Struggling to come alive: Singapore’s anti-death penalty campaign

The decision dismissing the latest (and last) appeal by Yong Vui Kong, delivered 4 April 2011,  was entirely expected. I had given it zero chance of success. The only hope now lies with a fresh appeal to President S R Nathan for clemency. An earlier clemency appeal made in 2009 was rejected by the President in December that year, a fact that does not bode well.

I call on President Nathan to grant him clemency without hesitation. If anyone deserves it, it is Yong, who has expressed remorse for his actions.

For trafficking 47 grams of diamorphine (commonly known as heroin), he was sentenced to death in January 2009.  Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act makes the death penalty mandatory for trafficking more than 15 grams of heroin; judges have no discretion in varying the sentence.  Yong was only nineteen years old when he was caught.

It has been a valiant battle through the courts by Yong’s lawyer, M Ravi. The latest appeal  rested on two issues: Whether a comment made to the media by Law Minister K Shanmugam in May 2010 prejudiced the courts, and whether it was unconstitutional for the president to consider himself bound by the cabinet’s advice on questions of clemency.

Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong affirmed a High Court Judge’s ruling that

Mr Shanmugam’s statements did not constitute apparent bias. He said the minister’s statements in relation to the youthfulness of an offender merely reflected legislative policy – that the death penalty will come down on all serious drug offenders aged 18 and above, and that youthfulness was not a basis for a pardon.

— Straits Times, 5 April 2011, Trafficker fails in clemency challenge

As for the clemency process, the Justice of Appeal Andrew Phang, speaking for the court,

said it was clear under the Constitution – and supported by legislative history – that the President has no discretion in exercising the power to grant clemency; he does so in favour of an offender only where the Cabinet has advised him to do so, he said.

— ibid.

In my view, both are correct findings.

This is not to say that I hold Singapore courts in such high regard. Readers will know that when it comes to politically sensitive cases, I have had a very low opinion of their decisions and the tortuous logic they have applied. In this case however, there was little need for the court to depart from standard logic to arrive at the decision it did. It’s what we might all an “open and shut” case.

Especially on  the question of clemency process, it was never realistic to expect the court to overturn settled constitutional  practice just to save one person.

* * * * *

In most ways, campaigning against the death penalty in Singapore has parallels with any other advocacy campaign. At the beginning, you’re faced with a society that neither understands the issues nor even want to understand the issues, a society smug in its uncritical acceptance of the status quo. Conditioned by the Singapore government’s heavy fist, ordinary citizens too see advocates as trouble-makers, out to disrupt the civil peace — never mind if it’s the peace of self-imprisoned minds — they have grown up with. They react with suspicion towards advocates and stay away, fearful that any form of association with these trouble-makers will put themselves at risk when the government cracks down.

Advocates find themselves trying to talk to dead wood.

It was like that (and in many ways, still like that) when the women’s movement started in the 1950s, when the gay movement started in the 1990s, when the first activists started doing something about the exploitation of migrant labour.

At the beginning, campaigners also come up against a government that is quick to see any organising they have not blessed as a potential threat to their monopoly of power. The first people who worked with migrant labour got the worst of it — detained without trial and demonised in the government-controlled media as “Marxist conspirators”. The anti-death penalty campaign may be holding the record for being the second worst off, what with contempt of court charge being thrown at Alan Shadrake, one of its proponents.

Even short of  detention or contempt of court, the government would put up numerous hurdles. Media would be warned off from giving coverage; other civil society groups ticked off for extending support or even merely renting out a room for a meeting. Potential funders quickly take the cue and tell the activists: “Sorry, the issue you’re trying to promote just does not align with our funding objectives,” they say politely, when what they mean is “I’d be crazy to give you guys money; the government will single me out for their displeasure.”

As perhaps the most recent of civil society movements, the anti-death penalty campaign is right there at the starting point and facing these obstacles more starkly than other, older movements, who’ve managed over the years to crawl over the sharpest rocks to gentler terrain. It takes time and persistence to to whittle away social indifference and government suspicion.

* * * * *

Unfortunately, the anti-death penalty movement has a unique facet: none other than the death penalty itself, imposed every now and then on real people. The result is that every now and then, the whole movement is jerked to one side to campaign for a particular case with its particular facts and issues. It changes shape from a campaign for a principle into a campaign to save an individual.

One the one hand, it has benefits: keeping the issue alive and in the headlines — as headlines go, under a regime of press control. On the other hand, it leaves the already unreceptive  public confused, hearing (if they hear at all) arguments about the particular far more than arguments about the general, thus leaving them with no coherent message.

For example, to save one individual, pleas are made about his youth; to save another, pleas are founded on her childhood poverty and criminal environment. To save a third, pleas are made with respect to his previous heroism saving a young girl from drowning. And the public is left wondering: So, are you guys saying that youthful age, childhood circumstances and the karma of past heroism are the reasons why we should do away with the death penalty?

To complicate matters, I can glimpse three different campaigns — (a) those against the death penalty totally, (b) those against the death penalty for drug offences, but OK for murder, (c) those who are actually in favour of the death penalty but against mandatory sentencing. That’s plenty more to leave the public confused.

Don’t think it doesn’t matter. It may be that individual cases go through courts and executive decisions rather than public opinion, and therefore the arguments need to be made in courts and conference rooms, arguments that naturally must be tailored to the particular cases. However, it would be foolish to think that public opinion has no bearing on how judges, prosecutors and ministers make their decisions. In fact, I’d say that until public opinion moves, judges, prosecutors and ministers will not be moved.

The problem is, just keeping up the campaigns to save one or the other on death row takes so much energy, there is little left to address the public on the principle. In the absence of a sustained conversation about that, the public remains confused, unconvinced and uninvolved. So public opinion doesn’t move. But until it moves, we can’t get judges or ministers to move. Yet we have no time to get the public moving. A capital case is carried on a relentless conveyor belt of court dates, and saving a life now always is more pressing than addressing the public on abstract generalities. It’s a horrible Catch-22.

18 Responses to “Struggling to come alive: Singapore’s anti-death penalty campaign”

  1. 1 Darren 8 April 2011 at 22:48


    I think from the statute, the minimum amount of heroin for the death penalty upon conviction of trafficking is 15 grammes not 30 grammes as stated in your essay.

  2. 3 sna 8 April 2011 at 23:20

    There is a clemency appeal for another Malaysian, Cheong Chun Yin, who also awaiting execution for drug trafficiking.

  3. 4 laïcité 9 April 2011 at 00:55

    I think that the 3 different anti-death penalty approaches that you mention not only confuse the public, they also sometimes conflict with one another making some of us unwilling to align ourselves in the death penalty debate altogether. For instance, I think that the campaign to abolish the death penalty altogether is too broad and stands to alienate potential activists who may identify more with the 2 other camps.

    Personally, I am against the mandatory death penalty and death penalty for drug offences but I am not anti-death penalty in principle, and I find myself hesitating when it comes to showing support for Yong Vui Kong or any other drug offender in a clemency plea simply because the activists and campaigns behind them are always anti death penalty altogether.

    Furthermore, aren’t the anti-death penalty activists a bit to idealistic to think that they can simply use such tragic cases to turn Singapore around from being one of the most death penalty trigger-happy country in the world to an abolitionist state? This is another reason why I choose not to affiliate with such causes – it is not realistic to argue for such a huge step. I believe that even total abolitionists should aim for smaller, more focused steps, such as arguing against the mandatory death penalty first and then working from there. There are many reasonable, rational arguments against the mandatory death penalty that are based on legal principles rather than lofty “right to life” ideals that I don’t think Singaporean politicians will go for. In my opinion it is only this systematic, rational approach that can get you taken seriously.

    • 5 Kevin 9 April 2011 at 10:27

      I tend to feel that an in-between position is untenable. The burden then rest on the judge who needs to reconcile his decision with his/her own belief system. No one should have to bear the burden of depriving life of another, not even the judges. A mandatory sentence strips them of the moral conflict for now, as they hide behind the prescribed legislature. Abolishing it is the only way to go.

      • 6 laïcité 9 April 2011 at 18:15

        That may be one way to see it, but it could also be possible that the concern from the judges would be the other way round: that maybe they too believe that the death penalty is handed out too liberally, but that an abolitionist position would be undesirable as it removes their ability to mete out the harshest possible punishment for the harshest possible crimes. (I don’t think it is safe to assume that judges experience any moral aversion to the death penalty.) In this way, if it’s either black or white – mandatory death penalty no death penalty at all – then the status quo becomes the acceptable to them.

        The trouble with using a “moral” argument and assuming judges and policymakers can be swayed by a “moral conscience” is that we know this angle never works. Singapore is too pragmatic to care about morals and rights. In my opinion what is a better approach is to question what is the role of the courts and the judicial system, because a mandatory death sentence and the utter inability of judges to exercise discretion in such cases makes a mockery of their purpose altogether.

      • 7 Kevin 10 April 2011 at 11:16

        I tend to think that the moral arguments stand a better chance especially with electorates that are getting more vocal and active in civil advocacy work. To argue on grounds of technicalities, i.e. Inability of judges to exercise discretion… That’s akin to the courts/politician admitting the flaws of the system. Much harder in my opinion. Nevertheless, it’s not mutually exclusive, so I am hopeful.

    • 8 kirsten 9 April 2011 at 11:19

      I agree that trying to get the mandatory aspect of the death penalty abolished is a good first step.

      It was what M Ravi tried to argue to the Court of Appeal last year, before it was dismissed and the discussion closed so that no other challenge of the MDP can be heard in Singapore’s courts.

      I think that is why the arguments and the campaign against the MDP (for example TOC’s campaign was for a moratorium of the MDP) have taken a back seat – once it got dismissed it just became more urgent and important to move with Vui Kong’s case and try to persuade people that he deserves clemency.

      What Alex says is true – it is difficult to argue against the MDP or the DP on the whole, because we are constantly focusing on specific cases. I work in this way because I hope to get the public to see that these are real people, and not just nameless, faceless statistics. And yet it is difficult because then it becomes a challenge to give the whole debate and discussion coherence.

      And still we have to move on.

  4. 9 Gerry 9 April 2011 at 03:18

    It is obvious why activists love to use individual cases as arguments against the DP. People will only care about an issue if you put a human face to it and tug at the listeners’ heartstrings. Abstract rational arguments will only persuade a small minority of people.

  5. 10 Gard 9 April 2011 at 08:43

    I believe the political parties had a clear stand on the death penalty. In this case, public opinion would be translated to majority vote, yes?

    If the majority wants higher economic growth, lower cost of living, etc. in exchange of a few unfortunate death convictions and injustice here and there (by whatever logic), i.e., the outcome of 86:1 or 87:0 with no opposition, then what exactly is the argument here? It’s not as if the people has no choice or cannot discern for themselves the package deal they are buying during election time.

    • 11 Arif 9 April 2011 at 11:35

      If the Opposition parties were to make the death penalty an election issue, they would lose votes if they come across as supporting abolition.

  6. 12 Anonymous 9 April 2011 at 11:29

    Food for thought

    Although the grounds of judgment for this latest case is not yet out, it is quite a significant depart from the High Court ruling if the media reports have been accurate. The clemency process, which was previously deemed beyond the scope of judicial review by the High Court, is now subject to judicial review, albeit limited to procedural matters. The implications, if any, are something one may want to think about.

    On a side note, if we wish to appeal for Yong’s case for clemency, it will be much better to voice them out during our meet-the-MPs sessions. GE is coming and the President’s clemency is actually the Cabinet’s clemency as this case has shown. Under the Constitution, the President has to act in accordance with the Cabinet’s advice on clemency issues.


  7. 13 Nic 11 April 2011 at 19:12

    Every death penalty case comes with a “sob story” attached and after a while, the public is inured to yet another plea for clemency. This builds towards a sense of emotional fatigue that isn’t helped by a general hapless feeling that no matter the effort, the outcome is the same i.e. the judiciary will not be budged.

    Even with Vui Kong’s case, given the extraordinary feats that M Ravi went through, the outcome is now the same and only delayed the inevitable slaying of the poor boy. So my point is, it leads many to ask “Why bother?”. Especially when viewed against the backdrop of many more popular Singaporean causes like the influx of foreign talent, overcrowding on public transport, ministerial salaries etc. …

  8. 14 politicalwritings 11 April 2011 at 19:50

    Their campaign is directed at the wrong party. If it’s clear that the President cannot grant clemency except on the advice of the Cabinet, why are they not writing appeals to the Cabinet? And more importantly, if they think mdp is wrong, why aren’t they writing to mp’s to change the law?

    In the us, it is common for people to write their senators or congressman to ask for change. Why are these campaigners not trying to lobby their mp’s?

    By doing what they’re doing, it just reinforces the notion that they’re just out to gain publicity for their cause, but not really trying to change anything.

    • 15 kirsten 12 April 2011 at 10:57

      MPs have been written to, and some of us have tried to go see our MPs when they have the Meet-The-People sessions. Unfortunately, there are handlers present and your concern gets vetted by them first, so it is extremely rare, if not impossible, to get through.

  9. 16 Different tack 20 April 2011 at 12:28

    Having polled my team at lunch, I have found that 90% of Singaporeans are for the death penalty. Whilst this is not a robust statistical analysis. I think in order for us to abolish the death penalty, one would actually need to know how many people in Singapore agree with your views. (maybe you already have this data?) If it is indeed the minority, unfortunately that even if the government wanted to act in this manner it will face an uphill task

    • 17 Steve 2 May 2011 at 17:19

      Maybe the first thing is to show the arguments for and against the death penalty in an objective manner in the press. Highlight the many problems and public opinion will eventually sway!

  10. 18 Deb 25 July 2011 at 21:10

    I agree with Laicite.

    Pragmatically, Singapore would be unable to cope with the numbers in the jail cells should they abolish the death penalty. It IS a deterent no matter how immoral. For a society that depends solely on its people to survive the threat of increased crime rates should the death penalty be abolished is highly impractical (Increased drug/crime would not bode well). Fear sadly does act as a deterent for many.

    I do not believe that the majority of hangings are justified. A fight to remove the mandatory status for capital punishment is one that I think will have much greater success.

    People will make mistakes. It does not mean they deserve death. Judges should have the right to use their discretion. I think many would not have received the death penalty if it wasn’t mandatory.

    The many problems of the death penalty as opposed to the potential crime hike should the death penalty be abolished altogether is not something we are going to see happen anytime in the near future.

    Public opinion isn’t going to be swayed by one case every once in a while. It isn’t logical for Singapore to abolish the death penalty altogether.

    Many people, however, will support having the death penalty being seen on a case by case basis. I know I would in a heartbeat.

    By proclaiming it should be abolished, you aren’t going to garner support. To me, that is fighting a losing battle. Ideals are not what make a country run. Meet them halfway first or continue fighting a losing battle.

    Sway opinion with logic, not ideals.

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