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Legally-sanctioned hitting of children must stop - Amar-Singh HSS

21 November 2014

Message by Amar-Singh HSS

Initially was traumatized & could not think about it.

Got a call from a senior editor of Malay Mail last night to do a write up & took the opportunity to summarize it.

Working with UNICEF to make representation.

Amar-Singh HSS

This below article was first published in The Malay Mail Online on 19 November 2014.

Legally-sanctioned hitting of children must stop - Amar-Singh HSS

NOVEMBER 19 — Last week I experienced one of the darkest days of my life as a paediatrician. I have been through many tough times but none as despairing. I have helped parents whose children died. I have spent sleepless nights worrying over ill children. I have agonised with teenagers about struggles with parents and peers. I have worked with many abused children. But I have never before been party to state approved, legal physical punishment of children.

I received a very unusual written legal request through my hospital director from a court magistrate. We were asked to send a doctor to ‘witness’ the whipping of a child in court. We were requested by the court to certify that this child was in a fit state of health to undergo the caning in court. In writing about it, it is not my intention to question the decision of the magistrate involved, but to appeal that we amend the law.

When I first received this request, I must say I was shocked. I thought I knew the laws about children in our country quite well. So I thought this was some archaic ruling of the penal code. I consulted senior officers and my paediatric colleagues in the Ministry of Health, all of whom were equally horrified. I faxed back a response to the court to say that we were not supportive of this and that it was against the best interests of children; against the spirit of the Child Act. I also pointed out that as doctors we should not be participating in punishment.

The court responded to say that it was legally allowed under the Child Act (Article 91) to whip a male child up to 10 times. In addition it was also legally required that "before executing the whipping, the child shall be examined by a medical officer to certify that the child is in a fit state of health to undergo the whipping" (page 87, article 92).

I then checked with lawyers and a court judge who advised me that we would have to go. I decided to attend personally so that none of my younger doctors would have to experience this, as well as to see if I could prevent it from happening.

The child in question had reached the age of 18 years. He was caught at the age of 16 for breaking into a premise. In my assessment of him, he is not a hardened criminal but has fallen in with bad friends. It looked possible to help him get on the right path. He was placed under a bond by the court which he unfortunately broke. The family was then offered a placement in Henry Gurney School or to be whipped with a light cane. So as not to lose him from home they chose the whipping.

I then asked to speak to the magistrate who was approachable and reasonable. I made an appeal in chambers to offer ‘diversion’ as an alternative i.e. we are prepared to work with this young man long term to help rehabilitate him. However since the sentencing had been handed down the magistrate could not alter the decision and the only option was to appeal to the High Court. This was difficult for the parents to do and the mother decided not to.

I then had to proceed with my unpleasant task of examining the child and declare him fit for whipping. The young man was calmer than I was. The whipping took place in court with officers from the prisons department executing the punishment. They did this with military precision. If anyone says that that this is a ‘light cane’ they need to experience the punishment. Although they do not raise their arms above the shoulder the harshness of the whipping is severe. When the first stroke rang out I cringed as I saw how badly hurt he was.

After three strokes the young man almost fell down due to the severity of the pain. He managed to hold on to receive all six strokes.

If anyone believes this form of punishment teaches a lesson, they need to re-examine their opinion. All I saw was a teenager hardened by the event. I subsequently learnt that this activity is being carried out on teenagers almost weekly in the Klang Valley.

I believe the magistrate had been poorly advised by all those present in court, the Welfare Department and family’s lawyer, as to other options available. Section 91 of the Child Act offers other choices. Probation is one such choice which could have been made in the form of diversion (rehabilitation through counselling). I have arranged with the mother for him to meet me for long term support - counselling, getting a job and training.

As a society we must come to the place where we can learn that hitting someone, child or teenager, is not a useful form of instruction. We must lobby to change these provisions in the Child Act; it is currently up for revision. Legally sanction hitting of children must stop. Secondly no doctor should be party to or be required to support any physical punishment of children, even if they are criminals.

*This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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