Saturday, March 29, 2008

Three of the worst

When you get 3 of the best - or worst - on the butt for nothing, you'd be upset and extremely so. Some would resign themselves to bad luck, a tacit admission that they shouldn't have been in that position (pardon the pun) in the first place. Others will see this as the height of injustice, particularly when it is the justice system that has perpetrated the injustice.

I am referring to the case of a Mr Dickson Tan, who was jailed for crimes he had committed. He was also sentenced to be canned. But unfortunately for everybody, he was canned 3 more strokes than what the judge originally ordered. Mr Tan reportedly raised the objection at the extra strokes but the prison authorities ignored his protest and went ahead to whack him another 3 times. It turned out the prisoner was right and the jailors were wrong. And Mr Tan's family and the lawyer advising them are demanding justice. In admission of its culpability, the government has reportedly already paid out an "interim" amount of $8,000, but out-of-court negotiation towards the the final amount eventually broke down. Now, in a reversal of roles, Mr Tan is taking the government to court.

Cases like these are rare in Singapore, and when it happens, it makes news. I leave the unfolding saga to the press to cover. Suffice to say that I sympathise with Mr Tan, and I don't think I will be far wrong to say that many Singaporeans and foreigners living amongst us feel the same way. The administration of justice is serious business in Singapore. It is one of those pillars that makes the system of government the envy of many. But mistakes will inevitably be made. And when they are made, justice must continue to prevail - for both parties. It is gratifying to note that the government is not shirking its responsibilities but it is not paying just any amount to appease the protagonists. This is also right, because whatever payment is agreed upon, it is the taxpayers' money.

I am in no position to say whether $3 million is the right amount of compensation. Ultimately, the court will decide. When a professional Property Valuer puts a value on a piece of property, it is based on certain concrete parameters - like location, amenities, age, floor size, etc. But how do you value the suffering, the hurt and the pain of the excess 3 strokes of the cane? Should the economic measure of "diminishing returns" be used? After all, he had deservedly suffered the correct number of strokes of the cane before he suffered the excess. Is each subsequent stroke more painful than the earlier one? There may be a case to say no. But of course, lawyers would like to use more subjective measures because that is the only way they can argue a wrong to a right, an ambiguity to a clarity. In this case, compensation for medical expenses is an objective measure. But 'loss of future earnings' and, particularly, loss of 'marriage prospects'? How does getting whacked an extra 3 strokes lead to this? Sure, Mr Tan is reportedly suffering from schizophrenia, paranoia and post-traumatic stress disorder, but how can anybody, including his psychiatrist, say for sure that these are due to the extra 3 strokes and not to the first few deserved ones? Of course, "expert" witnesses, both probably well-regarded psychiatrists, will be trotted out to give evidence for and against the case (if this goes to court, i.e.), using the same medical diagnostic techniques that are part of their profession. It is a wonder that we often  see these same diagnostics give rise to different interpretations by these experts.

Which is why, and pardon me for saying so, I often feel that psychiatrists sell snake-oil more than anything else. And lawyers, what to say about them? They sell lizard-oil, I suppose. Now I need my head examined...

Image source:  Author: Dave Watts

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