IT is not against the law here for parents to discipline their children through force.
But when does caning or hitting a child cross the line into abuse?
While it is clear that parents like the man who caned his stepson 100 times over two hours have crossed boundaries, there are no definite guidelines as to how much is too much.
Under Section 5(2) of the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA), it is considered ill-treatment to do anything or expose a child to circumstances that might cause:
- Any unnecessary physical pain, suffering or injury
- Any emotional injury
- Any injury to his health or development.
The penalty for this offence is a maximum fine of $4,000 or up to four years' jail, or both.
But the wording of this section is such that it encompasses a wide range of behaviour and actions. So how does one determine what is necessary suffering, for example, and what is not?
Lawyer K Mathialahan said: 'There are no hard and fast rules. It depends on the facts of each case.'
He had previously defended a client who had swung his two young sons against the wall and wardrobe.
The father then took out a Personal Protection Order on his sons' behalf against himself, and voluntarily signed up for psychiatric treatment. He was fined $1,000.
But Mr Mathialahan pointed out that his client had been charged with voluntarily causing hurt under the Penal Code, which carried a maximum penalty of a year's jail or up to $1,000 fine, or both.
He said: 'Being charged under the CYPA is more serious and carries a heavier penalty.
'The prosecution is at liberty to charge the person under either Act depending on the circumstances.'
Lawyer Anthony Lim said the police will investigate all complaints of child abuse before deciding whether or not to press charges. He said: 'One or two strokes of the cane might be considered a disciplinary measure. But if a child is abused using cigarette butt, one time is bad enough because it will burn a hole in his skin.'
If the offence is not serious, the person might be given a stern warning or sent by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) for counselling. He said MCYS officers will also interview the child, his parents and neighbours to assess if the 'parents are suitable for the child'.
Mr Lim noted that abuse might occur even if there are no signs of physical injury on the child. For example, a parent who hurls vulgarities at a child every other day is abusing the child, mentally and emotionally.
Miss Sheena Jebal, 35, CEO and founder of NuLife Care and Counselling Services, felt that there is no knowing just how much is acceptable when it comes to corporal punishment.
She said: 'There is no such thing as this much is enough. (Hitting a child once) could be enough to scar or hurt a child.'
Having worked with youths aged between 11 and 17, who are often beyond parental control, she believes more in getting the children to reflect on their actions.
'Caning is not going to solve the problem. The more you cane, the more the child loses his fear of it. The wounds eventually heal but the scar it has caused may not go away,' she said.
Miss Sheena said it could also cause the child to have more reservations about expressing his feelings or talking about his problems. She felt that parents who cannot handle their children should seek external help such as counselling or to get agencies such as the Singapore Children's Society to assess if other actions can be taken, such as sending the child to a home.
Miss Sheena, who has reported cases of abuse to the police, said tell-tale signs of abuse are bodily scars, or when the child is reserved, wants to run away from home, or if the child likes to hurl abusive words.
'These children will often be bullies because they do not want to be further taken advantage of,' she added.
Dr Carol Balhetchet, director of youth services at the Singapore Children's Society, said that there is a very fine line between teaching a lesson via punishment and inflicting emotional and physical pain as punishment.
She said: 'If you put too much emotion in disciplining your child, you send the message that you are not only angry at what they did, but you are also rejecting them emotionally.'
Dr Balhetchet advises parents to separate their emotions from what they are trying to teach their child when disciplining them.
'I tell parents to walk away and do something else, and to deal with it when they are more rational,' she said. They can then later make the child understand the consequences and responsibilities of his behaviour.
Personally, she does not believe in using the cane.
'Some parents may feel disempowered if you take (the cane) away from them.'
If the cane is needed, it should be used only once or twice, and only at appropriate parts of the body like the legs, the palms or the bottom, Dr Balhetchet said.
A mother-of-three, who asked to be named only as Madam Haz, said she uses the cane on her eldest child, who is 11. The 37-year-old civil servant said she uses it as a last resort and inflicts only two strokes.
She said: 'I feel that it is effective. I tell him that it's not that I want to inflict pain but that I need to punish him for his wrongdoing.'
Madam Haz said she makes sure not to cane him when she is angry. 'If you are emotional, you could be hitting the child out of anger rather than because you want to teach him something,' she said.
Another mother, Madam Haslinda Putri Harun, who has two girls aged 9 and 6, said she and her husband reward them for good behaviour.
Still, the 37-year-old director of The Kids Dentist believes that punishment is necessary when her daughters misbehave.
She talks to them about the consequences of their bad behaviour, and then makes them stand in a quiet corner for a few minutes to reflect on their actions.
She said: 'I think it works because they get really upset when they are punished.'
This article was first published in The New Paper on Nov 7, 2008.