~by: Elliot Aruldoss~
~pictures: Shawn Danker~
On the 11th of September 2011, ‘We Believe In Second Chances’ (Second Chances), a group of youth activists, held a public forum called ‘Rethinking the Death Penalty’ with the intention of encouraging public debate and an open sharing of views on the Death Penalty(DP) and the Mandatory Death Penalty (MDP).
The materials provided by Second Chances at the event were highly informative on the issues surrounding the DP and the MDP, especially MDP sentences that applied in the circumstances following the Misuse of Drugs Act:
- If you are caught in possession of a stipulated drug, you will be presumed to know the nature of that drug unless it is proven otherwise.
- If you are caught in possession of a drug beyond the stipulated amount, you shall be presumed to have that drug for the purpose of trafficking unless proven otherwise.
- If found guilty, the Death Sentence shall be imposed.
Lawyers, Mr M. Ravi and Mr R Thirumurugan kick-started the Forum. They drew on their experience in dealing with and representing clients convicted of the DP, to help shed light on the penal laws in Singapore and endeavored to put the issue of the DP and the MDP into perspective to a participating audience of over a hundred.
After the two presented their knowledge on the DP and the MDP, a question and answer session followed where participants in the forum were free to ask the two lawyers questions related to the topic.
Mr M. Ravi, a Human Rights lawyer who is currently still representing Yong Vui Kong and handling a number of cases still ongoing in court, took the floor in the first segment of the forum. Using analytical data and comparisons with other countries, he explained that there were no hard or solid forms of evidence available to prove the effectiveness of both the DP and the MDP as deterrent laws.
“It is so ironical and paradoxical, that we’re supposed to have one of the lowest crime rates in the world and yet we have a huge prison population.” said Mr Ravi pointing out that Singapore’s rate of drug-related cases seemed to be on the rise. He also said that his analysis showed that “more than half of the prison inmates are facing drug related problems,” debunking the claim that the MDP is an effective deterrent for drug-related offences.
He highlighted that in other countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Tokyo, their penal policies in relation to the control of drugs have evolved and were now more enlightened. He suggested that Singapore needs to do the same, reviewing their own policies.
“The MDP, supposed to act as a deterrent, does not deter crime. This is because it is disproportionately applied against uneducated members of minority groups who are essentially serving as drug mules,” he commented.
He also expressed his disappointment that Singapore’s legal society seems stubbornly resolved to dwell in the old reading of the law, as supposed to the new reading of it.
Mr Ravi explained that in the courts of other countries, the MDP has been struck out as unconstitutional. Singapore however, does not seem to acknowledge this current reading of the law, selectively choosing instead to follow the older reading.
“Singapore is in a very strange situation. We have moved away from a Privy Council and yet we are following a Privy Council old 1981 decision that says the MDP sentence is not unconstitutional (that it is fine to be imposed). However, now, the very Privy Council in other countries has stated that that decision was flawed in reasoning. But Singapore, who supposedly cut its apron strings from Privy Council is still clutching onto its old decision despite the fact that the current Privy Council says it is wrong,” he added saying this was where it became problematic in terms of establishing a legal reasoning in Singapore courts.
The other lawyer, Mr Thiru, who specializes in the area of criminal litigation, then took the stage. He suggested clear and objective approaches on best dealing with DP and MDP cases. He also proposed that we look into the investigative process of each case and use that as a starting point for mitigation and defense.
“It appears that the better approach would be to challenge (the drug trafficker’s) knowledge on the specific nature of the drug that was carried.” He also quoted a case where the accused, a client of his, was acquitted, simply because it was clear that she had no clue as to what the nature of the drugs she had carried were. “Her credibility was the key for us in securing her acquittal. Sometimes it boils down to the credibility of the accused.”
Another point Mr Thiru raised was that there was no malicious intent in the legal process and that the court was simply keeping heartbeat to its own legal system, following the law. “The Law is the law. Where do we come in? In changing the law”, he clarified. He further explained that the steps leading to changing the Law, would be through creating awareness and education. “People do not understand the system, the process and how the trial process itself works”, Mr Thiru expressed.
He therefore, advocated avenues of developing and expanding areas within the law so as to provide for a more thorough examination of extenuating circumstances behind the case of the drug offender. Moreover, he recognized and applauded the efforts of ‘Second Chances’ in organizing such an event, in hopes of creating public awareness. Showing his appreciation, he said that he was impressed and inspired by the fact that it was such a young group that had come together to champion such a noble cause. “It’s a wonderful thing that they are doing, especially considering that they are all very young. I think it’s really heartening. Good on you guys.”
A robust question and answer session concluded the forum.
One person asked if there was a suitable alternative, other than the death penalty, that can be a commensurate punishment for the crime of murder, where there is real intention behind it? Another participant asked, how do we determine the credibility of the accused if the investigative process is too focused upon obtaining a confession? That person highlighted that in some cases, a victim’s lawyer may only get involved at a much later stage, after damage is already done in breaking a victim down, forcing a confession. Furthermore, any changes in an accused person’s statement in court would discredit him or her entirely from being a credible source.
In answering that question, both lawyers stressed the importance of transparency in the investigation process through video footage and recording.
“It could be a reflex-action,” said one woman from the audience, sharing why she felt the general population would support DP and MDP. “Many people in Singapore would support law and order, and this would comprise of the DP and MDP.”
Reminding the audience the purpose of the forum, Mr Ravi expressed that he wanted to hear other views, especially those who were in favor of the DP or MDP. “We would like to hear different views. We also want to hear why you support the DP,” he said. “Otherwise we would be preaching to the choir”, he exclaimed.
While agreeing to disagree on other views, both Mr Ravi and Mr Thiru did not support the DP, let alone the MDP. They both shared a similar sentiment as to the importance of upholding the sanctity of life, acknowledging the irreversibility of life as well. “Every part of me says it is wrong to kill some, whether it is moral, ethical or religious. I cannot sit with myself when the DP is involved”, Mr Thiru confessed.
Priscilla Chia, co-founder of ‘Second Chances’ in speaking to TOC at the end of the forum said that she was very encouraged by the number of people who turned up and supported the event. “We’re inviting and targeting youth groups because so many youths don’t even know what the mandatory death penalty or death penalty issues are.”
“Youth are the ones to make the change”, she asserted.