But how many on death row?

The previous post, Beyond freedom of information lies open data, discussed the need for greater sharing of raw data collected by the government with the public. The present drip-feed of information practised by the government is often misleading and quite insulting to our intelligence.

By coincidence, two examples of frustratingly incomplete information appeared in the Straits Times last Saturday, 22 October 2011. In one news story, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean provided figures on the number of executions since 2004, suggesting a decline. In another, Teo said the number of rejected applications for Permanent Residency have risen sharply. Both are presented in such a way as to appear that the government is heeding public opinion.

The box at right gives you the data as published in the Straits Times on executions, provided in response to a question by opposition member of parliament Pritam Singh who had asked for a breakdown of Singaporeans, Permanent Residents and foreigners executed. Teo clarified that in this period there were no Permanent Residents among those hanged.

Now, the first impression is that there is a gradual decline, and that the figures are nothing like those provided on 12 January 2001 to the late J B Jeyaretnam in parliament, figures which I obtained from the Hansard:

But when I showed Once a Jolly Hangman author Alan Shadrake the latest figures, his first question was: How many are currently on death row? We don’t have data, but he believes, based on newspaper reports of convictions in court, there are 30 – 40 .

If so, what it means is that at some point in the future, the old pace of executions must resume, otherwise the backlog keeps growing.

Thus, the highly processed data Teo Chee Hean provided doesn’t really tell us much. We can’t use it to assess the situation in any meaningful way. The government probably wanted to create a certain first impression and hoped that people would leave it at that, but it does not take much to wonder if first impressions might mislead.

Of course Shadrake could be wrong in his estimates, but it’s not for Shadrake to prove himself right or wrong. It should be our government, which is funded by public money, to come clean with full disclosure.

The other thing you’d have noticed is that the format of the 2011 table is different from that of 2001. One splits it by crime, the other by nationality (well, not quite, since “foreigners” are treated as a single category). This is frustrating, making it difficult to put together a complete picture. The government should release detailed data consistently over the years (name of prisoner; court case number; offence with specific reference to law broken; trial, appeal  and hanging dates; age at time of offence; age at execution; ethnicity; religion; gender and nationality; etc).

* * * * *

With permanent residency, there is the same problem of half-information. At left is the table provided by Teo and published in the Straits Times.

The news report also tells us that the number of successful applicants have fallen, but figures given were only for the years 2008 to 2010:

2008: 79,167

2009: 59,460

2010: 29,265

What about the years before that?

What about the total number of applications received? Even for the years 2008 to 2010, we can’t see what the total is. Adding the number of successful and rejected applications do not yield the total, because there could well be plenty of applications that were received but not acted upon and carried over to future years for consideration.

This is hopeless. Such drip-feed do not make for an informed public.

Moreover, the minister refused to answer the second part of Pritam Singh’s parliamentary question about the specific criteria for approval. Teo said “It would not be appropriate to reveal the specific criteria for approval of PR applications as this could encourage individuals to attempt to circumvent or abuse the system.” But for the  government to operate behind a cloak of opacity would also be undesirable – as this might encourage officials to exploit the system for private or unacceptably ideological ends.

The government should release lots more data about immigration policy implementation. For example, annual tables should be provided, showing:

  • Numbers – Pending applications brought froward from previous years + new applications received – applications rejected – applications approved = pending applications carried over to following year

Then, parallel tables for successful and unsuccessful applicants:

  • Working/non-working status –  Whether working at time of application or non-working. If working, what occupational category? If not working, what relationship to the root applicant (i.e. spouse, child, etc)?
  • Qualification and income level – For those who are working, highest qualification attained, what field, and what current income band?
  • Language proficiency – Applicants’ test scores on standardised English proficiency tests*
  • Other demographic data – Gender, age, nationality, most recent country of residence prior to arrival in Singapore.

(*I know we don’t yet have standardised English proficiency tests for Permanent Residency applications, but we should.)

Needless to say, in the spirit of Open Data, the tables should be in machine readable format.

(The two Straits Times stories mentioned can be seen archived here.)

* * * * *

Coming back to misleading conclusions from incomplete information, what are they eating?

14 Responses to “But how many on death row?”

  1. 1 tk 25 October 2011 at 18:17

    pushing my own barrow, i’d like to see the stats on the location / circumstance of serious traffic crashes (as you showed for london in your last post), and the subsequent ‘punishments’ meted out by the courts.

    i have a strong suspicion that for killing or maiming a person with a motor vehicle, the average jail time would be about 4-6weeks, even if the motorist is at fault. (as opposed to death by hanging for bringing in >1 g of heroin). and, as in narcotics cases, it would be interesting to analyse the socio-econo-citizen status of both drivers and their victims to see if there’s a correlation to the punishment.

    and of course it would allow people to test the assertion that cyclists endanger pedestrians, while the automotive bull in society’s china shop gets ignored.


  2. 2 Anonymous 25 October 2011 at 18:38

    Hey Alex,

    I have been following your blog for quite some time.
    Your blogs are easy to understand, insightful and peppered good humor.
    Congrats! Keep blogging!!

    Hope the higher up folks are reading your blogs too.


  3. 3 yuen 25 October 2011 at 20:24

    I dont think the ministers were at fault: Pritam Singh asked for execution counts by singaporean/PR/foreigner; Teo Chee Hian provided what was asked; similarly, Jeyaratnam asked for execution counts by crime categories; he also got what was asked

    you can fault the ST reporter for not going further to ask for the no. of prisoners on death row, the number of PR applications held over for later consideration, etc; but then, why should he/she do this if there has been no instruction from above to publish additional information?

    (from my own experience applying for and receiving PR in 1984 and colleagues obtaining PR over a number of years: the processing was very quick and files were not allowed to accumulate; I do not know what the current practice is)

    • 4 yawningbread 25 October 2011 at 23:09

      Of course it is clear that the ministers’ replies were to the questions as asked; but this only show how inadequate it is to rely on parliamentary questions for information. Only an open data programme can deliver information in consistent, comprehensive form.

      • 5 yuen 26 October 2011 at 12:43

        interestingly, your article cleared up an old news item that puzzled me: when he was still PM, GCT was asked by a foreign reporter about the no. of executions carried out each year, he replied he was not sure, but had the impression that it was around 70, but the no. that year turned out to be around 15 (which does not appear on your two lists, presumably that was during the missing years 2001-2003); I wondered at the time how he could have made such a mistake, but from your list 2, it seems he must have only remembered the 94-5 figures because these were so high and made impression.

        regardless of the no. currently on death row, the penalty has been less frequently applied in recent years than the 90s; the reason for the drop is worth looking into; however, I dont think any opposition MP would ask such a question, since it would provide ministers with the opportunity to give a speech about government effectiveness in reducing crime; perhaps some PAP MP would want to do it

  4. 6 Yujuan 26 October 2011 at 00:27

    Stories abound that China Nationals could easily be granted PR, even prostitutes and massage operators are among them. Why such preferential treatment towards certain nationalities.

    • 7 Anonymous 2 November 2011 at 23:55

      i think it is stated govt policy that they want chinese (race) to remain in the majority (for social harmony!)

      it is also known that the chinese birth rate is lower than some other races in Singapore.

      so in order the keep the “balance” more chinese have to be imported.

  5. 8 Curious 26 October 2011 at 10:50

    How many on death row or hangings is not an election issue, not just the recent elections, but all past elections.

    If I remember correctly, no PAP MPs had ever even raised such issues in Parliament.

    So I think for many voters, maybe most would also treat these info, even if available in whatever form, more of curiosity than concern.

    Because, after all, it is cost of living and livelihood issues that matter most to them. And they voted opposition MPs in hoping that these MPs will raise and fight these issues for them, not so much as on issues of curiosity.

    In fact many would like to have strict and severe laws to punish those who commit serious crimes so that we can have a peaceful and safe place to work and live, something which is not a given in some countries.

    • 9 yawningbread 26 October 2011 at 11:26

      You don’t get the point. The point is not about the death penalty. It’s about piecemeal release of information and how the public interest is not served by it.

      Now, you might argue that the “public interest” does not desire a reduction of hangings. I would say you have a low standard for “public interest” taking it to mean whatever the majority is interested in. If the majority is interested in discrimination against minorities (which is more or less true) then by your definition, discriminating against minorities should be the order of the day. I would disagree with such a debased definition of “public interest”.

  6. 10 Middle class 27 October 2011 at 00:07

    I agree with YB that information (as in statistics) that come from the ministers or ministries have always been skewed to look good with much other important information being deliberately left out. This is what we call dishing out “half-truths”. Never the whole truth, as the whole truth hurts. Hurts who would you wonder, right?

  7. 11 SE 27 October 2011 at 18:55

    Share a link here with you, from another blogger who similarly calls for data transparency.


    Also, if you visit the SG stats website, from the latest Population Trends data, you will realize that the actual drop in PRs between 2010 & 2011 is a mere -1.6%. This is NOT a sharp drop as they have claimed.

    The high rejection rate in numbers might be true (out of total applicants which as you correctly pointed out, was not revealed) but the actual % in Total PRs in 2011 is nothing to shout about. In fact, the number is almost on same par level as previous year 2010, and we still have 6 mths undeclared (as data was up to HY June 2011).

    • 12 Methodology 14 November 2011 at 02:16

      Hi SE,
      Just to clarify, population figures are updated every 12 months (in Septmber) with the cut off on 30Jun of every year.
      The next update will be in Sep2012 which will show pop figs up till 30Jun2012.

  8. 13 Anonymous 28 October 2011 at 11:58

    «Teo said “It would not be appropriate to reveal the specific criteria for approval of PR applications as this could encourage individuals to attempt to circumvent or abuse the system.”»

    I find it very difficult to buy this excuse. Surely much of the information on a PR application concerns the characteristics of an applicant that are not easily changed in order to ‘game’ the system, such as ethnicity, place of birth, languages spoken, educational qualifications, and so on. And if applicants were aware of certain criteria and attempted to make their applications satisfy those criteria better, then either they’ve attempted fraud (in which case procedures to confirm the veracity of the submitted information, like documentary checks and interviews, reveal this and their applications are thrown out), or they’ve genuinely made changes, e.g. improving their English proficiency, etc., in which case wouldn’t the presence of such criteria have served its purpose?

    What other kinds of information would one directly ask for that would determine the success of a PR application? Not, I hope, qualities that are difficult to objectively assess. For instance, asking an applicant about their sense of commitment to the country would seem to be a waste of time because any applicant with some common sense would claim they are very committed. In other words, if such a criterion existed, it would be useless to fear that people would tailor their responses accordingly because they’d do so whether or not one were transparent about the criterion.

    All this merely suggests that what is being hidden is ‘sensitive’ and revealing it may come at a political cost. People often fear disclosure if what they’re hiding is unseemly. For instance, people might find it unacceptable to weigh PR applications differently based on the ethnicity of the applicant…

    Don’t the politicians who make such nanny statements realize that they not only don’t make the issue go away, they actually undermine the government’s credibility? How do they expect the people to trust them if they constantly act as if they’ve got something to hide?

  9. 14 SgCapricorn 28 October 2011 at 17:16

    A very good article, backed up by good data and references. The selective partial disclosures by the government seem to suggest motives that aim to misinform, rather than to inform and educate the public.

    Where is the sincere engagement and listening that was promised during the GE? The way information that is being released point to a more sinister manipulation instead.

    Great job YB.

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