An NUS student just avoided jail for molesting a woman 3 times. Honestly? I'm not surprised.

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Tanya Ong | September 28, 2019, 10:40 AM

On Wednesday (Sep. 25), Terence Siow Kai Yuan, a 23-year-old NUS student, was sentenced to 21 months' of supervised probation after touching a 28-year-old woman on her thigh and private parts.

In other words, he molested her three times, but avoided a jail term — reportedly on the pretext of having good grades and therefore the "potential to excel in life".

After news of this broke, Singaporeans were left feeling rather outraged (myself included), with many questioning the sentence he received.

Rightfully so, perhaps.

But am I surprised by it? Nope.

For one thing, this is far from the first time an offender has gotten probation for molest.

Back in 2014, a 21-year-old man was spared a prison sentence even though he was convicted of molesting five girls. According to a Straits Times report, he was initially not recommended for probation but a psychological assessment found that he had an IQ of 75.

In 2015, a former Uber driver got 18 months' probation for molesting a female passenger in the front seat of his car.

And more recently, in May, a 21-year-old full-time National Serviceman was sentenced to 18 months’ probation for molesting and sexually exploiting a child.

There usually are various factors determining whether or not an offender gets probation, and also, for how long.

For Siow's case, in particular, District Judge Jasvender Kaur cited a probation report saying that Siow's good academic results indicated his potential to find success.

Just how good were his grades?

Siow, who is currently studying applied mathematics, had reportedly been due to graduate in about two years.

According to an online profile on a tuition agency purportedly belonging to him, Siow had a 4.39 cumulative average point (CAP) out of 5 at the time he submitted his details.

Of course, we don't know his exact grade now. But what would be considered 'good'?

A CAP of 4.39 means a B+ to A- average for all his modules. Which is great, but not that great (speaking as someone who graduated from NUS with a CAP higher than 4.39, hurhurhur).

And honestly, even if he had a perfect CAP of 5.0 (meaning he would have to score an A for every single module), would it have been more acceptable for him to do what he did? Should it have made him more deserving of a lighter sentence?

Of course not.

Why should academic results be linked to one's potential to excel anyway?

Siow's defence lawyer reportedly stated that he is getting help and "wants to change”.

Citing his academic results as “potential to excel in life”, the judge agreed with his lawyer, making the observation that Siow has an "extremely strong propensity for reform".

What I would say about this is there are plenty of ways to interpret what constitutes "excelling in life" — and as far as I can see, most of these don't show a clear causal link to stellar (or whatever you'd define 4.39-CAP-level to be) grades.

And obviously, many Singaporeans have done well in their lifetimes (by traditional standards that may include but certainly are not limited to financial stability, owning or running a business and having a fulfilling family life) despite having poor grades. Others have also carved out various life paths for themselves, which I would argue can absolutely be considered successes in their own right as well.

And even then, how is any of this relevant?

But so what, even if we can agree what the indicators of "success in life" are supposed to be?

Former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng pointed this out in a recent Facebook post. He suggests, in fact, that we shouldn't be taking a person's academic performance into consideration when considering probation in the first place.

Because, as he very rightly points out, how is academic excellence relevant when assessing an appropriate punishment for someone who outraged a woman's modesty?

And even if someone is deemed to have a bright future ahead, why should that matter when it comes to sentencing?

It's unacceptable, but unsurprising

As I mentioned earlier, I don't agree with the verdict.

Why someone's grades would be a reasonable indicator of their life potential — not to mention the even more ridiculous logical leap of deeming him or her worthy of a more lenient punishment — doesn't make any sense to me.

That being said, despite Singapore's ongoing efforts to shift away from being grades-centric, the disappointing reality is that we live in a context where one's academic performance and one's potential for success in life are still very much entwined.

This is perhaps the reason why sentencing an offender to probation rather than jail, on the grounds of good grades and a mysterious perceived (un)likelihood to reoffend, may be understandable.

I would even say that it's unsurprising.

I mean, even the victim herself even said that the outcome of her case did not surprise her. Instead, she was left feeling "disappointed" by it.

But perhaps not all hope is lost

In a Facebook post, Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam expressed his surprise at the verdict, and shared that the Attorney-General’s Chambers has submitted an appeal against the sentence imposed.

He also hinted that the government can and will look into amending the law — should the outcome from this appeal be still different from public expectation.

So yes, we have an appeal system in Singapore, as well as a parliament that is rather sensitive to the public's feedback.

But if changes are still not made in spite of everything, then that would be rather sad.

Top photo via Unsplash.