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Nazri Aziz’s remarks – a significant step?

Andrew Loh

“It is time for Malaysia to abolish the death penalty,” Malaysian Law Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz said on Monday.  His remark is a significant recognition on the part of his government in the debate over capital punishment in Malaysia. He is after all also a senior minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

And as far as I know, he is the most senior Malaysian minister to have called for the abolition of the death penalty thus far.

"If it is wrong to take someone's life, then the government should not do it either. It is ironic and not correct," Nazri was reported to have said. "No criminal justice system is perfect. You take a man's life and years later, you find out that another person did the crime. What can you do?" he added.

"For me, a life is a life. No one has the right to take someone else's life, even if that person has taken another life," the New Straits Times quoted the minister as having said.

Malaysia and Singapore are the only two countries in Southeast Asia which impose the mandatory death penalty for certain crimes. The two countries rarely release information about executions but Malaysian activists say 358 hangings were carried out between 1981 and 2005 in Malaysia. Singapore, on the other hand, has been ranked top in the number of executions worldwide by Amnesty International.

Singapore ministers have repeatedly insisted that the death penalty deters crimes such as drug trafficking and persists in hanging even those as young as 18 and 19.

This was most explicitly spelt out in no uncertain terms by the Singapore Law Minister, K Shanmugam, in May 2010:

“Yong Vui Kong is young. But if we say ‘we let you go’, what is the signal we are sending?” Shanmugam said, referring to the 22-year old Malaysian who is currently on Singapore’s death row. “We are sending a signal to all the drug barons out there: just make sure you choose a victim who is young, or a mother of a young child, and use them as the people to carry the drugs into Singapore.”

Curiously, the minister seems to believe that drug barons do consider the social status of the drug mules before employing them to traffick drugs.

The Malaysian Law minister, however, holds a different opinion – he does not feel that the death penalty is a deterrent.

The Singapore government has not provided any statistical proof or studies to back up its claims that the mandatory death penalty deters crimes. It thus seems that the application of the mandatory death penalty is based on nothing more than a “feeling” that it reduces crime, particularly for drug trafficking.

The Malaysian Law Minister’s comments come in the wake of growing public awareness and support for Yong who was arrested and sentenced to death for trafficking in 47.27g of heroin in 2007. Yong was 18 and a half years old when he was caught in Singapore.

Activists in both Malaysia and Singapore are campaigning to have his death sentence commuted, given his young age and his impoverished family background. A recent petition signing campaign in Malaysia and Singapore saw more than 100,000 people adding their support to the call to save him from the gallows. (Click here.)

Yong is expected to submit his clemency appeal to the Singapore president, who has never granted a single clemency in his 11 years as president, in the coming weeks.

With Nazri Aziz apparently giving support to the call for abolition, perhaps it is also time for Singapore to take a long hard look at its own laws regarding the death penalty, especially the mandatory death penalty. Several quarters have raised concerns about the issue, including opposition politicians, academics, activists, bloggers and the Law Society of Singapore.

Among countries which are reviewing their laws are China and Japan. The Japanese Justice Minister last week opened its execution chambers to journalists and she has encouraged a public debate on the issue.

Singapore’s application of the death penalty, however, is shrouded in secrecy and the media has shied away from highlighting the issue to bring about a similar public debate.

In the meantime, the island will continue to hang the young and the poor, in its belief that this deters the drug barons.

If drug lords cared about the young and the poor, would they even use them as drug couriers in the first place?

Perhaps it is time for the Singapore public to be given the opportunity to have a meaningful debate on questions such as these.

It is time to stop burying our heads in the sand.