Of laws and pets

José I. Duarte
Economist
There have been repeated demands and, occasionally, actual attempts to regulate the issues of animals’ rights and protection and in particular to punish acts of violence or cruelty to animals. These issues seem to carry little weight for those who legislate for us. The matter has met a combination of delaying tactics, diluting principles and penalties, and a clear sense of discomfort with the subject.
This is not the place to take stock of the convoluted history of the subject and especially its Legislative Assembly acts. In its latest iteration, the media report that the government has presented the legislators with a new draft. The president of the Legislative Assembly commission dealing with the issue has made a few statements on the topic to the press.
Strangely enough, the category of ‘domestic animals’ or simply pets does not exist in the new version. Animals are classified in four categories but, well, at least I have pets, and I cannot figure out how to fit them in any of the categories. They are certainly not for ‘consumption’; or ‘research’; or ‘competition’ (although two of my cats occasionally race to reach the food plate first); or, God forbid, ‘wild’. On the face of it, I’m afraid to find that my animals will not actually exist in a legal sense.
A law that started to deal with animal cruelty and the protection of animals’ rights ‘refuses’ to define domestic animals and, consequently, deal with the increased responsibility that, arguably, comes with their ownership? And that is presented as a ‘matter-of-the-fact’, not-so-important issue? Is one allowed to be perplexed? The president of the commission, very reasonably, recognises that without that concept it will be difficult to legislate on domestic animals. But then concludes that – here I quote the media – “maybe we can accept the proposal”. Does that mean, the government classification, as it stands? Perplexed, squared!
Then the maximum penalty for cruelty and mistreatment of animals is reduced from three years (as in a previous version of the law proposal) to one year in prison. The reason: it is the same as in the laws in Singapore and Hong Kong. This is not an explanation and should not be accepted as such. Laws from those jurisdictions (and many others that we could use both to inform, support or contradict that and other provisions of the law) will include elements that will be some times similar, some times different. Legislation in other parts of the world may be used, and many times with great benefit, to guide our legislating efforts. It cannot alone justify our choices.
And should we mention that there is an ongoing debate in Singapore about how out-of-date the law is (it is based on common law principles established in the early 20th Century, mind you), and the need to modernise it? Wouldn’t that give us a wonderful opportunity to set an example for others in the region to follow?