By Maxwell Pereira
the ‘caning’ of Michael Fay, an American teenager
in Singapore, occurred on May 5, 1994 for car vandalism –
despite intervention and request for clemency from no less a person
than President Clinton, my first reaction was to imagine that
the Singapore authorities were definitely Jesuit products. That
was influenced by my own childhood experiences and exposure to
caning and corporal punishment (CP), which was then a part of
the disciplining process.
actual fact though, CP as part of penal legislation in the then
British Malaya has historical roots in the criminal laws of England
and India. When the Straits Settlements Penal Code Ordinance IV
replaced the common law in 1871, it was based on the Indian Penal
Code enacted in 1860 to unify the criminal laws of the various
provinces in India. The offences punishable by whipping were broadly
similar to the ones in England of the time. So ‘caning’
was entirely an outgrowth of British legal and judicial custom
and practice…. negating the erroneous belief attributing
CP to Islamic justice.
though Corporal punishment as a judicial penalty was abolished
in the UK in 1948, and in India in 1955, caning was retained as
a primary penal sanction in Malaya and Hong Kong. Singapore is
one of sixteen countries, including Malaysia, Pakistan and Brunei,
that mandate caning or flogging as punishment for criminal offences.
But Michael Fay’s case exposed the differences between the
legal philosophies that underpin many Asian countries and the
USA, describing the incongruousness as a clash of civilizations.
more clarity, corporal punishment has been described in dictionaries
as the deliberate infliction of pain intended as correction or
punishment. Historically, most punishments – whether in
judicial, domestic or educational settings were corporal in basis.
The practice held to differ from torture in that it is applied
for disciplinary reasons and therefore intended to be limited,
rather than intended to totally destroy the will of the victim.
practice of CP is known to have existed in classical civilisations
of Greece, Rome, Egypt and Israel, used for both judicial and
educational discipline. Among varied practices, scourging and
beating with sticks were common. These approaches to CP continued
into Medieval Europe, encouraged by attitudes of the medieval
church and the muslim world (as during muharram) towards the human
body, with flagellation being a common means of encouraging self-discipline
or penance. In particular this had an influence on CP in schools
as educational establishments were closely attached to the church
during this period. But even then the use of CP was seen as a
cruel treatment of children.
trends from 16th century onwards, witnessed judicial punishments
increasingly made into public spectacles, with the heavy public
beatings of criminals intended as a deterrent to others. But early
writers on education also complained of the arbitrary manner in
which children were punished.
CP attracted heavy criticism during 18th century, both by philosophers
and legal reformers. Merely inflicting pain on miscreants was
seen as inefficient, influencing the subject merely for a short
period of time and effecting no permanent change in their behaviour.
Critics wanted the purpose of punishment to be reformation, not
retribution – thereby reducing the need for measures such
as CP. This led to a diminution of CP throughout the 19th century
in Europe and North America. Even so CP proved most persistent
as a punishment for violation of prison rules, as a military field
punishment, and in schools.
the modern world, CP has been largely rejected in favour of other
disciplinary methods. Modern judiciaries often favour fines or
incarceration, whilst modern school discipline avoids physical
coercion. And yet CP has remained a common way of disciplining
children. Although outlawed in some European countries, most legal
systems permit parents to discipline their children however they
see fit, implying a belief that there is a distinction between
reasonable punishment and abuse. And lthough CP is still used
in many domestic settings it has been specifically banned in seventeen
terms of punishment in judicial and educational settings, the
practice is almost completely abandoned in Europe and North America,
whilst other societies in Asia retain widespread use of judicial
corporal punishment, including in Malaysia and Singapore. In Singapore,
male violent offenders and rapists are typically sentenced to
caning in addition to a prison term. CP also dictated as a punishment
in traditional Islamic Sharia law, and applied in countries like
punishment exists in schools in many countries, although in many
countries this practice has now been made illegal. CP in schools
was often in the form of hitting the child's hand with a leather
belt, or hitting the buttocks with a cane. Many educators use
a milder form of CP by "spanking" – usually slapping
the child's buttocks with the palm of their hand. Others punish
their children with a switch, belt, paddle, or rattan cane although
this practice is less common than in years past.
debate on corporal punishment has triggered yet again, with the
Karnataka High Court’s recent ruling on April 19 that punishing
a child in good faith cannot be considered as an offence –
interpreted in terms of section 88 of IPC. Locally, visages of
corporal punishment continuing to exist in the Delhi School Education
Act were struck down by Delhi High Court in December 2000; following
which all school principals were addressed in a circular by the
government and the CBSE in 2002 to ensure no child is subjected
to any corporal punishment. At the instance of the NCERT there
is also an effort to eschew all forms of violence in the school
environment – including violence disguised as discipline.
24, 2006: 950 words:
Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002.
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