SINGAPORE - The punishment of caning originated from "racist" attitudes, argued activist lawyer M. Ravi yesterday before the Court of Appeal.
He is seeking to challenge the legality of the punishment in Singapore in what is the latest chapter in the long-running case of Malaysian drug courier Yong Vui Kong, 25.
His death sentence was commuted to a life term and 15 strokes of the cane last year.
Yong is now fighting to quash the caning part of his sentence.
Yong's lawyer, Mr Ravi, produced a series of arguments to show that caning is against Singapore's Constitution, one of which was that it was based on discrimination.
He referred to legislative debates in 1872, when caning was instituted by the British colonial government to curb the problem of rioting by members of Chinese secret societies.
Citing a speech which referred to the rioters as "the riffraff and scum of China", Mr Ravi argued that such attitudes should no longer hold sway in modern-day Singapore.
However, Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang noted that "Chinese" was used merely as a descriptive term.
Apart from purported racism, Mr Ravi said the fact that only men between the ages of 16 and 50 can be caned was another form of discrimination.
Stressing that he was not advocating for women to be caned, he argued that such a regime violates the Constitution, which guarantees that all persons are equal before the law.
Mr Ravi also argued that the way in which caning is carried out in the prisons here amounts to torture or inhuman punishment.
He suggested that caning was not in line with Singapore's international legal obligations as it had signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which prohibits torture and inhuman punishment.
He also argued that while its stated objective is to deter crime, there is a lack of evidence to show a link between caning and low crime rates.
The prosecution countered Mr Ravi's racism argument as baseless as caning was offence-specific and applied to all races.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Francis Ng added that there were good reasons for the exemption of women and men above 50 and below 16.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Tai Wei Shyong argued that the Constitution does not contain an express prohibition against torture and that treaties signed by Singapore do not automatically become domestic law. In any case, he argued, caning does not amount to torture.
DPP Tai also stressed that Yong was no victim but an "agent of destruction" to many in Singapore.
He was 19 in 2007 when he was arrested after making two drug deliveries. He was convicted of trafficking 47.27g of heroin in 2008 and given the then-mandatory death penalty.
After a string of bids to quash his death sentence, he was spared the gallows under new laws that allow couriers who helped the authorities to be jailed for life and caned instead.
The Court of Appeal will give its decision at a later date.
This article was first published on August 23, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.