This is the third installment of a six-part series which looks at how debate topics from the 2018 Singapore Secondary School Debate Championships (SSSDC) 2018 relate to Singapore’s society today.
The debates we engage in should not end after the final bell is rung.
After the judges have rendered their verdicts, the pens & cards are packed away and the journey home begins, our minds and thoughts should still be filled with the words we spoke and heard during the hour of spirited argumentation.
Because debaters will grow up to be the movers and shakers of tomorrow. You will be our leaders, our lawyers and our social levellers. Yours will be the voice for those who have none and yours is the will that brings change to our society.
We should thus relish every opportunity to consider how the topics that we discuss in the abstract will come to have a concrete impact on the real world that we live in.
In this regard, RedDot Academy is pleased to bring you “After the Bell,” a series of reflections on how issues within our debate motions impact our own little Red Dot of Singapore.
Our guest contributor is Samuel Myat San, a debate coach and an advocate of the view that debate extends beyond competition and serves to extend our educational process. He will be reflecting on the motions used during the second round of the Singapore Secondary School Debating Championships in 2018.
This topic lead a number of debaters to label the motion as a “sports motion” and approach it accordingly. The issue of PEDs is certainly centred on the sporting world. However, looking at the motion through the lens of justice and law enforcement opens up the debate and allows even more arguments to be brought to bear. The legal and justice angles raised interesting questions which have a bearing on Singapore’s own law enforcement and judicial principles.
Issue 1: Collective punishment
An interesting legal issue which was raised in some debates was the concept of collective punishment.
Opposition teams tended to introduce this argument, stating that punishing innocent and clean athletes for the crimes of others is unjust and should not be accepted. Even if these athletes could attend games as independent representatives, they still end up with reduced access to funding and coaching support while potentially facing hostility from their own nation and fans.
Opposition teams warned that accepting this principle as valid may create a legal precedent for the justified use of collective punishment even in law enforcement and should be avoided as much as possible.
Proposition teams responded by showing that the situation of doping was dire enough to warrant collective punishment. Only a small fraction of doping cases were getting caught and every single actor, from athletes to states to fans to even the sports federations, was invested in covering up doping. This warranted drastic measures.
Proposition teams also argued that, in principle, there was no such thing as a punishment in the legal system that spared any impact on the innocent. Every person sent to jail or fined will probably lead to harms to their spouses, children and parents as well. If punishments were deemed unjust when innocents are negatively affected, then no punishments may ever be imposed.
Many Singaporeans who went through training for National Service would be familiar, if not all together comfortable, with the notion of collective punishment. It was common for the drill sergeant to punish an entire platoon or company for the transgressions of a few. While these recruits cursed and swore for having to do push ups while the culprits dawdled, many officers view collective punishment as an absolute necessity. When all suffered when one sinned, they argue, all will ensure that the sinner sinned no more. This would thus be life-saving in the future, when the officers could not watch over every single person and a single mistake may lead to the platoon being ambushed, the partner being stabbed or the fire engulfing the rota.
However, many Singaporeans are concerned with the possible extension of the principle, especially when applied to law enforcement.
Many were outraged when the sale and consumption of alcohol over the weekend were made illegal in localities such as Geylang and Little India. Here, critics claimed that there was no need to punish responsible consumers for the transgressions of a few. Some also vehemently argued that specifying locations such as Little India created an additional problem, of unfairly singling out a single ethnicity as being responsible for irresponsible drinking.
It is worth considering how a nation such as Singapore, should approach the concept of collective punishment. It is indeed a small and vulnerable nation. However, can that be used to justify the application of collective punishment and risk violating core tenants of justice and fairness?
Issue 2: How much responsibility must the state, or any entity, bear?
Another interesting clash during the debate was the degree of culpability that a state should bear in the event of widespread doping by a nation’s athletes.
Some proposition teams argued that the government, even if not involved in state-sponsored doping, still had to bear responsibility on the basis of negligence. They argued that the state was the only actor with the means and opportunity to conduct proper checks and ensure that doping does not occur on a large scale. Failure to do so constitutes neglect, in the same way that parents might be held legally accountable for failing to provide proper care and support for children.
The opposition teams rebutted that actors may only be accused of negligence only if direct custody was imposed upon them due to their charges having diminished capacity. For instance, parents can be held liable for negligence because the children under their care could not have exercised proper care for themselves. Athletes and sporting federations are independent legal entities with the capacity to be treated as separate legal actors. Thus, the state does not have this “parental” role and should not be accused of negligence. After all, it would be unusual to require a 45 year old parent to be held accountable for the actions of a 25 year old son or daughter.
The teams warned that if this concept of neglect was to hold true, then various governments would be justified in playing a much more active and dominant role in sports, which movements like the International Olympics Committee would rather avoid.
In Singapore, this concept of negligence is often raised in everyday conversation when it comes to the attribution of blame. For instance, if children are not performing well in schools, then the teachers are accused of failing them and not doing their duty. It is not uncommon for citizens to have demanded the state to intervene and provide assistance even in the bizarre scenarios. These include citizens asking the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to demand redress from a KFC overseas which allegedly gave chicken pieces deemed too small to another citizen asking the Singapore navy to pick him up from an island in Scotland. Other citizens have warned that if the state is to play an increasingly larger role, then it will lead to the population themselves accepting a diminished capacity and role and turning themselves into children.
COPYRIGHT: THE STRAITS TIMES SINGAPORE, 2015
Other citizens have argued that rather than to expect the state to play an increasingly larger role, it should be other citizens who should be held accountable in classes of neglect. After all, the average citizen today is far more educated and affluent compared to the average citizen 30 or 20 years ago. This position had actually become encoded in legislation, with the Maintenance of Parents Act in passed to allow parents to sue their grown children for neglect. Citizens have argued that this may lead to even broader laws holding citizens accountable for neglect, including failure to render assistance if you should see even strangers in difficulties.
It is often difficult to determine whether the line should be drawn in the case of neglect. How far can individuals be held accountable for their own actions and how much of burden falls on the shoulders of others? This is a question for debaters to wrestle with as they become the movers and shakers of society.
Do check out the other motions below: