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Why the 'monkey' vests for community service?

LETTER | The Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet) is appalled by the revelation that minor offenders sentenced to do community service have been made to wear green vests with the word “monyet” (monkey) emblazoned on them in Semporna, Sabah.

While community service as a sentence is not the issue, but the word ‘monkey’ on their vest is just wrong. Even convicted persons must be treated with dignity – doing community service in public is punishment enough – and there is no need for any derogatory name association with even the guilty.

The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1990 states, "All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings." Wearing a vest with the word “monyet” is certainly not respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.

A person who is found guilty certainly needs to be punished, but we must not go overboard to permanently scar their dignity, name or reputation. After serving their just sentences, we hope that they will be reintegrated into society as good contributing citizens, never to again resort to crime.

It was also revealed in the media in May 2017 by the then-deputy women, family and community development minister Azizah Mohd Dun, that "…A total of 4,620 youths, aged between 18 and 21, were punished with community service between 2008 until last year (2016) for their involvement in social ills and crime." 

Azizah said the community service was aimed at rehabilitating and preventing young offenders from repeating past mistakes - restoring them to society through sentencing, rehabilitation and awareness. 

It is not clear as to how many adults were sentenced to community service in Malaysia, but the stress should be that any punishment, including community service, is ultimately to rehabilitate a person not to permanently scar them, and indirectly their families as well.

It may be acceptable for those sentenced to do community service to do don brightly coloured vests with words like "Community Service For Committing Crimes" or such, but the derogatory branding must end.

Chief justice Richard Malanjum's proposal to using alternative sentences like community service for minor or less serious offences is good, but Madpet proposes that this option also be considered for other crimes.

In Malaysia day, there are just too many persons in detention for a country of about 30 million people. Prison population total (including pre-trial detainees/ remand prisoners) as at September 2017, according to the World Prison Brief, is 55,413, of which about 29.8 percent (as of mid-2017) are pre-trial or remand prisoners.

This means about 177 of every 100,000 in Malaysia are in prison. The official prison capacity in September 2017 was 45,640, and the occupancy level then was 121.4 percent. There is serious overcrowding in Malaysia’s prisons.

The pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners, who constitute about 30 percent of the total prison population, would be those still not convicted who are not qualified to get bail, who have been denied bail or those who cannot afford to pay the bail amount.

It will include also all persons charged under any one of the listed security offences in Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, as section 19(1) states: "Bail shall not be granted to a person who has been charged with a security offence." 

This would include the about 60 Penal Code offences, including that about nine unjust questionable "activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy" offences introduced in 2012 by the past government.

Whilst Malaysia has a prison population rate of 177, many other countries have much lower – India (33), Iceland (37), Japan (41), Finland (51) and Sweden (59). There really must be a serious review of the reasons behind such high numbers in Malaysian prisons. Prison conditions and treatment of detainees, especially pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners, also need to improve.

Adequacy of judges and courts also may be of serious concern, as pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners who are innocent until proven guilty, deserve speedy trials which really should start and end within three months at most.

Sentencing provision in laws need to be looked at, including providing for lesser sentences for first-time offenders and minor offences. Are prison sentences just too long?

It must be pointed out that many innocent persons, especially the poor who cannot afford bail, may simply elect to plead guilty and serve their sentence, rather than risk long detentions awaiting the completion of their trial. This is an injustice we really do not want.

Madpet is also concerned with the treatment of suspects and those not yet convicted, who are forced to wear lock-up and/or prison clothes when they appear for their remand applications and/or trial.

Justly, they should be allowed to wear normal clothes, especially when they go to courts, for the negative effects of being seen and/or photographed wearing such ‘attire’ will have long term impact not just on them but also their family/friends, more so if they are ultimately not found guilty after a fair trial. 

Even though judges may be professional, they are still human. Would not the seeing of accused persons in such attire and condition act negatively against the accused in trial?

In some jurisdictions, suspects and accused are allowed to clean themselves up and wear decent clothing before they are brought for their remand proceedings and/or trials. The State even goes to provide them with decent clothes for their court appearance, if needed.

As such, Madpet calls for:

  • The immediate removal of the word "monyet" from the attire used by persons sentenced to do community service whilst they carry out their sentence. Prisoners should be treated with respect and dignity;
  • The review of sentences, introducing also alternative sentences like community service, always bearing in mind that the primary object besides punishment is the rehabilitation and future re-integration into society;
  • All persons be entitled to bail, and no one should be denied bail simply by reason of poverty or laws like Sosma, that unilaterally deny bail for all charged with a ‘security offence’. The entitlement to bail, or otherwise, should be sole discretion and responsibility of judges after considering all relevant factors. Parliament should not deny bail by law as was done in Sosma;
  • The guarantee of speedy trails for those accused who remain in detention;
  • The immediate repeal of Sosma, and to guarantee a fair trial for everyone using the same evidential and procedural requirement/conditions for all;
  • The introduction for a criminal compensation law, that will provide adequate compensation for all who have been detained wrongly, who at the end of the day are not found guilty and convicted by the courts. This will at least bring about some justice to victims and their families, resulting from wrongful detention by police/state;
  • An improvement of prison conditions, and a serious effort to reduce the prison population to a reasonable prison population rate;
  • Malaysia to adhere to the 1990 UN General Assembly Resolution Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, and also the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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