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An Uphill Journey: Abolishing Singapore’s Death Penalty

An Uphill Journey: Abolishing Singapore’s Death Penalty

Author: Angelica Wahono & Vittoria de Bortoli

Department: Southeast Asia & Pacific

A disembarkation/embarkation form issued by the immigration authorities of Singapore, bearing the statement “WARNING: DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW” | Photo by Bryan Allison via Wikimedia Commons, 2005.

 

Introduction

On October 7th, 2022, an unnamed 55-year-old man was executed in Singapore, bringing the number of people sentenced to death in the nation since the beginning of the year to 11 (Chen, 2022). After a two-year pause on the death penalty due to Covid-19, some are speculating that the government is trying to “clear a backlog” after the pandemic (Nachemson, 2022). The alarming rate of executions, coupled with the government’s recent decision to break the tradition of scheduling executions only on Fridays, places an estimated 63 prisoners, on the country’s death row,in a state of anxiety (Nachemson, 2022).

While 32 offences are punishable by death in Singapore, the vast majority of death sentences seem to be for drug-related offences, particularly drug trafficking (Soh, 2022). Indeed, all those executed in 2022 had been sentenced to death after being convicted of drug trafficking; all but one was related to heroin trafficking (Chen, 2022). Under Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act, anyone caught trafficking or importing or exporting certain quantities of illegal drugs, receives the mandatory death sentence, and judges have rarely strayed against this ruling.

The city-state had recently made national and international headlines when the Minister of Home Affairs, K. Shanmugam, invited Richard Branson for a live televised debate after the British billionaire criticised the country’s use of capital punishment in his blog post (Hoskins, 2022). Branson, an active opponent of the death penalty, had campaigned against the execution of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a 33-years-old intellectually disabled Malaysian man, who was hanged in April for carrying 42 grams of heroin across the border (Branson, 2021, 2022a, 2022b). The founder of the Virgin Group criticised the government for seeming “bent on executing scores of low-level drug smugglers, mostly members of poor, disadvantaged minorities” (Branson, 2022c, n.p.).

According to Kirsten Han, an anti-death penalty activist, it is “quite widely known” that minorities are “heavily disproportionately overrepresented on death row”, as well as in the prison system in general (Nachemson, 2022, n.p.). Indeed, at least eight out of the 11 people hanged this year have all come from an ethnic minority background or been Malaysian nationals (Nachemson, 2022). The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had raised this concern with the government back in 2021. Subsequently, The government refuted the idea of race having any bearing on the convictions, but it has also refused to provide any data of ethnic minorities on the country’s death row (CERD, 2021).


Legal Assistance

The Singaporean legal system is known to be quite hostile towards the defendants and their legal counsel in death penalty cases. Before his hanging, lawyers for Nagaenthran were accused of “blatant and egregious abuse of the court processes” for filing a last-minute appeal to spare his life (Al Jazeera, 2022, n.p.). The court goes on to say that it was “improper to engage in or encourage last-ditch attempts” to delay or stop execution (Al Jazeera, 2022). Prominent death penalty defence lawyer, M. Ravi, has also shared that he has paid up to 40,000 Singapore dollars in fines and has been ordered to pay a further 20,000 Singapore dollars, after the court accused him of trying to prevent executions after the completion of the normal judicial process. Ravi says that the fines have “instilled fear among lawyers” (Nachemson, 2022, n.p.). Indeed, 24 death row inmates had recently filed a civil claim against the Attorney-General, stating that the high fines against defence lawyers have made them afraid of taking up legal challenges, which in turn has affected the inmates’ rights under the constitution. The claim was soon thrown out, with Justice See Kee Oon of the High Court calling the inmates’ claim “plainly unsustainable and unmeritorious” (Tham, 2022, n.p.).

The government has also infringed upon the defendants’ rights to a free trial by refusing to provide the necessary accommodations during the legal processes. For instance, the government did not provide Nagaenthran, who had an IQ of 69, with “procedural accommodations for his disability during his interrogation” (Al Jazeera, 2022, n.p.). This pattern was also found during the hearing of Nazeri Bin Lajim, who did not fully understand when the judge rejected his attempt to stay the execution as he needed a language interpreter (Nachemson, 2022, n.p.).


“The Greater Good”: Communitarian Ideas in Government Policy and Public Perception

Unfortunately, using capital punishment for drug-related offences is still a popular policy in Singapore. The government believes that the use of the death penalty will deter “what [Singaporeans] consider to be the most serious crimes […] like drug trafficking and murder” (Statement by the Permanent Mission of Singapore during the 33rd Session of the UNHRC, 2016, n.p.). According to Ariel Yap and Shih Joo Tan (2020, p. 138), this belief stems from the Singaporean society’s communitarian ideals that encourage people to place “nation before community and society above self’’, which in turn legitimises the sacrifice of the individual rights of offenders for the effective management of a perceived national threat such as drugs. Indeed, this belief seems deep-rooted in most Singaporeans’ psyche, as a recent study commissioned by the government reveals that almost 80% believe that the death penalty serves as a deterrent for serious crimes, especially drug trafficking (Soon & Goh, 2022).

The government is adamant that the death penalty has saved thousands of lives by deterring drug abuse in the country (Ministry of Home Affairs Singapore, 2022; Yadav, 2022). However, some have pointed out that countries like Korea, which has had a moratorium on death penalties since 1997, have also boasted lower drug-related use than countries with a punitive approach to drugs (Feng et al., 2016). Multiple UN reports and studies have also shown that there is no persuasive evidence of the death penalty being a greater deterrent than other methods of punishment in eradicating drug trafficking (UN Secretary-General, 2016, 2018). In fact, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) Regional Office for Southeast Asia reveals that even though most retentionist countries for the death penalty reside in the region, the production and trafficking of methamphetamine in the area has been steadily increasing and diversifying (UNODC, 2022).


Against International Norm: Pressures from Abroad

The country’s rapid executions have been garnering worldwide criticism. Aside from the execution of Nagaenthran, the UN has also condemned the country’s recent executions of Abdul Kahar bin Othman and Nazeri Bin Lajim, all in relation to drug-related offences. In its press release, the experts of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, urged the government to cease all plans to execute individuals on death row for drug-related charges, arguing that this use of capital punishment “ran contrary to international law” (UN OHCHR, 2022a, 2022b, n.p.). Indeed, while the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) allows the use of death penalty for the “most serious crimes,” the Human Rights Committee has clarified that drug offences can never serve as a basis for its imposition (Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 36, 2018, para. 35).

Unfortunately, Singapore’s stance on the death penalty is not an anomaly in Southeast Asia, where countries often subscribe to hardline approaches against drugs (Harm Reduction International, 2022). The former president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, notoriously waged a brutal “war on drugs” which contributed to the re-introduction of the death penalty for drug offences in the country, despite it being a state party to the Second Optional Protocol of the ICCPR which aims to abolish the practice of death penalty (Amnesty Philippines, 2021, n.p.).

Moreover, the global consensus towards its abolishment has also grown significantly in the past decade. The acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nada Al-Nashif, relayed that as of 2022, 170 states have either abolished or introduced a moratorium on the death penalty – an improvement from 2007 when only 141 countries had abolished it (OHCHR, 2022). The UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, has also called out states who continue to use capital punishment as “acting contrary to an emerging customary norm” which considers the death penalty as “a violation per se of the prohibition of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” (UN OHCHR, 2015, n.p.). The Southeast Asian region is not immune to this influence. A growing movement to a less-punitive approach has been seen in countries like Thailand, which recently legalised kratom (a plant, native to Southeast Asia that has opioid properties and some stimulant-like effects) and cannabis, releasing thousands who were jailed for related offences. Also, the state of Malaysiahadannounced its intention to abolish the mandatory death penalty, earlier in June (The Global State of Harm Reduction 2022, 2022).


Emerging Change: Movement within Civil Society

Nagaenthran’s case has helped raise awareness of the death penalty issue in mainstream Singapore. A letter sent to Nagaenthran’s family in Malaysia by the Singapore Prison Service had made rounds around high-profile social media accounts, inciting outrage from the public for the apparent coldness of the notice of execution. However, anti-death penalty activist Kirsten Han pointed out that such notices are actually the standard ones that are usually delivered to families (Hancock, 2021). This has also brought to light another practice of the Singapore Prison Service, where prisoners can have their photographs taken in clothes sent in by their families. Nazira Lajim Hertslet, sister of Nazeri Bin Lajim, noted that while it was a nice gesture, the practice only shows how disconnected the prison and justice system are from the realities faced by the families (Chen, 2022).

This spotlight on the death penalty has contributed to the growing movement of concerned civil society members advocating for a less punitive approach to the country’s drug trafficking problem. Recently, a group of activists and human rights defenders, from the Transformative Justice Collective, started the #StopTheKilling campaign, which calls on the public to pressurise the authorities to impose a ban on the death penalty. The campaign includes a petition stating that the death penalty is not the right solution to prevent crimes. Instead, the activists urge the government to adopt a more holistic approach to deter participation in the drug trade, that focuses more on providing facilities such as affordable and high-quality healthcare and housing, decent jobs with living wages, strong labour protections, and free, accessible, and voluntary community-based rehabilitation programmes that do not treat their participants as criminals (Palatino, 2022).


Conclusion

While there is a promise of change, the path to entirely abolish the death penalty in Singapore is an uphill one. The government does not seem to back down from its hard stance on capital punishment, instead choosing to double down on it on multiple occasions. In light of the same, we can only hope that the growing domestic movement against these executions incites a larger public discussion that will question whether the death penalty truly provides the safety that their communitarian ideals had promised.


Bibliography

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