Not in my name – No to the Mandatory Death Penalty

Last updated on April 8th, 2010 at 11:48 am

Kirsten Han

This is The Online Citizen’s campaign video against the mandatory death penalty with regards to drug trafficking and the Misuse of Drugs Act. It is a video that I was privileged enough to work on, and I am glad to have the opportunity to be involved in this campaign.

However, there has been a lot of discussion and questioning surrounding the issue. It’s great because debate and awareness is exactly what we need, but there has also been a lot of confusion and I often find myself trapped in conversations where I seem to be essentially repeating myself over and over again as to why I am against the mandatory death penalty and why I am involved in this campaign. Therefore, I thought that it would be a good idea to state once and for all in a single entry why I am personally against the mandatory death penalty.

Logical reasons
Logically, the mandatory death penalty makes no sense to me. I am often told that it is a matter of policy for Singapore as it act as a deterrence to potential drug traffickers. However, there have been no studies that can conclusively prove that the mandatory death penalty is effective as a deterrent, making this argument completely moot. One cannot (and should not) proceed with an action just because it might have a certain effect, especially when this action is as serious and irreversible as an execution.

Furthermore, many of those who are arrested and charged with drug trafficking are more often than not simply drug mules who have limited or no information about the drug rings at all. These mules are often uneducated and poor individuals who have fallen on hard times, and are a dime a dozen to the drug lords. Executing one makes absolutely no difference on the drug flow in Singapore; drug lords would simply find a replacement in yet another under-educated, under-privileged person. If we really want to have a deterrent effect, something needs to be done to ensure that we catch the kingpins instead of merely the messengers.

It also goes against logic for judges – who have been through years and years of legal practice – to not be allowed to use their power and discretion, when prosecutors are allowed discretion to decide how they want to charge the offenders, and the President is allowed discretion in granting clemency. Why does it seem like almost everyone has the power to decide on how to proceed,except the judges? How does that make any sense at all?

The presumptions made according to the Misuse of Drugs Act shifts the burden of proof onto the offender instead of the prosecution, causing a “guilty before proven innocent” scenario which is contradictory to every other legal practice. Under such a burden where so many assumptions are made even before one has a chance to speak out, it is almost impossible for anyone to prove their innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. And since a guilty charge leads straight to the death sentence, it is all too easy to execute someone who might have been wrongfully accused. Once the appeals and clemency avenues have all been exhausted, there is no way back.

Example: cases such as Rozman bin Jusoh and Iwuchukwu Amara Tochihighlight the problems in the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking.

Emotional reasons
The idea of executing someone doesn’t sit very well with me in the first place, but the idea of automatically executing someone is anathema. As M Ravi (Yong Vui Kong’s defence lawyer) said at the hearing on 15 March 2010: “kill if you must, but not in an automated, robotic, spasmodic way”. To sentence someone to death without careful consideration of mitigating circumstances such as the offender’s education, situation in life, age and number of run-ins with the law is the height of cold-hearted callous behaviour, and certainly not something that a “first-world” country should be doing. We are supposed to be educated, advanced and enlightened, but how can we make those claims when we hang people without blinking an eye?

I am also of the belief that most (if not all) people are deserving of a second chance. Everyone should be given a chance to turn their lives around and atone for their mistakes, but the mandatory death penalty does not allow anyone such a chance. A person who has learnt from his mistakes and changed for the better is capable of doing a lot of good, but with the mandatory death penalty we will never know.

With drug trafficking, which has been internationally declared to be a non-heinous crime, I firmly believe that second chances should be given. With rehabilitation and education, drug offenders can be returned to the right path and become useful members of society. To just put them to death without adequate consideration is to throw away all the potential of a person’s life.

But what about the drug addicts who are victims of drug trafficking?
There have been some who have accused me of ignoring or neglecting the plight of the drug addicts in my stance against the mandatory death penalty. I would like to take this opportunity now to politely disagree.

It takes two to tango. Just as we like to say that the drug mules should have known about what they were carrying and should have known about the harm drugs can do, we can also say that the drug addicts should have known that drug consumption is a grave mistake and will damage not only their lives but their families. We cannot pile all the blame on one end while completely absolving the other. It is too simplistic to label the mules as the malicious bad guys and the addicts as the hapless victims. There is fault on both sides, but the time for pointing the finger and assigning blame has passed. At this point what we need to do is to figure out how we can improve and prevent further cases.

I believe that the answer lies not in execution but in education and rehabilitation. We need to address the problems of both the mules and the addicts, and that requires perseverance and awareness. The mandatory death penalty is an overly hasty solution that at the end of the day accomplishesnothing but the heartache of yet another family – that of the drug mule’s.

The “slippery slope” argument
To be perfectly honest, I don’t get the whole hullabaloo about the “slippery slope”, except that it seems to be an argument for everything in Singapore. “Oh, we cannot subsidise HIV medication because then we will have to subsidise medication for everything else… it’s a slippery slope!” “Oh, we cannot make an exception for you in rental housing because then everyone will want us to make exceptions… it’s a slippery slope!” “Oh, I cannot give you an extra egg in your mee siam because later everyone also want extra egg… slippery slope!” (All right, the last one might be an exaggeration, but you get the idea…)

I suppose in this case the “slippery slope” argument made by Attorney-General Walter Woon at the 15 March hearing was that if the court ruled that the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking was unconstitutional it would set a precedence for courts to go up against Parliament in terms of legislation. I say this: what is wrong with that? If the law is seen to be unjust or problematic, why shouldn’t the courts, who have the power to intepret the law, raise the issue? If the law does not serve justice, we should not hide our heads in the sand and pretend to see nothing, just because we are afraid to speak out in case we get into trouble with Parliament.

The other “slippery slope” argument is that the removal of the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking might then lead to the removal of capital punishment all together, and then all hell will break loose in Singapore. Well, firstly, as I have said before, there is no proof that the mandatory death penalty is actually effective as a deterrent, so the belief that “all hell will break loose” is actually unsubstantiated and cannot really be seen as more than a neurotic belief planted in us by the mainstream media over the years. Secondly, is it really so terrible if the death penalty was abolished? Must we kill people to feel safe in our own skin? Must we play God and dictate whether a person lives or dies? I personally might not campaign against a total abolishment of the death penalty (because there are some people I cannot find the heart to forgive), but if the death penalty were to be removed completely I would also see it as a step forward in terms of human rights.

I can only conclude that the “slippery slope” argument is unclear and a mere excuse to keep the status quo.

The case of Yong Vui Kong
The campaign is now going at full force because of the case of Yong Vui Kong, who was arrested in 2007 and sentenced to death in the same year. Fortunately he has managed to get two stays of execution and the verdict is still out with regards to the 15 March hearing (thus the urgent need to get the message out). I hope and pray for moral courage on the part of the judges to be able to do the right thing and recognise the problems of the mandatory death penalty and the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Vui Kong’s case was the one that first motivated me to find out more about this mandatory death penalty issue, and to get involved in this campaign. I believe that he is a perfect candidate for the Yellow Ribbon Project; he can be educated and allowed to turn his life completely around. Since his arrest he has learned to read and write in Mandarin, and is now doing his best to learn English. He has embraced Buddhism in an effort to find peace within his life, and spends a lot of time meditating. His family have noticed the great change, and constantly speak about how he has changed for the better. From what I’ve heard the wardens in Changi Prison dote on him and see him as a good boy. If given a chance I strongly believe that he can go on to do a lot of good in this world, promoting education and getting others aware so that they don’t make the same mistakes as he did. But unless the judges find the strength in their hearts to give him a chance, we will never find out.

I am very strongly against the mandatory death penalty because I do not want Yong Vui Kong – a boy not much older than I am – to be put to death in the name of my country, my fellow citizens and myself. How about you?

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Kirsten also blogs at Kixes.

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