Challenging the Death Penalty in Singapore

Amnesty International

Despite the global movement to abolish the death penalty, a recent survey conducted by the National University of Singapore suggests that a majority of Singaporeans remains supportive of it. This article looks at the evolution of death penalty in Singapore and its challenges in recent years.

In a 2016 survey conducted by the National University of Singapore (NUS), over 70 percent of the 1500 Singaporeans aged 18 to 74 interviewed generally support the death penalty. As one of the few remaining industrialised countries to retain the death penalty, it is perhaps curious how and why such support for death penalty persists. This article will give a cursory outline of the evolution of death penalty in Singapore, the reasons behind its support, as well as its contemporary challenges.

The death penalty is generally administered to two offences: murder and drug trafficking. Up until the passage of amendments to the Misuse of Drug Act and the Penal Code in 2012, death penalty for these two offences was mandatory – the judge could not exercise discretion and had to mete out the death penalty to the offender regardless of any mitigating circumstances. The origin of the mandatory death penalty for murder can be traced back to the Penal Code (Amendment) Ordinance 1883 – a colonial legacy of the British administration – while for drug trafficking, the mandatory death penalty was only introduced by the Singaporean government in 1975. Surprisingly, the introduction of the latter came two years after the then Minister for Health and Home Affairs Chua Sian Chin had commented in Parliament that “we have not gone as far as some countries which impose the death penalty for drug trafficking.” The change in policy was sparked by a sudden increase in the number of heroin drug abusers and traffickers around 1974 which was viewed as a threat to Singapore’s “progress and [survival]”.

The changes to the  Penal Code in 2012 introduce nuances in applying the death penalty to the different categories of murder in relation to the intention (mens rea) of the offender. Specifically, discretionary death penalty (where the judges can mete out either death penalty or life imprisonment) is allowed for murder under s300(b), (c) and (d) while mandatory death penalty is only reserved for intentional murder under s300(a). This resolves previous criticisms against the mandatory death penalty for murder, which was especially critical in response to mandatory death penalty sentences under s300(c), wherein a person with an intention only to injure who causes death incidentally will be dealt the mandatory death penalty even though the offender neither intends to kill nor knows that the injury he inflicts would be fatal.

The changes to the Misuse of Drug Act, though welcomed, are still problematic. Under the new s33B, discretionary death penalty is allowed for a drug trafficker who (1) proves that he is a ‘courier’ and (2) is either certified by the Public Prosecutor as having given substantive assistance to the Central Narcotics Bureau in “disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore” (also referred to as substantive assistance limb) or proves that “he was suffering from such abnormality of mind…as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts and omissions in relation to the offence” (also referred to as diminished responsibility limb). As Chan Wing Cheong, an associate professor at NUS Law, notes regarding the substantive assistance limb:

…no proceedings will lie against such determination unless it was done in bad faith or with malice (s 33B(4)).This is a near impossible burden for the accused to discharge for two reasons: first, the Singapore courts operate on a presumption that prosecutorial decisions are made in conformity of the law and, secondly, there is no legal obligation for the prosecution to disclose the reasons for any decisions made (Ramalingam Ravinthran v Attorney-General (2012)). If the certificate of substantive assistance is not obtained, the court does not have the discretion to impose any sentence other than death (PP v Mohd Jeefrey bin Jamil (2014)).

Moreover, the ethicality of resting the right to life of the offender on how much assistance he can offer to the Central Narcotics Bureau remains debatable. The offender’s right to life becomes a privilege granted by the government based on his utility, and to draw an equivalence between life and utility is to risk devaluing life itself, the very aim for which the law was originally created to enforce.

The insistent use of death penalty stems from a deep-seated belief that it deters crime. At the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam challenges the international delegates to “[s]how us a model that works better, that delivers a better outcome for citizens, and we will consider changing. If that cannot be done, then don’t ask us to change”. But the government rarely adduces any statistical evidence that the death penalty actually deters crime, beyond presenting a correlated decrease in crime rates “without controlling for other possible causative factors”. In a study conducted by Zimring et al. comparing homicide trends in relation to the death penalty between Singapore and Hong Kong (which abolished the death penalty in 1993), researchers found no statistical evidence that the death penalty has had any deterrent effect on homicide rates in Singapore. Rather, they conclude that Singapore “provide[s] yet another case history of national homicide trends that are largely unrelated to the extent of execution”. In another paper comparing severity of punishment and certainty of punishment in deterring crimes, Dr. Valerie Wright, a research analyst from The Sentencing Project, argues that “both crime and imprisonment can be simultaneously reduced if policy-makers reconsider their overreliance on severity-based policies such as long prison sentences. Instead, an evidence-based approach would entail increasing the certainty of punishment by improving the likelihood that criminal behaviour would be detected”. These papers give cause to doubt the Singapore government’s claim that death penalty effectively deters crime, if at all.

More worryingly, there is a huge gulf in public knowledge surrounding death penalty legislations. In the same NUS survey cited earlier where 12 different scenarios with mitigating or aggravating circumstances were assessed – all of which were dealt mandatory death penalties by the court – only 37% of these cases were given the death penalty by the surveyees. For the scenarios with mitigating circumstances, the highest proportion in support of death penalty was even lower at 28%. More puzzling, 62% ‘knew little or nothing’ about death penalty in Singapore, a rather frightening revelation when human lives are involved. This reflects a troubling disconnect between what the legislation entails and what the public thinks it entails. Public ignorance on this issue also raises doubts for the saliency of the apparent public support that the death penalty garners.

Unless more research adduces statistical evidence to prove with confidence that death penalty actually deters crime, the Singapore government should reconsider its use of death penalty. While the changes to the legislation in 2012 are laudable, more discussion between the public and the government should also be held to better reflect public sentiments on death penalty. Although a country which consistently uses data in making informed policy decisions, Singapore, in this most crucial endeavor, has apparently forgot the value of good quantitative research.