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.
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.
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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.
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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:
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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.
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?