By Leong Sze Wah
At the start of this year, Mongolia’s President Tsakhia Elbegdorg suspended executions with the aim of reviewing death penalty sentences. He went on to declare his intention to abolish the death penalty altogether.
“The Road to a democratic Mongolia ought to be clean and bloodless, “ he told Parliament. "The majority of the world's countries have chosen to abolish the death penalty. We should follow this path.”
His comment couldn’t ring truer. Just three years earlier, a large number of states endorsed a United Nation’s resolution that called for a freeze on capital punishment around the world. While non-binding, supporters of Resolution 62/149 hope that it will eventually lead to an end of state executions, if not all, those tied to drug related crimes and political opposition.
Singapore, alongside countries such as the United States, Iran, Sudan and China, voted against it.
Situated near the heart of Asia’s notorious drug production center, the “Golden Triangle” nations of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, Singapore has always strongly believed that mandatory capital punishment curbs drug trafficking and abuse by the local population.
In a written statement (reproduced on the International Harm Reduction Association's blog) to the U.N Human Rights Council’s 10th Session March 2009, Singapore’s representative explained:
“The death penalty has deterred major drug syndicates from establishing themselves in Singapore, where there are no widely prevalent syndicated drug activities linked to organised crime, in contrast to…. drug syndicates and cartels that exist elsewhere. Based on estimates in the 2008 World Drug Report, published by the United Nations ……Singapore has one of the lowest prevalence of drug abuse."
It went onto say “there is no international consensus for or against the death penalty or corporal punishment applied in accordance with due process of law and judicial safeguards ”, a position firmly backed by Law Minister K. Shanmugam who said:
The philosophical and ideological chasms that separate the proponents and opponents of capital punishment are quite unbridgeable. Both sides marshal powerful arguments. On an issue like this, the Government has to take a stand.
- Straits Times, March 2009
Having lived in Singapore and traveled widely elsewhere, I am in no doubt that it is one of the safest countries in the world.
But there are holes in Singapore’s argument.
Firstly a 2002 U.N report has shown that the use of capital punishment to punish any crime cannot be scientifically proven to be a greater deterrent than life imprisonment.
Secondly, there is very little evidence that correlates organized crime with drug abuse. Take Hong Kong for example. It is home to a number of criminal gangs who allegedly control the drug trade in Asia, and ,who sometimes use the city to smuggle through narcotics. But Hong Kong’s percentage of drug abuse is similar to that of Singapore’s- low. It is one of the safest cities in the world, and it has no death penalty.
Thirdly, when Italy and Chile first pushed for a U.N moratorium on executions in 1994, the proposal failed by 8 votes. In 2007, the contentious resolution passed overwhelmingly by 104 votes to 54. Such a surge in numbers, in my mind, shows a international consensus that the death penalty should be put on hold.
And finally, the mandatory death penalty is no safeguard against mistakes and is based on the presumption that the alleged offender is guilty. This contradicts the due process of law.
In an article on Yawning Bread, Alex Au noted:
The young Nigerian Tochi was executed even when, as one judge in the Court of Appeal noted, there was no direct evidence that he ever knew he had heroin in his bags on arrival at Singapore airport. However, the Court held that he should have known; he had been negligent in not checking the packets' contents. The bottom line is: Negligence is enough for you to lose your life.
- Too proud of our noose, November 2007
So what could be behind Singapore’s reluctance to suspend capital punishment?
During the debate of Resolution 62/149, Singapore’s ambassador to the U.N. Vanu Gopala Menon accused the proposal’s co-sponsors of trying to “impose a particular set of beliefs on everyone else”, and that they had handled the issue not as a debate, but as a lecture.
As Alex Au observed:
As you can see, the ambassador anchored his position on national sovereignty. This reflects Singapore's tendency to see any criticism of the death penalty as an attempt by foreigners to interfere in our domestic affairs, to impose their ideas on us. You would have noted his snide remark that the EU thinks that "only one set of choices should be respected".
This prickly response shows how our government instinctively adopts a siege mentality once 'death penalty' is mentioned.
- Too proud of our noose, November 2007
Very few people like to be lectured at, particularly when you have steered a politically divided country towards economic and social stability within the space of 50 years.
But a moratorium on the death penalty should not be treated as an insult to national sovereignty, or in other words, your ability to run a country. The facts of whether mandatory state executions are beneficial should be fully analyzed and debated.
As Singapore Law Society president Michael Hwang wrote:
Singapore is sadly lacking a principled and transparent penal policy. Our universities barely cover the study of criminology, and even less the more important study of penology. Possibly, this is because Government has not published detailed statistics of crime and punishment so that social scientists can undertake adequate research on the causes of crime and the effects of current penal policies of prisoners (especially recidivists).
- Law Gazette, January 2009
Let Singapore have that debate.