Singapore retreats from mandatory death penalty by an inch

The most striking thing about Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean’s statement in parliament regarding the scaling back of the mandatory death penalty was how he bent over backwards to say that capital punishment has been a huge success over the years in deterring crime, especially drug trafficking. He then made a special point to assure people that “we will maintain the mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers, in most circumstances.”

In other words, he was declaring that Singapore was merely tweaking the system at its edges; there’s no big change. Perhaps he was eager to avoid giving the impression that this strong-willed government was (gasp!) going soft and becoming susceptible to public opinion and international pressure.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe the whole thing is intended more as a public relations exercise, and the conveyor belt to the trapdoor will resume shortly. Whether it’s going to be a significant change, and exactly how big a change, we won’t know until some time has passed.

Let me pause for a moment and outline the changes announced 9 July 2012, but which will only come into effect when laws are amended later this year.

With respect to drug trafficking, Teo announced that the mandatory death penalty will remain, but with two exceptions:

First, the trafficker must have only played the role of courier, and must not have been involved in any other activity related to the supply or distribution of drugs. Second, discretion will only apply if having satisfied this first requirement, either the trafficker has cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau in a substantive way, or he has a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of the act.

— Teo Chee Hean, in Parliament, 9 July 2012

If these two conditions are met, judges will have the discretion

to sentence the trafficker to death, or alternatively to pass a sentence of life imprisonment with caning.

— ibid.

As for murder,

Law Minister K. Shanmugam, addressing the House after DPM Teo, said the Government intends for capital punishment to apply only in murders where there is an intention to kill.

But where there is no outright intention to kill, the courts will have the discretion to mete out either the death penalty or a life sentence.

— Straits Times, 10 July 2012, Death penalty: Govt to grant judges some discretion, by Leonard Lim

Since the review began around April last year, all executions have been deferred.

When the necessary amendments have been made to legislation,  all accused persons in ongoing cases found guilty between now and then, and convicted persons who have already exhausted their appeals and are on death row, can apply for re-sentencing. The Straits Times reported that there are currently 35 persons – 28 for drug offences and the rest for murder – on death row.

* * * * *

An earlier article But how many on death row? provided some data as to the numbers of executions carried out in the 1990s and for the period 2004 – 2010. There were none in 2010, and an average of 6.3 persons a year from 2004 to 2009.

While I don’t have the breakdown by offences, going by the pattern from the 1990s, about one quarter would be for murder and three-quarters for drug offences. Firearms offences, which are not going to be changed, form a small number. This is roughly consistent with the numbers currently on death row, four-fifths for drug offences and one-fifth for murder.

How many of the 35 currently on death row will benefit from re-sentencing? It is hard to say. What we can guess is that there are probably no drug kingpins among them. Teo himself conceded that

by making use of improvements in communications technology, syndicates supplying drugs to Singapore have responded to the increased risks of apprehension by moving off-shore, with their leaders controlling their operations remotely.

Teo Chee Hean, in Parliament, 9 July 2012

But not all of the 28 drug offenders were petty couriers either. I recall, though I didn’t keep a file on them, a few cases of small dealers caught with stashes of pills and powder in their homes, or runners who helped organise the drops. Whether their lawyers could get them classified as “having played only the role of courier” (in Teo’s words) remains to be seen.

In any case, recent years have seen several instances of people charged for trafficking in 14.99 grams of heroin, below the threshold for the mandatory death penalty. One example was Nepalese Yubindra Bahadur Tamang who was sentenced to 21 years in jail and 24 strokes of the cane (see Hanging up the hanging rope). He and others like him wouldn’t therefore be awaiting execution today and not counted among the 28. So it is quite possible that only a few drug offenders now on death row would benefit.

Likewise for murder cases. In recent years, we’ve seen several cases where the court has accepted diminished responsibility due to psychological or other mitigating factors. One example was that of the Indonesian domestic worker Vitria Wahyuni, who had killed her elderly employer in November 2009. She was convicted of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, and received a sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment (where the maximum is 20 years). See Jakarta Post story: Why a Singaporean court gave an Indonesian maid a 10 year jail sentence (10 March 2012). Hence, how many of those on death row now for murder would satisfy the new standard of “no outright intention to kill” and thus enjoy re-sentencing, is unclear.

* * * * *

Longtime readers of Yawning Bread will know that these small changes do not satisfy me. I am opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds. Nothing but an absolute ban will do.

But as a friend mentioned in a succinct posting recently on Facebook, one doesn’t even need to agree with this moral position about taking another person’s life:

* * * * *

One final thing I’d note is how there’s been no public reaction against the change. There have been a few online postings by the handful of Singaporeans who have been agitating for a review of the death penalty, mostly saying they are encouraged by the move, but I have yet to see anyone thumping the table accusing the government of going soft and not abiding by the people’s desire to hang ’em all.

It’s been nearly a week and I have yet to see a letter to the editor in the Straits Times, demanding that the government call off its lily-livered retreat. That said, one possibility cannot be dismissed: the editor did receive such letters but has carefully chosen not to print any. On the other hand, I haven’t seen any online posting objecting to the scale-back either.

I would have thought that such letters should be forthcoming. Repeatedly, our government has argued that Singaporeans strongly support the death penalty, though there really hasn’t been much polling on this question. All I could find was one done six years ago in the wake of our hanging of Nguyen Van Tuong, the Straits Times story for which was archived here.

It said:

The survey of 425 Singaporeans and permanent residents, aged 20 and older, shows 96 per cent support the death penalty. Most also want it to remain mandatory for the crimes of murder, drug trafficking and the use of firearms.


And the majority want Singapore to stand its ground on this issue, regardless of what other countries do.

Almost three quarters say Singapore should not review its stand even if more countries do away with the death penalty.

— Straits Times, 12 Feb 2006, 96% of Sporeans back death penalty, by Lydia Lim and Jeremy Au Yong

Ninety-six percent! And yet no objection to the announced retreat?

It makes one wonder, doesn’t it, what confidence to put on these so-called opinions of the majority in Singapore. Are they really convictions, or mere echoing of the perceived government stand of the day? The mere bleating of sheep?

I can almost hear the defence:  But the government has not withdrawn the death penalty. They’ve only given judges the discretion to avoid it for petty drug couriers and cases of unintentional homicide.

Ah yes, but if you agree (now) that these two categories do not deserve a mandatory death sentence, why didn’t you speak up against it before?

17 Responses to “Singapore retreats from mandatory death penalty by an inch”

  1. 1 ape@kinjioleaf 16 July 2012 at 13:41

    I can only think of one reason why people chose to remain passively silent unless being asked – ‘I’m no murderer or drug trafficker, not my problem and I’m in no position to comment.’

    However, when I talk to people about the current laws with regards to drug traffickers, especially the part about having the accused to prove his innocence instead of prosecutors to prove his crime, I get a slightly different reaction… but still, it’s always ‘I ain’t criminal or lawyer not my problem’ attitude.

    Personally, I’m no saint nor a very forgiving person. I’ll say death sentence to remain but only where there’s no doubt to a person’s intent, actions and mental capacity. Rationale is this – how do we reconcile a hanged ‘criminal’ if evidence should surface later that he is actually innocent? What if the actual murderer, perhaps guilt ridden, owes up years later?

    • 2 yawningbread 16 July 2012 at 18:04

      Since there is no way anyone can TOTALLY eliminate the chance that there’s been a mistaken identity or a misreading of a person’s psychological state or intent, your standard of “only where there’s no doubt to a person’s intent, actions and mental capacity” can never be satisfied. You therefore cannot support any execution.

      • 3 SN 16 July 2012 at 19:22

        “Since there is no way anyone can TOTALLY eliminate the chance that there’s been a mistaken identity or a misreading of a person’s psychological state or intent, your standard of ‘only where there’s no doubt to a person’s intent, actions and mental capacity’ can never be satisfied. You therefore cannot support any execution.”

        If this statement is meant to be prescriptive, then I think you have overreached yourself. Why stop at withholding “support (of) any execution”? On these grounds, any conviction would be questionable from the point of view of justice, given that “there is no way anyone can TOTALLY [sic] eliminate the chance that there’s been a mistaken identity or a misreading of a person’s psychological state or intent.”

        The point about deterrence in the main article is a red herring, or at least, it has the potential to be. Whatever its merits, deterrence is not the only justification for capital punishment. Retributive justice is a possible consideration, and perhaps, it may just be a sufficient consideration. There are crimes vile enough to warrant such a sentence.

        To put the point more broadly, compassion and justice are good and desirable things. But a just society is not simply a compassionate society; neither is a compassionate society necessarily a just society.

      • 4 Passerby 16 July 2012 at 23:59

        SN said,

        “If this statement is meant to be prescriptive, then I think you have overreached yourself. Why stop at withholding “support (of) any execution”? On these grounds, any conviction would be questionable from the point of view of justice, given that “there is no way anyone can TOTALLY [sic] eliminate the chance that there’s been a mistaken identity or a misreading of a person’s psychological state or intent.”

        I doubt anyone here who advocates the abolition of capital punishment is basing their convictions on the impossibility of the courts to find with 100% certainty the guilt of the accused. A wrongly convicted prisoner serving jail time can be released, albeit with time spent in jail lost forever. Can a wrongly convicted individual who is executed be resurrected? Tell an urn of ashes, “Oops, my bad”?

        There’s a certain finality to taking a life compared to jail time that you don’t seem to appreciate.

      • 5 ape@kinjioleaf 1 August 2012 at 11:59

        Alex, you’re not wrong to say I cannot support execution.

        Actually, if put on a scale, I’m extremely slanted towards ‘No’ to execution. But I also subscribe to the cliche ‘Never say never’.

  2. 6 Tsumujikaze no Soujutsu 16 July 2012 at 14:28

    I think the biggest factor behind the supposed apathy on this issue lies in a vast majority of the population preferring to leave everything to the Government itself. To me, the biggest complication that can and will arise from death executions is that what if the wrong person got executed? This has been a major point of controversy behind the US state of Texas alone not to mention the Troy Davis scandal in the state of Georgia itself. To me, that’s where the clear-cut moral ground stops. In a very basic way, if death penalty should be deemed not legit, the biggest problem will be how to deal with the convicts in all cases capital offences so as to speak. I know I’m pretty much unlearned on this part, so I’ll be interested to see any useful input here. At the end of the day, I think the biggest headache we’re seeing here is an extremely blurred line when it comes to mitigation factors based on a 100% legit compassionate ground.

  3. 7 Saycheese 16 July 2012 at 14:50

    I have never really thought about the MDP. It is a small step to return the sentencing power to the judges trying those 2 offences but really what kind of justice are we having here? The rich and powerful have hardly been charged for offences that can result in lengthy or death sentences here, with or without the MDP.
    What I’d like to see is a new category of crime meriting the MDP -for politicians, when in consolidating their hegemonic powers, wreck the lives of so many with detentions without trial on flimsy excuses – but we know they are people in power and passing a law to screw themselves…?

  4. 8 octopi 16 July 2012 at 17:12

    It remains to be seen – they could well be adopting a gradual approach. Reversing a decades long death penalty policy is no trivial matter. Everything depends on whether the second step to retreat further is ever taken. They will check to see the real impact of this on drug trafficking. What pro or anti death penalty advocates say in the meantime is or relatively little significance.

  5. 9 ricardo 16 July 2012 at 19:56

    I’m rather saddened that no one here is commending the Govt. ministers who proposed that discretion for the Death Penalty in some circumstances be returned to the Judiciary.

    I for one would like to know who was for, and who was against, this move. We need to know who are in politics only for Dignity, those who are there to serve … and of these, who has a Heart.

    There IS a crime for which a Mandatory Death Penalty is an effective deterrent; that of Armed Robbery with Firearms. I think this and Terrorism require and deserve the same consideration as the perpetrators have for other lives. In both these crimes, the act is calculated and a MDP is a great help in the calculations.

  6. 11 george 17 July 2012 at 00:05

    Isn’t kidnapping a crime capital crime here?

  7. 13 Passerby 17 July 2012 at 00:11

    It should be pretty clear that this move is driven not by humanitarian reasons. Dead men tell no tales. Certainly not about the puppet masters that send these drug traffickers across the borders when the latter lie stone cold at the morgue.

    This change allows the couriers to buy their life with information. I reckon they had no incentive to help the authorities when, whatever they did to help the police, they would be facing death anyway. With this amendment, the drug runners will be more likely to sing.

  8. 14 Anon 2v33 17 July 2012 at 09:24

    These are the 60% “SILENT MAJORITY”. They have no views and do not bother to know the different between mandatory death sentence and death sentence. Will support as long as PAP supports.

  9. 15 me 17 July 2012 at 12:49

    I think it is still a step forward even in some miniscule way ..

  10. 16 B_Tiger 20 July 2012 at 08:02

    Does anyone here perhaps those working in the air transport industry know whether the mandatory announcement before touch down will be abolished too? It’s a damn dowser for one to come home or to visit our lovely Garden City to be reminded of the MDP before one even has a chance to smell the flowers.

  11. 17 Samson 23 July 2012 at 21:40

    An important reason why judges must be given discretion over the death penalty is that Indonesian maids cannot be hanged. The political cost is simply unacceptable. Everytime one of these maids commit murder, the govt will have a headache trying to find an excuse for her. Most of the time, they will simply reduce her age. With the amendment, it will be easy.

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