By Shuli Sudderuddin
Should teens in love be prosecuted if they have underage sex?
There is no easy answer here.
Other cases involving underage sex - for example, when one party is an adult - may have a clear-cut answer, but teen cases are hard to prosecute, said Attorney-General Walter Woon.
'It's basically kids having sex...What do you do if the couple think they're in love? It's less easy if the girl consents,' he noted.
He spoke on this topic yesterday before social workers, government representatives and teachers at the third annual Singapore Children's Society Lecture.
Titled Changing Social Mores: Protecting Children From Themselves?, it focused on how the law here dealt with the issue of underage sex.
Sex with a minor under 14 is punishable with a jail term - which may extend to 20 years, along with a fine or caning.
The penalty for having sex with a girl under 16 is up to five years' jail and a fine of up to $10,000.
However, in the case of teenage boy offenders, they have also been given reformative training and probation for such offences.
The number of cases involving consensual sex with a girl under 14, which amounts to statutory rape, has gone up from more than 160 five years ago to 300 this year.
Professor Woon listed four types of underage sex.
The first is when the perpetrator is an adult and the victim does not consent; the second, when the perpetrator is an adult and the victim consents; and the third, when the perpetrator is under 18 and the victim does not consent.
But it is the fourth type - when both participants are underage and have consensual sex - that is complicated. Prof Woon referred to this type as 'Category 4' cases.
Since both parties are young and in a consensual relationship, taking them to court can be traumatic for everyone involved.
He cited the case of a 15-year-old boy who got his underage girlfriend pregnant. 'The problem is, do we send the boy to jail? What good would that do?' said Prof Woon.
He said that in the case of a relationship that is consensual or long- term, the law usually leans towards warning, as opposed to prosecuting, offenders.
'You need to balance this against the outrage that the girl's family may feel. They may feel humiliated and taken advantage of, and may ask why we are being so lenient with this fellow.'
He said it is very hard to make rules to deal with such cases as each must be looked at individually.
Prof Woon noted that the law is a 'blunt instrument' as it forces the boy to think twice and take responsibility for his actions - by making sex with a girl under 14 illegal and indefensible.
He said: 'It is not easy and this is where the non-governmental organisations, the community services play a part. The judges cannot do very much by themselves. Sending them to jail per se will not make them reflect on their lives. That is the last thing that is going to happen. But good or ill, this is the framework that we have.'
During the question-and-answer session, Prof Woon was peppered with questions about case studies and whether social workers have the responsibility to report cases of underage sex they encounter to the police.
He politely declined to comment. 'The problem is, whenever the Attorney-General says something, it seems to get written in stone,' he said, to laughter.
Social workers agreed largely with his comments, including his point that reporting underage sex is a delicate issue.
Dr Carol Balhetchet, director for youth services at the Singapore Children's Society, said: 'It is a tough issue. If the teen told you in confidence, should you breach it?
'What we do is that we give these teens a deadline of a few days and let them make the choice between telling their parents themselves and having us bring it up.'
She added that parents then have to decide whether to report the incident.
Ms Sheena Jebal, founder of Nulife Care and Counselling Services, took a different tack. 'It takes quite some time to build rapport with teens so that they will tell you about their sex lives. If I report the case, I may lose their trust and the consequences may be even more damaging,' she said.
Instead, she discusses the consequences and gets the teen to talk to his or her sex partner. She said: 'Eventually, they usually tell their parents themselves.'
Lawyer Edmond Pereira of Edmond Pereira and Partners said it is an offence not to make a report if one is aware a crime has been committed, or if there is an intent to commit a crime.
'However, this is only in the absence of a reasonable excuse.'
And a promise of confidentiality could be such an excuse, he said, adding that the laws surrounding underage sex are a little harsh in today's social climate.
'I think it's right for the laws to protect minors under 16, but some provision should be made into looking at the circumstances. The penalties are a bit tough,' he said.
Parents too felt that a softer approach might be more helpful.
Housewife Yeo Guek Keow, 44, was not in favour of social workers reporting underage sex.
Said the mother of three teenage boys: 'The penalties are so harsh that reporting consensual sex might have disastrous consequences. I would rather social workers tell parents so that they can then decide.'
Mr Seah Kian Peng, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Community Development, Youth and Sports, said while there is a need to tackle the problem if an illegal action took place, it is also necessary to calibrate the punishment meted out.
He said: 'Perhaps it is time to review the laws while taking into account societal norms. Personally, I feel that underage sex is wrong, but punitive action may not always be the solution as it doesn't really fix the problem.'
UNDERAGE SEX FIGURES
Number of girls below the age of 16 having sex:
- 2008: 310 cases
- 2007: 216 cases
Statutory rape, which involves girls below 14:
- 2008: 63 cases
- 2007: 57 cases
Statutory rape in the first half of the year:
- First half of 2009: 37 cases
- First half of 2008: 21 cases
This article was first published in The Straits Times.