Equality in Sentencing – Education, Social Status and Separate Disciplinary Proceedings

Equality in Sentencing – Education, Social Status and Separate Disciplinary Proceedings

Sentencing in criminal cases have been the subject of some debate in the past few years. Offenders who have been convicted of offences raise many things to the attention of the court (whether in person or through their lawyers), in the hopes that the court would mete out a lighter sentence. This is only to be expected. Nobody wants a longer sentence.

Some of the arguments commonly raised have received the keen attention of the judiciary and the public – these include education, social status and disciplinary proceedings. The courts have made it clear that raising some arguments or factors will not work in criminal sentencing.

Let’s discuss these 3 factors in turn.

Educational Qualifications in Criminal Sentencing

In arguments for sentencing, lawyers for offenders all over the world raise the educational qualifications of their clients to argue for a lighter sentence. This is used especially in trying to secure rehabilitation instead of punishment for the offenders.

The argument, implied or express, is that because the offender has good educational qualifications, performance or prospects, he is deserving of rehabilitation instead of punishment because he is more likely to reform himself and make good in the long run. A corollary argument is that the offender’s bright future (another assumption here is that better educational qualifications would result in success in life) should not be jeopardized by a heavier sentence.

The Courts in Singapore have made it clear that good educational performance, qualifications or prospects do not mean an offender has a higher propensity to reform. There will not be an automatic assumption that rehabilitation rather than punishment is more suitable for an offender just because of his or her high educational qualifications.

Instead, what matters, regardless of educational qualifications, is the offender’s willingness to change or improve, and general suitability for rehabilitation (instead of punishment).

Academic performance is only relevant if the offender’s achievements have a link with his rehabilitative potential. For example, the circumstances of his academic achievements could be said to show an offender’s determination to turn over a new leaf and change for the better.

Let’s now discuss some relevant cases:

  • The case of Public Prosecutor v Siow Kai Yuan Terence [2020] SGHC 82 concerned a 22-year old university student who committed outrage of modesty upon a woman by touching her thigh on an MRT train, following her out of the train and touching her buttocks. The original sentence was probation. The judge was apparently swayed by the stellar educational qualifications of the offender, in addition to a supportive family, and the offender’s voluntary engagement of a psychiatrist for assistance with his ‘condition’. Upon appeal, the High Court overturned the original sentence of probation and sentenced the offender to 2 weeks’ imprisonment instead. The High Court stated that deterrence was the key consideration for an adult offender who outraged a victim’s modesty, especially where this occurred on the public transport network. Further, the Court decided that there was insufficient evidence that the offender had an extremely strong propensity for reform, or that there were exceptional circumstances to warrant a rehabilitative sentence.
  • The case of GCM v. Public Prosecutor and another appeal [2021] SGHC 18 concerned another 22-year old university student who committed serious sexual offences. He had sexually penetrated a 13-year-old minor on three occasions. The sentence of 24 months’ imprisonment was increased to 33 months’ imprisonment on appeal. The High Court said that deterrence and retribution were the key considerations, not rehabilitation. The High Court noted that the offences were serious, the offender had not demonstrated a positive desire for change, and there was no direct nexus between academic achievement and turning away from crime.

Social Status in Criminal Sentencing

Another go-to for criminal lawyers around the world is the status of the offender – they raise the social status, the financial standing, connected family, important occupation, and other indicators of privilege and position in society to attempt to secure a lighter sentence for their clients.

Once again, the Singapore courts have in recent years been very fastidious to ensure that the law applies equally to all offenders in sentencing despite such indicators of status or standing. Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law.

Let’s briefly recount a few cases.

  • The case of Public Prosecutor v Shaw Chai Li Howard [2012] SGDC 319 was concerned with the grandson of a well-known local businessman. The offender was convicted for obtaining sexual services from an underaged female. The offender argued for a nominal fine in sentencing instead of imprisonment, and he furnished several testimonials to the Court attesting to his “good character and social standing”. After considering arguments, the Court decided on a 12-week imprisonment term as punishment for the offender. It held that there were “no exceptional circumstances warranting a departure from the sentencing norms”. The Court emphasised that the sentence must provide “strong deterrence to discourage people from engaging in commercial sex with minors”.
  • In another case dating back to 2019, the offender was the daughter of prominent local businesspersons. The offender was successfully convicted by the prosecution for 3 charges relating to the consumption and possession of drugs, and 1 charge of driving without due care or attention. She was sentenced to a total of 22 months’ imprisonment, a fine of $1,000 and disqualification from driving for 18 months. She appealed to the High Court for a lower sentence. The High Court dismissed the appeal despite her status and background of privilege and means.

Separate Disciplinary Proceedings in Criminal Sentencing

In some criminal cases which come before the courts for adjudication, the offenders cite the fact that they will lose their jobs, or that they will face disciplinary proceedings by other professional bodies (other than the judiciary) to try and secure a lighter sentence. The thrust of their arguments is that they would have been sufficiently chastised or punished by these separate proceedings, and thus are deserving of lighter sentences.

The Singapore courts has consistently ruled that the fact that an offender may lose his job, be expelled, or face separate disciplinary proceedings is not considered by the Courts as a relevant factor in sentencing. The rationale is that someone who breaks the law must expect to face the consequences that follow under the law, and not under any other disciplinary system.

Cases of note include the following:

  • In Chow Dih v Public Prosecutor [1990] 1 SLR(R) 53, a doctor was found to have cheated his patients by deceiving them into believing that they were suffering from various diseases and that they required treatment from him. After the conclusion of the criminal case, the doctor would have had to face separate disciplinary proceedings before the Singapore Medical Council. The High Court did not regard this as a relevant factor in sentencing, and stated that “a doctor who cheats his patients … must expect to be dealt with according to law as well as the disciplinary rules of his profession.”
  • In Stansilas Fabian Kester v Public Prosecutor [2017] 5 SLR 755, a full-time army regular was convicted of drink-driving, while another charge of dangerous driving was taken into consideration for sentencing. The offender argued against imprisonment because that would mean he would be discharged from the army. The High Court rejected his argument and stated that a person who breaches the criminal law should expect to face the consequences that follow under the law.


It is only natural to raise as many factors as possible in court to secure a lighter sentence. However, some arguments will not work at all in the courts. In some cases, raising such arguments may invite the ire of the courts, which could be directed at the lawyers representing offenders and even the offenders themselves. It is thus important to mount the appropriate arguments for sentencing.

Here at IRB Law, we have a panel of talented, experienced and dedicated criminal lawyers to assist in criminal matters of all types.

If you are facing or ever have the misfortune to face criminal proceedings, or you are worried about the sentencing outcomes for any of your loved ones undergoing criminal proceedings, give us a call as soon as possible. We are ready and willing to assist you.

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