrogation, you can also get things wrong. Therefore, to minimise any doubt, suspicion, confusion, and to minimise the chances of the wrong person having to face the retribution for a crime he did not commit, I strongly believe that ALL police interrogations need to be videotaped. It is heartening to know that the police will be starting (or has it started?) a pilot to videotape interrogations. I hope this case strengthens the justification that ALL police interrogations need to be videotaped.

Beyond retribution, I strongly believe that justice also means that the perpetrator of the crime MUST NOT pay for more than what he owes society. After he paid his fine, and/or served his time, that should be it. His debt to society is cleared. He should not be punished any more. He should be given ample opportunities to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society. To deny him of that is to deny him justice.

Which is what happened in this case. We will never know exactly what drove the teenager to take his life. Was he afraid of facing the legal consequences of his actions? He could not bear the lost of face? Was he afraid that people will forever look at him through coloured lenses? All of those? We won’t know. What we do know is that the teenager will never get a chance to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

Could it have been prevented? Probably not entirely. But could we have minimised the chances of such things happening again? Yes. We probably can. After this case was reported, many have called for the presence of an adult when a young person (teenager or child) is being interrogated by the police. I can understand the reasons why the police would be reluctant for parents to be around when the young person is being interrogated. But I don’t think there can be any good reasons for not having an adult who is neutral, say a counsellor, present during the interrogation. As Brenda Tan of TMG said, our children and young persons should never feel that “they have no one who will stand by them. Walk with them. Or, at the very least, be near at hand.”

One young life has already been lost. Even if the boy did commit the alleged offence of outraging the modesty of the girl, the price he paid is way to high. It is gross injustice. Worse, what if the boy WASN’T the perpetrator? It would mean that the girl who was the victim of the offence actually didn’t get any justice. And the actual perpetrator is still out there and may commit the same crime again and hurting another young girl. Where, then, is the justice in that?

The police has said that they will review the process and address questions on whether an appropriate adult can be allowed to be present during the interrogation of a young person. This does not mean that the police would do that. But I hope they do. Nothing the police does now can assuage the pain in the hearts of the parents of the teenager who died. That said, hopefully if this incident leads to an improvement in the system – ALL interrogations to be videotaped, ALL young persons who are interrogated are to be accompanied by an adult who is a neutral party (e.g. a counsellor) – then at least the teenager would not have died in vain.

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