When Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was first elected in 2014, TIME magazine featured him on one of its October covers under the headline “A New Hope,” calling him “a force for democracy.” Just three months later, in January 2015, TIME ran another article to mark the first 100 days of the presidency in which it sang a rather different tune.
“On Jan. 18, Indonesia’s firing squads executed six convicted smugglers, five of whom were foreigners, sparking condemnation from human-rights activists and foreign leaders. Brazil and the Netherlands, whose citizens were among the dead, recalled their ambassadors in protest, while Nigeria summoned Jakarta’s envoy,” the article explained.
To many watching, and particularly those who had read TIME’s article about “the new face of Indonesian democracy,” the executions of the six drug smugglers, including two Australians, came as a shock. Yet given the way his presidency began, it was perhaps even more unexpected when it was announced in April this year, Jokowi’s penultimate year in office after serving a maximum of two terms, that he had granted clemency to Merri Utami, a convicted drug trafficker who had spent more than 20 years on death row.
Even Amnesty Indonesia called the move “unprecedented.”
According to a recent Amnesty report on the death penalty, Indonesia handed down at least 114 death sentences in 2021, and has more than 500 inmates currently on death row including foreign nationals. Some 82 percent of all recorded death sentences were handed down for drug-related offenses, the report added.
Yet Indonesia’s seemingly softening approach to capital punishment does not stop with Utami’s unprecedented case.
Under Article 100 of the country’s newly unveiled Criminal Code, which will be phased into law over the next three years, the death penalty is now listed as a “last resort” which can be commuted to life imprisonment after 10 years if prisoners express remorse and demonstrate good behavior while on death row.
Elsewhere in the region, this soft erosion of capital punishment seems to be catching on.
In neighboring Malaysia, also in April this year, both the lower and upper houses of parliament passed two bills reforming death penalty sentencing and abolishing the mandatory death penalty for a range of offenses including drug trafficking, murder, treason, and terrorism. The country also abolished the death penalty completely for seven other offenses, including attempted murder and kidnapping – a move which elicited praise from human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, which hailed it as an important step on the road towards full abolition.
Yet while Indonesia and Malaysia appear to be making moves away from the death penalty, Singapore – the region’s apparent greatest bastion of modernity and prosperity – seemingly did not get the memo.
Last week, Tangaraju Suppiah, aged 46, was executed at dawn by hanging.
The Singaporean of Indian descent was sentenced to hang after having been found guilty of “abetting the trafficking” of some two kilograms of marijuana into Singapore – which means that he had apparently been in telephone communications with two people reportedly trying to smuggle the drug into the city-state.
According to Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), Tangaraju “was accorded full due process under the law and had access to legal counsel throughout the process,” although his family and activists have said that he was apparently questioned without a lawyer or an interpreter at various times and the Singaporean judicial system does not guarantee the right to legal counsel immediately following arrest anyway.
For its part, the Singaporean government remains tight-lipped about its executions, but it is thought that 12 people have been put to death in the past year and perhaps around 500 since 1991 in what the CNB has described as “part of Singapore’s comprehensive harm prevention strategy.”
While it keeps summarily executing people, it is not clear what Singapore’s harm prevention strategy entails or how to measure its success, although its outdated rhetoric about the “deterrent effects” of capital punishment has been widely debunked over the years.
Following yet another execution, instead of repeatedly demonstrating how out of touch it is on capital punishment, Singapore would do well to take a leaf out of Malaysia and Indonesia’s judicial books and leave the death penalty in the past.