Kirsten Han on the Fight to Abolish the Death Penalty in Singapore

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Kirsten Han on the Fight to Abolish the Death Penalty in Singapore

“The more I learn about the death penalty… the more I am convinced that it’s a brutal injustice that has no place in any society.”

Kirsten Han on the Fight to Abolish the Death Penalty in Singapore

Activists attend a candlelight vigil against the impending execution of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, sentenced to death for trafficking heroin into Singapore, outside the Singaporean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Last year, after a two-year COVID-19 hiatus, Singapore’s authorities quietly restarted the execution of prisoners on death row. This prompted renewed scrutiny of the city-state’s mandatory use of the death penalty, even in relatively minor drug cases, with the United Nations expressing its concern over a pending “surge in execution notices.” The resumption of executions was also stridently opposed by a network of activists inside Singapore, who have been working for years to end the country’s use of capital punishment.

Among the most active Singaporean abolitionists is Kirsten Han, a journalist who currently edits The Mekong Review, a quarterly literary magazine covering Asian culture and politics. Han has been active in the anti-death penalty movement since 2010, and is a member of the Transformative Justice Collective, a collective that seeks the reform of Singapore’s criminal justice system. She also frequently opines on abolition fight, and other issues involving Singaporean politics and society, via her weekly newsletter We, The Citizens.

Han spoke with The Diplomat about the current state of the abolition fight in Singapore and regionally, the class factors that determine who falls victim to the country’s severe anti-drug laws, and what the Singaporean government’s response says about its views of political dissent.

Let’s start by talking about how you got involved in the campaign for abolition in Singapore. Was this a logical outgrowth of your journalism or did it develop in parallel, as it were?

I had a toe dipped in journalism then, but I was actually an anti-death penalty activist first. In 2010, I began volunteering with The Online Citizen, an alternative news website (that has since been shut down in Singapore and now operates in exile from Taiwan). Back then, TOC was running a campaign advocating for the abolition of the mandatory death penalty, so that was my introduction to the capital punishment issue. At around the same time, I got a job as a production assistant with Lianain Films, and they were making a documentary about Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian death row prisoner in Singapore. So I went from not knowing very much about the death penalty to being quite immersed in it for a period of time.

Before that, I’d been happy to trust the government to know what the best policy to implement would be. I had a lot of faith that Singapore had a near-perfect judicial system and that they would never send someone to death row without being 150 percent sure that they were guilty and deserving. I was very shocked to discover that the mandatory aspect of the death penalty deprived judges of the ability to exercise discretion in sentencing.

Beyond that, the Misuse of Drugs Act also contains presumption clauses that reverse the burden of proof – if you’re caught with a certain amount of drugs (like 15 grams or more of heroin) then you’re presumed to be trafficking and presumed to know the nature of the drug, unless you can prove otherwise.

I realized that the people on death row aren’t the big drug lords – they’re mostly ethnic minority, working-class men who have already experienced marginalization and disadvantages in life. The more I learn about the death penalty – and it’s been 12 years of involvement in the abolitionist movement now – the more I am convinced that it’s a brutal injustice that has no place in any society.

The anti-death penalty campaign appears to have grown in prominence over the past year. In particular, the tragic case of Malaysian national Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, who was executed on drug charges in April, generated considerable international media headlines, as well as the attention of noted anti-death penalty activist Richard Branson. How has the PAP government responded to the campaign’s recent increased visibility? What do you think this says about its attitude toward dissent and criticism in a broader sense?

The state had been very defensive with their public statements during the campaign to save Nagaen, insisting that he “knew what he was doing” and that Singapore needs the death penalty. But I don’t really remember the law and home affairs minister, K. Shanmugam, coming out to make many public statements at the time when there was the most international coverage and public outcry.

Since then, though, the government has doubled down on its pro-death penalty rhetoric, and the minister has taken swipes at anti-death penalty activists on social media – in one post, he called us “narco liberals.” Even as the government tries to pick fights with billionaires like Branson, they dismiss the voices and concerns of Singaporeans who have taken part in the process, signed petitions, written to their Members of Parliament, delivered clemency appeals to the president’s office, and participated in a variety of actions and events calling for abolition of the death penalty.

The reaction of the state to anti-death penalty activists highlights that they don’t see critics or activists as legitimate stakeholders and voices in the debate. When it comes to this issue, there is very little good faith engagement or attempt to understand why we are abolitionists. The government sells this narrative that we’re radical bleeding hearts who romanticize death row prisoners at the expense of people whose lives have suffered due to drug use and addiction.

But anyone who pays attention to what we’re saying will know that we’re abolitionists because such punitive “war on drugs” policies don’t help people who are struggling with chronic and harmful drug use, and that our campaigning for abolition is part of a wider push for change that would create a more supportive and healing environment for people to receive help if they need and want it.

In defending its use of the death penalty, PAP officials makes the utilitarian claim that it “works” – that it discourages the use and trafficking of drugs, and helps to keep the people of Singapore safe from the crime associated with it. (Indeed, other Southeast Asian nations who maintain the death penalty argue something similar.) What evidence does the government offer to support this claim?

Bluntly put, there is no real evidence for this claim. One of the government surveys that the officials point to merely found that people think the death penalty is an effective deterrence. That’s not the same as proving that it is an effective deterrence.

Let’s talk about the class dimension of Singapore’s anti-drug policies. What sorts of people tend to wind up on death row, and what structural factors determine who does and doesn’t get prosecuted?

In my experience over these past 12 years, most of the people on death row are ethnic minorities, and mostly from working-class backgrounds. Some of them have their own struggles with substance use, while others ended up getting involved with the drug trade because they were gullible and manipulated into doing things for their “friends” or “brothers,” because they were tricked, because they were threatened, or because they were desperate and had very limited options.

I’ve never been able to enter prison to speak to the prisoners directly, but I’ve spoken to many family members of death row prisoners over the years, and you never have to probe very deeply to realize that everyone has had experiences with trauma or deprivation or marginalization.

The state vehemently denies any direct discrimination in the way cases are handled, but even if we take their word for it, we shouldn’t forget that indirect discrimination and structural factors come into play. There are certain areas in Singapore that have a stronger police presence and heavier surveillance than others. There are people who can afford to quietly pack up and travel abroad to go to expensive private rehabilitation facilities, and people who can’t even see a doctor in Singapore for help without being reported to the Central Narcotics Bureau.

Even when people are caught for drug possession or consumption and get sent to prison or the state-run Drug Rehabilitation Centre (which is really prison by another name), there are people who might have more resources to pick themselves up again upon release and find steady jobs, and people whose families aren’t able to provide that sort of support or social capital, and so they just have to struggle with stigma and discrimination that makes their lives even harder – which is why they might turn back to drugs or even enter the drug trade.

Do we have any sense about the public attitudes toward the death penalty in Singapore and toward abolition? Do you think the campaign’s goals enjoy public support? If not, how does this affect the anti-death penalty cause?

I think the majority of Singaporeans would still say they are in favor of the death penalty. But in my experience, this support is not as firm as the government claims. The government points to its own surveys to say that most Singaporeans support its policies, but a survey done by NUS Law found that it would be “misleading to say, without qualifications, that there is public support for the death penalty in Singapore.” They also found that there is weak support for the mandatory death penalty in Singapore – which is actually the most common use case of the death penalty here.

Public knowledge of how the death penalty actually works in Singapore is very poor. The local mainstream media mostly echo the government’s stance on the death penalty and drug policy. So we have to do a lot of work to educate and inform the public about the realities of the capital punishment regime and the problems with super harsh and punitive drug policies. We have to make people realize that it’s not a way to achieve justice, repair harms, and keep people safe.

The last couple of years have brought mixed news on the capital punishment front. On the progressive side of the ledger was Malaysia’s decision last year to abolish the mandatory use of the death penalty, but we’ve also had the rash of executions in Singapore and the ghastly revival of capital punishment by Myanmar’s military government. How do you see the state of the abolition struggle both in Singapore and in Asia more broadly?

Unfortunately Singapore’s isn’t the only government that clings to the capital punishment. The developments in Malaysia are hopeful – I look forward to them officially abolishing the mandatory death penalty, and taking concrete steps towards full abolition.

Every time there’s progress in Asia or Southeast Asia, it’s good news for everyone. Because anti-death penalty activists are so often accused of “importing Western values” to our Asian societies, every step forward taken by an Asian country demonstrates that this isn’t just some “Western” thing. And of course, every person spared the execution chamber, regardless of where they are — whether it’s Singapore, or Malaysia, or Taiwan, or Japan, or the U.S. — is good news.