Singapore and the Death Penalty
Human rights lawyer M. Ravi stands in front of an anti-drugs poster.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Nicky Loh

Singapore and the Death Penalty


Singapore’s approach to combating drug trafficking has traditionally entailed the use of capital punishment. According to Amnesty International, over the last two decades Singapore has hanged hundreds of people – including dozens of foreigners – for narcotics offences. So it was a pleasant surprise for many last Thursday morning when the courts lifted the death penalty on a drug trafficker for the first time in its history. Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian who was sentenced to hang in 2009, was spared after a judge ruled that Yong was merely a drug courier, rather than involved in the supply or distribution of narcotics.

Credit for this positive change must go to the relentless efforts of human rights lawyer M Ravi, and to the amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act, passed in parliament on November 2012.

Under the original Act, capital punishment was mandatory if the accused was found to be in possession of the requisite quantity of drugs. There were no exemptions for minors under the age of 21 (although minors under the age of 18 and pregnant women are exempt). With the new reforms, courts can now impose a life imprisonment instead of a death sentence, if the accused is found to be “only a drug courier” or “suffering from such an abnormality of mind that it substantially impaired his mental responsibility for committing the offence.”

Despite the positive reforms, many Singaporeans are still calling for the total abolishment of capital punishment. Besides being ineffective at preventing crime, the policy is unfair to people from disadvantaged backgrounds and violates international human rights standards.

The government’s main reason for imposing the death penalty for drug trafficking is to send “a strong signal to would-be offenders, to deter them from committing crimes.” However, there is little evidence that the death penalty acts as a successful deterrence against crime. For instance, researchers observed that Hong Kong experienced a drop in homicide rates in the 35 years after 1973, despite having abolished the death penalty in 1966. Similarly, another report by a committee of scientist from the US National Research Council who examined research on the death penalty across the past 35 years showed that it was “not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect” on crime rates. Put simply, the relationship between capital punishment and crime rates is inconclusive.

Even with the harsh laws, drug-related crime statistics in Singapore remain high. According to the European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control in 2010, Singapore’s drug-related crime rate is far worse than other countries such as Costa Rica and Turkey. The number of drugs seizures in Singapore has continued to increase in recent years. The Central Narcotics Bureau reported record seizures in 2012. The estimated street value of the drugs seized was S$18.3 million ($14.7 million), 14 percent higher than the S$16 million in 2011. This makes it hard to argue that the harsh laws have been effective at deterring drug trafficking and access to drugs.

Moreover, much of the time it is the couriers instead of the masterminds who are being caught and sentenced to death for drug trafficking. Couriers are often poor, young, come from dysfunctional families, or have lower levels of educational attainment. According to the Global Commission on Drug Policy in 2011, the majority of arrests are of “low-ranking ‘little fish’ in the drug market” who are “most visible and easy to catch, and do not have the means to pay their way out of trouble.” Singapore’s Minister of Law, K. Shanmugam was revealing when he said that if the courier is exempted from death penalty, drug barons will “think the signal is that young and vulnerable traffickers will be spared and can be used as drug mules.”

This has two implications. First, the death penalty is ineffective in reducing drug trafficking as capturing couriers has “no impact on the scale or profitability of the (drug) market.” Also, by putting to death those from mostly vulnerable groups who are exploited by drug traffickers, this policy is highly inequitable, raising serious human rights issues.

December 11, 2013 at 18:53

like many former colonies, the local drug laws in singapore, indonesia and malaysia are ‘artifacts’ of a bygone era. inherent in this conception is the recognition that these nations, as well as the author of this article, appear somewhat unable to differentiate between ‘drugs’. we are moving toward total legalization of cannabis here in the us, while our franchisees abroad continue to ply the trade of confiscation. for god’s sake, why not just leave it at that and be happy with implementing basic corruption [aka hun sen style] instead of hanging people like the colonialists used to do to indicate their abhorrence of malfeasance. yes, i did just say something nice about hun sen. and they also let people smoke marijuana although they arrest people for hard drugs. it’s common sense, dudes.

Ian MacLeod
December 9, 2013 at 18:14

Fact: There is no direct relationship between crime rates and the death penalty because it is not an effective deterrent. It only takes away what can never be given back, a life.

January 20, 2014 at 05:46

unfortunately there is no other way to deter crime in this evil world than the CERTAIN use of a swift death penalty. Fear is a great motivator and keeps people in line. You will end up having both fear and respect for that respective justice system then. and as far as a lost life due to the death penalty, then dont commit the crime and you’ll keep on living. and to those who say ’2 wrongs dont make a right’, the crime is ONE of the wrongs, the punishment IS NOT the second wrong….. justice towards the guilty is a RIGHT and the death penalty is not ‘revenge’ either. the lawmakers that impose the sentence are never connected personally to a victim. If the victim’s family was able to decide on a sentence of death, maybe you could talk more about that.

November 24, 2013 at 07:11

Its interesting to see the article quote that many Singaporeans are calling to abolish capital punishment. The last I remembered, there was a street survey carried out a few years ago asking Singaporeans for their opinion on the need for capital punishment. The conclusion was an overwhelming majority did not support the removal of capital punishment. Singapore is not the safe country it is today if she was so lenient on serious offences.

Ian MacLeod
December 9, 2013 at 18:16

When it happens to someone you know, it all changes my friend. Do a little research before you ‘run off with the mouth’ and make yourself look stupid to the world in print.

December 21, 2013 at 02:49

Dan is correct. I do recalled at least 2 past survey clearly showing majority ( over 75%) support capital punishments for serious crimes like murders, kidnappings, illegal use of firearms and yes drag related activities.. If there is a price to be paid for security and order, my guess is Singaporeans themselves are in a better position to make that choice, not outsiders.

November 22, 2013 at 18:42

I also have to disagree that it is ineffective in preventing crime. Stats have proven that drug use and drug related crimes as a result pale in comparison to countries in the region, and as a whole. Most of this can be attributed to the harsh penalties associated with drug use, and trafficking. The question here isn’t whether these laws are effective, but whether they are appropriate relative to the level of the crime. If theft was made a hanging offence, I’m sure we would see a dramatic decrease in case of theft but would this be appropriate from both a legal and moral viewpoint? I myself am divided on this issue, seeing both pros and cons to both arguments, but hopefully we are able to conduct a civil and constructive conversation on this.

November 22, 2013 at 09:55

@ Michael, that is not my position. My position is Singapore’s human rights and Singapore’s national security and law enforcement needs are purely domestic priorities. They are both important but their respective priorities differ domestically and what concerns the world. I disagree the laws have been ineffective. Compared to other countries of similar or higher per capita income, Singapore society is least affected by drug use. It is something the Singapore society is proud about. They don’t want to turn it into another New York or London where ICE and heroin menace is serious.

November 21, 2013 at 19:09

@Kanes, the article clearly spells it out for you:

“the death penalty is ineffective in reducing drug trafficking as capturing couriers has “no impact on the scale or profitability of the (drug) market.”

Your position that Human Rights are irrelevant to Singapore is unfortunate, it is your own rights that you carelessly throw away.

November 21, 2013 at 10:04

With a bumper poppy harvest and set to rise after 2014 in Afghanistan it is better to reintroduce harsh penalties. What matters most is Singapore’s national interests not human rights concerns of the world.

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