Singapore reeling from murder spree, drug scourge

Haven’t you heard? Murderers and drug traffickers have been emboldened by the much-reduced execution rate in recent years. For decades, we have boasted about how our tough stand on capital punishment has kept crime low. With the rope so little used today, serious crimes must be reaching horrific levels. Barricade your doors!

We have our weak-kneed government to blame for this, succumbing to international pressure from foreign governments and pinko commie outfits like Amnesty International. Unable to keep up our hanging rate with impunity, the horrors of life in Western capitals is coming our way — drug dealers at every street corner, bank robbers  running down every sidewalk and killers stalking every alley.

* * * * *

Seriously, we are hanging far fewer people today than in the 1990s. Yet whenever criticised, our government continues to insist that hanging is a necessary deterrent to stop rampant crime. Singapore is a safe place for children to grow up precisely because we hang, hang, hang.

For example, Indranee Rajah, a member of parliament from the ruling People’s Action Party, said in a speech on 22 October 2007, when discussing revisions to the Penal Code, that:

… it always amazes me that when people point to Great Britain and Europe and they talk about the doing away of the death penalty, they never, in the same breath, also talk about their crime rates. They should compare the crime rates in Great Britain and the crime rates of countries in Europe, with the crime rates in Singapore, crime for crime. I think it cannot be disputed that the crime rates in Europe are higher than ours and that the incidences of violent crimes are much more than ours.

The government here is so enamoured of the death penalty that it instructed its ambassador to the United Nations, Vanu Menon, to lead the defence at the UN against a 2007 General Assembly motion for a moratorium on capital punishment (the resolution eventually passed), a move that embarrassed many thinking Singaporeans concerned about our country’s image.

As most people know, data about executions are not published, though once in a while, the government releases a bit of information when pressed. The reluctance to reveal the annual number of executions strongly indicated that the numbers were high and that the government knew it would compound their public relations problem.

There was a widely-reported incident in September 2003 when, in an interview with the BBC, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was questioned about the number of people executed so far that year. According to a report of the incident in Amnesty International’s publication (referred to below), he stated that he believed it was “in the region of about 70 to 80”. When asked why he did not know the precise number, Goh said, “I’ve got more important things to worry about.” While the media made much of that second response, it really was fair enough; one can hardly expect a prime minister to carry in his head such statistics. However, his initial guess that Singapore executed 70 to 80 persons a year was received with great dismay — it represented a huge number for such a small population, giving Amnesty International ample cause to characterise this place as the one with the world’s highest per-capita execution rate.

Two days later, Goh retracted his statement, saying that the death penalty had in fact been carried out on ten occasions so far during 2003.

The Australian newspaper, The Age, reported the same incident with additional figures, citing AFP:

In a rare comment about the death penalty, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told the BBC yesterday that up to 80 people had been executed in the first nine months of this year.

“I think probably it will be in the region of about 70 to 80. I do not know the precise number, I stand to be corrected,” Mr Goh said, according to a transcript of the interview released by the Singapore Government.

The Government attached a note to the transcript saying 28 people had been executed in 2002, 27 in 2001 and 21 in 2000, without giving confirmed figures for this year.

— The Age, 25 Sept 2003, More people executed in Singapore. Link.

In January 2004, Amnesty International published a report Singapore death penalty — A hidden toll of executions, in which it provided several years’ figures compiled from various sources, including patchy numbers revealed by the government. I’ve put them into a table which you can see at right.

Indeed, Goh Chok Tong was not far off. There have been times when we hanged over 70 persons a year. We deserved our ignominy.

Over the years, Singapore was regularly pilloried for our record, particularly in November and December 2005 when the Australian media went after us for hanging Nguyen Trung Van.

And then British journalist and author Alan Shadrake came along and wrote a book Once a Jolly Hangman which I reviewed in New book puts death penalty on trial. For alleging that our judiciary did not meet First-World standards of probity, he was accused of contempt of court, with the prosecution arguing that Shadrake, through his book,  impugned the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judiciary. He was found guilty and sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment and a S$20,000 fine. The appeal was heard in early April 2011; the result as yet unknown.

Shadrake’s case was irresistibly newsworthy, at least internationally, for it represented in a nutshell all that was wrong about governance in Singapore. His book sold fabulously and now, “Murdoch Books has just launched the Oz edition — also updated with the post-arrest events,” Shadrake tells me.

On 12 April 2011, the International Herald Tribune published a further story on the case. Perked up by the publicity, Shadrake then penned an open letter to the Law Minister, K Shanmugam, wherein he threw down  a new challenge at the minister. Clearly, the man’s fighting spirit is undiminished.

One bit in the International Herald Tribune’s story would prove an interesting lead. This bit said:

The case is the latest in a long line of defamation cases brought by Singapore’s leaders and judiciary against political opponents and foreign publications. Last year, The New York Times Co., which owns the International Herald Tribune, was threatened with a libel suit for an opinion column in the paper about changes in Singapore leadership. The Herald Tribune apologized and paid a settlement.

Singapore’s leaders insist that these suits are necessary to clear their names following unfair criticism or misleading statements. The judge who ruled against Mr. Shadrake last November took this position. “A casual and unwary reader, who does not subject the book to detailed scrutiny, might well believe his claims, and in so doing would have lost confidence in the administration of justice in Singapore,” the judge said.

Human rights groups and other critics say the lawsuits are intended to punish and intimidate critics, causing a widespread climate of self-censorship.

The Singapore government, as is its style, was quick to expose the fact that the international media got it wrong. Our government loves to point out that newspapers not controlled by themselves cannot be trusted to report “accurately”. As reported in the always-accurate Straits Times,

The Law Ministry has written to the International Herald Tribune (IHT) to point out factual inaccuracies in its report on British author Alan Shadrake’s appeal against his conviction for contempt of court.

The newspaper had reported in an article published on April 12 that Shadrake’s case was ‘the latest in a long line of defamation cases’ brought by Singapore’s leaders.

In a letter to the IHT published yesterday, Law Minister K. Shanmugam’s press secretary, Ms Chong Wan Yieng, pointed out that Shadrake, 76, was not being sued for defamation.

Instead, the author was charged with contempt of court for alleging ‘quite baselessly’ that Singapore’s courts conspired with state agencies to suppress material evidence and convict the accused.

‘Such a statement would be in contempt of court in many common law jurisdictions, including England, Australia, Ireland, Canada and Hong Kong,’ the letter said.

The newspaper’s article had also said that Singapore does not disclose statistics on capital punishment. But Ms Chong pointed out that the number of executions is published by the Singapore Prisons and the death penalty is openly and vigorously debated in Singapore. [emphasis added by Yawning Bread]

— Straits Times, 22 April 2011, IHT article on Shadrake inaccurate: Law Ministry

I loved that bit about how “the death penalty is openly and vigorously debated in Singapore,” because on 30 January 2004, the government said the exact opposite. It was buried inside the official response to Amnesty International’s publication Singapore death penalty — A hidden toll of executions, refuting an assertion that Amnesty had made:

AI’s insinuation that there are not greater public discussions on death penalty in Singapore because the Government “imposes controls which curb freedom of expression” is false. Questions have been raised in Parliament on the death penalty, and the Government has released information on the number of persons executed. But the fact is that the death penalty is not a burning issue in Singapore. [emphasis by Yawning bread]

— The Singapore Government’s Response To Amnesty International’s Report “Singapore – The Death Penalty: A Hidden Toll Of Executions”, 30 January 2004. Link.

(If you go to the link and scroll down, you will see it mentioned that in the “last five years”, meaning 1999 – 2003, there were 138 executions, of which 37 were of foreigners. 110 were for drug-related offences, while 28 were for murder or firearms-related offences — these numbers are included in the table below.)

The more useful revelation from the Straits Times story however was that “the number of executions is published by the Singapore Prisons.” Somebody — he shall remain anonymous — then seized upon that clue to see where it would lead. An initial search of the website of the Singapore Prison Service’s website revealed nothing. Their 2008 Annual Report, available on the web, said nothing either. He then requested for the 2009 Annual Report from the Ministry of Law — not available online — and right there on page 70 was this:

The numbers are very significantly lower.  Between 2007 and 2009, there were fewer than ten a year, compared to an average of 27 or 28 executions a year between 1999 and 2003, and 76 in 1994.

Don’t believe for a moment that no policy decision was involved. The crime background does not change so dramatically; it is clearly prosecution policy at work. Was it in response to huge domestic pressure? How can that be? Domestic pressure is barely perceptible. Our abolitionist movement is tiny, with us dismissed by most fellow Singaporeans as crazy idealists with no grasp of reality as to how monstrously dangerous overworked maids and drug mules are and how much our safety and security depends on hanging them all.

Life imprisonment is too good for these criminals, our compatriots say. It’s also an utter waste of state resources feeding the low-life. Hang them!

And yet, something changed. It was international pressure wasn’t it? Yeah, it works.

23 Responses to “Singapore reeling from murder spree, drug scourge”


  1. 1 Paul 21 May 2011 at 07:10

    But those figures are set to rise again this year or next – drug mules aside, in the past half year or so, there have been three high profile murder cases. At least nine men (it’s hard to keep track) have been charged with the Downtown East murder from last November, three in the Bras Basah murder from last month, and one in the so-called ‘trolley bag’ murder, also last month.

    All fourteen, I believe, face the mandatory death penalty if convicted – a prospect that will sorely test either the state’s capacity for finding mitigating circumstances, or the populace’s stomach for its hang ’em high attitude.

  2. 2 Robox 21 May 2011 at 09:22

    This should be treated as a tiny step towards success by anti-death penalty supporters:

    http://www.todayonline.com/Singapore/EDC110520-0000767/HD–More-help-for-lawyers-representing-those-facing-capital-charges

    [Quote]

    In a move to better provide quality legal representation for those facing capital charges, the High Court has launched two new initiatives to ensure better selection of counsel and legal support for the appointed lawyers…Said Law Society president Wong Meng Meng: “With these new initiatives, we will enhance the standards of the criminal bar, and also ensure that those facing charges for capital offences will have high quality representation.”

    [Endquote]

    The heartwrenching part is: How many people have they previously murdered because this ‘better provide quality legal representation for those facing capital charges’ wasn’t provided?

    Worse, the PAP government’s position, even in its representations to the UN, is that the death penalty is not a human rights issue but a criminal justice one.

    I dispute that.

    The right to a fair trial is a human rights issue and NOT an issue of criminal justice. A fair trial is defined as one that contains these three elements:

    1. legal counsel – which in Singapore should take into considerations access to legal counsel as well as the quality of counsel provided;

    2. procedural fairness – it has already been established that, at least informally, any trial that involves the mandatory death penaly is automatically an unfair trial because it skips the steps that all fair trials constitute; and,

    3. a competent judiciary – just one word will suffice here: kangaroo.

    Isn’t the implicit admission by the government now that ‘quality legal representation’ only needs to be provided to those who face the death penalty, an admission that they have fallen seriously short previously, and only because the anti-death penalty campaign has stepped up?

    I am really interested to know how many people have gone to their deaths because the PAP government refused to respect the human right to a fair trial and hence never bothered about niceties like ‘quality legal representation’.

    • 3 deathmule 22 May 2011 at 00:14

      If there is real intent to have a fairer criminal justice system, a few other things will need to change as well. The burden of proof must always lie on the prosecuting side, not the accused as is the situation in drug cases. The arrested should have access to legal advice, instead of being interrogated without any help or advice for days on end until they break. In a death penalty case, a confession cannot be the sole evidence supporting the prosecution case.

  3. 4 Cory 21 May 2011 at 09:35

    Your analysis is rather superficial. I am no death-penalty advocate, but one could easily argue that the deterrence value of the DP does not stem from how often it is meted out, but from its very existence as a punishment for certain crimes.

    Indeed, given that the number of executions are not made publicly available and requires significant digging to find out, it makes no sense to speak of criminals being “emboldened by the much-reduced execution rate in recent years”. The execution rate should have no effect on crime rate given that criminals are unlikely to know how often executions occur. Only the possibility of receiving DP as a punishment will factor into their calculations (if it factors in at all).

    • 5 Cory 21 May 2011 at 09:41

      I think a better way to argue against the DP would be to compare the occurrence rate of crimes which do not carry the DP with that of crimes which do. If there is a significant difference, then the DP might be said to have a deterrent effect. But if Singapore’s crime rate is low across the board, then there must be other factors for the low crime rate, and the existence of the DP has nothing to do with it.

  4. 6 Gard 21 May 2011 at 09:44

    I thought it might be useful to overlay crime statistics over the execution rate as you have made the assertion about the crime background. The other hypothesis for reduced execution is better crime prevention, so lower crime rate and execution rate go hand in hand.

    In any case, readers are free to consult the Department of Statistics for information on crime rates. As a snapshot, crime rate was 831 per 100,000 population in 1999, versus 661 per 100,000 population in 2009.

    Alternatively, the fall in crime/execution rate in 2007-9 may be attributed to the great purge the earlier years before. Kill enough chickens, even the monkeys turn into chickens.

    Of course, (some) economists have recognized that better crime prevention and earlier detection is the key to lower crimes, not capital punishment. After you have built the ERP type detector at carparks, it is time to retire the parking coupons.

  5. 7 timebomber 21 May 2011 at 10:28

    You’re probably right that international pressure is the reason for the lower number of hangings carried out by our government. But then again, I’m sure they (the government) can also argued that the low number is due to the fact that drug traffickers and other criminals are finally getting the message, that here in Singapore it does not pay to traffic drugs or commit serious crimes.

    • 8 Robox 21 May 2011 at 22:05

      @timebomber:

      The PAP government has always stuck up their thumb on “international pressure” whenever that pressure has no bearing – or so we believe – on the economy or economic issues. You could take their attitudes towards gay rights as yet another example of that.

      Instead, that credit should go to domestic pressure and the activists who worked on the issue, and have managed to educate some segments of the public on them, which would have impacted on the PAP’s vote share

      Please give credit where it is due.

  6. 9 kirsten 21 May 2011 at 10:42

    As far as I have heard, about 3 people have been hanged in 2011, and there are approximately 35 more people on death row. None of this has been officially verified, though.

    There is a theory floating around that there had been an unofficial moratorium imposed while Vui Kong’s case was challenging the constitutionality of the MDP and all that, as there were no hangings heard of in the year of 2010, and hangings only started again in March 2011, the week before Vui Kong’s verdict was delivered.

    I’m not sure how accurate that theory is but it would show that there has been some decision made high up to suspend hangings, even temporarily, perhaps while there was a lot of attention, including international attention, on the DP in Singapore.

    “Openly and vigorously debated”, HAH. They’re just referring to the few anti-death penalty activists… we’ve become the NCMPs of the death penalty issue in Singapore.

    • 10 Robox 21 May 2011 at 22:08

      @kirsten:

      When the PAP boasts that the death penalty has been “openly and vigorously” debated, they refer only to the online community that is not sanctioned by them, and which they have no control over. The issue was never debated in the MSM.

      This is the blatant dishonesty that characterizes the PAP government.

  7. 11 Ben 21 May 2011 at 10:44

    The government’s 2004 response to AI’s report did not contradict their current stance. The emphasis you highlighted was refuted by the government to be false.
    But otherwise a good piece.

  8. 12 msia news 21 May 2011 at 11:19

    for those people in S’pore who believe the drug convicts should only get prison sentence should identify himself or herself to the inland revenue authority so that these people can contribute much higher personal income tax to feed and clothe the drug convicts.

    • 13 Paul 2 21 May 2011 at 22:21

      Imagine a hypothetical but not implausible scenario: One day, while holidaying in Malaysia, you get an invitation to meet up with an old acquaintance. While catching up over coffee, this acquaintance asks if you can do him a favor – he’s got a birthday present already wrapped for a mutual friend of yours staying in Singapore; he won’t be able to travel down for that friend’s birthday, so he asks if you can help pass the present to that friend. You agree of course, not knowing that inside the box is actually 20g of heroin and you’ve unwittingly agreed to be a drug mule. Due to bad luck on your part you’re stopped at Customs on the way into Singapore and you’re caught red-handed! You plead innocence in court, appeal, even ask for the President’s Clemency, but there’s no good evidence in your favor, you’re not a white horse or anything, so you’re charged.

      The problem with having a *mandatory* death sentence is that the judge has no choice but to hang you, whatever the circumstances of the crime might have been.

      So, in this position, would you gladly offer your life so the citizens don’t have to pay to ‘feed and clothe’ you in prison???

      Seems a bit callous to me to put a price on a human life.

    • 14 lanslord1983@hotmail.sg 24 May 2011 at 13:58

      Please be aware that it does not cost nothing to pass the death sentence to a convict. Legal counsel given to death convicts are charged to the country, provided by taxpayers (i may be wrong, but that is as far as my knowledge about the law goes. maybe a lawyer can shed light on this.)
      to house a convict for 20-30 years may not cost as much as the amount needed to fight all the appeals. Hence your point about dollars and cents is not even valid to begin with, more so the callousness of pricing a life.

  9. 15 Gilded Cage 21 May 2011 at 11:49

    thanks Alex for another well researched piece.

  10. 16 Native 21 May 2011 at 13:27

    YB, do you have any numbers on our serious crime rate compared to other first world nations with similar populations, and also compared to other Asian nations?

  11. 19 Coward 21 May 2011 at 16:43

    @Cory and @Gard, do you honestly believe that those people intending on committing serious crime do think twice on the death penalty before they commit the crime? As in, when a desperate, lowly educated Ah Beng can weigh rationally whether it’s worth his life to carry the drug? As in, when an Ah Lian, in her moment of rage in front of her competitor who stole her lover, could think of the death penalty before she pushed the knife into the victim’s body? Com’on, be honest.

  12. 20 Coward 21 May 2011 at 16:46

    Dear @msia-news, it sounds like no life is worth sparing if it costs money. So just kill! How primitive your logic can be!? As society matures and civilization catches on, we all have to recognize the costs of maintaining justice, and bear them as a civilized society would.

  13. 21 j 26 May 2011 at 01:48

    The term “serious crimes” wich warrants the MDP for drug trafficking. Is murder not a much much more serious crime than having 15g of illicit drugs with you knowingly or unknowingly?? Does it deserve the burden of prove being reversed? Does it warrant taking away someone’s justice when the system is not entirely full prove. Come on the MDP takes away discreation the most important aspect of a judicially system. If a trial does not warrant due process how could anyone in the right mind agree with the legislatures who make these policy?? The worst part of it is yr life is automatically taken away.

    Society gives away a quantity of freedom to the sovereign state. It’s logically under certain theories of law that punishment is warranted to avoid or stop the greater evil. Detterent has and have been proven that it does not work therfore to have policies made by man to take away someone’s life automatically is not justifyable.

    If Singapore PAP has expressed that detterence has work, where is their statistic’s to pove it. The two top university in Singapore does not even have a criminology department so where is their justification coming from??? Oh Yeah if a group of singaporeans go out and have a discussion of the death penalty in an open area anywhere in Singapore, we would most probably be arrested!! Unless we get a license to do it how freaking ridiculous is that when the the gov can say that this topic is openly discussed!! Why is it not on any of the newspapers in singapore!!!

  14. 22 Brendan 31 May 2011 at 09:59

    Which is why the comming presidential elections is very important. Use of nations reserves aside (another hotly debated issue) we need a president that can make clemency decisions as a secondary “key” to negate the NAMDATORY sentence.

    Keep the Death Panalty, but MANDATORY leaves no room for error. Just imagine if it’s your love ones, don’t they deserve a second chance ??

  15. 23 Globalizer 31 May 2011 at 16:51

    I note that drug traffickers amount to more than half of executed criminals. May I suggest that legalizing drugs would immediately halve the crime rate, as well as save lives – because most lives that are now being lost due to drugs are lost precisely because of their illegality.

    Meanwhile, two of the most dangerous drugs, alcohol and tobacco, that cause more damage to the society than all the other drugs combined, are being freely sold.


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