Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Singapore and the Death Penalty

A recent amendment saves one drug mule. But should death for drug crimes be ended altogether?

By Jeraldine Phneah for
Singapore and the Death Penalty

Human rights lawyer M. Ravi stands in front of an anti-drugs poster.

Credit: REUTERS/Nicky Loh

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.

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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.

While the legal reforms have enabled traffickers to escape death if they can prove that they are only a drug courier, practitioners in Singapore including M. Ravi have criticized the law for being unclear and vague. Prominent criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan also told Al Jazeera that it would be difficult to determine possession. “A person can only tell you so much, like who passed him the drugs. But the moment he is arrested and that third party disappears, how will that be satisfactory to anyone?”

International human rights activists have criticized the use of the death penalty in Singapore to be an “ultimate denial of human rights,” in conflict with Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In response, the government has defended its stance on capital punishment by stating that there was “no international consensus on abolition of the death penalty” and even the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that the death sentence “may be imposed only for the most serious crimes.”

In 1984, however, the United Nations General Assembly limited the threshold of “most serious crimes” to those “with lethal or other extremely grave consequences.” In recent years, clear guidance has emerged from international human rights bodies and other parties within the UN system, including the UN Human Rights Committee (2005) and UN Office on Drugs and Crime (2010), that drug crimes do not meet the threshold of “most serious crimes.” Thus, executions solely for drug-related offences are not in accord with current international standards.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy has increasingly favored drug policy reforms such as decriminalization and treating addiction as a public health issue. Yet, Singapore and many ASEAN countries continue to insist on the death penalty for narcotic offences. With evidence mounting that a new approach is needed, will Singapore now consider following other nations that have successfully reduced drug use and related crimes without having to resort to the taking of life?

Jeraldine Phneah is currently reading Communications and Public Policy & Global Affairs at the Nanyang Technological University. She was previously a trainee local correspondent at The Standard in Hong Kong.