There are some issues that are deeply ingrained into the DNA of The Online Citizen, such as migrant workers, the Internal Security Act and freedom of expression. But perhaps the issue that has assumed the most significance in TOC’s history, has been the mandatory death penalty.

As former Acting Chief Editor Joshua Chiang explained in an article earlier this year, TOC could very well have shut down in 2010 or early 2011, if not for the campaign to spare Yong Vui Kong the capital sentence hanging over him. The determination to keep up the fight against the mandatory death penalty and to save Vui Kong was instrumental in keeping TOC alive when some suggested that the site close after our gazetting.

TOC’s opposition to the mandatory death penalty, and indeed the death penalty itself, is grounded in both principle and compassion. As human rights NGOs MARUAH and Amnesty International have both pointed out, the mandatory death penalty is deeply problematic from a human rights perspective.

At the same time, we at TOC believe in the importance of redemption and the sanctity of life. Just as those who commit offences are fallible human beings who are capable of making mistakes, so too are those who would seek to take their lives through the judicial system. But a death sentence imposed by mistake is irreversible once the person is wrongly executed.

So all of us at TOC were overjoyed when we first heard yesterday’s news, about the partial abolition of the mandatory death penalty for drug couriers in certain circumstances and for most types of homicide. Our guess is that these types of cases are likely to account for a significant number, if not the majority, of capital charges in Singapore.

The announcement marks a significant step for Singapore’s criminal justice system, and we think it is only right that we express our appreciation to the Government, and in particular Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean and Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs K. Shanmugam, for moving in the right direction.

It is also a good time for the community to acknowledge and cheer on the dogged advocates for death penalty reform who have chipped away at the mandatory death penalty with inspiring perseverance and selflessness. The significance of their achievement cannot be gainsaid: a small band of activists persistently painted as fringe characters by the mainstream press have made inroads in what has long been considered a pillar of establishment orthodoxy.

TOC salutes the work of Seelan Palay, Rachel Zeng, Kirsten Han, Priscilla Chia, Damien Chng, Lynn Lee, Lucy Davis and the late counselor Anthony Yeo amongst those that have kept the mandatory death penalty in the public eye. Foremost amongst these, we applaud Mr M Ravi, the unflagging advocate for abolition who has personally sacrificed more than any to highlight the injustices of the mandatory death penalty.

This is also a good time for the activist community at large to take stock and draw strength from a small but significant success. Cynics who sat jeering on the sidelines convinced the law would never change have been conclusively proved wrong. While the churlish will question the motives of the Government in making these amendments, the fact remains that the amendments to the mandatory death penalty regime will go down in history as a defining event that illustrates the “New Normal”.

A much more nuanced negotiation of interests between State, citizenry and civil society is now at play, and Singaporeans who want to see things change would find that their interests will be best served if they sat up and engaged in this process.

But this has to be just the beginning. It has to be just the start of a longer road ahead, towards at least abolishing the mandatory death penalty in totality. The truth is that the entire concept of a mandatory death penalty is flawed at its core. Even as we celebrate this positive news, we should not lose sight of the immense amount of work that remains to be done.

What’s more, there are some potentially troubling details in the announcement that still have to be worked out. For example, Minister Shanmugam’s speech stated that already-convicted persons on death row who meet the requirements will be given the chance to elect for re-sentencing under the new rules. We hope that the Government to be flexible in assessing this.

For instance, Vui Kong may not qualify for re-sentencing, as he may not be deemed as having provided substantive assistance. However, the point remains that Vui Kong had not refused outright to help the authorities, but had only expressed some concern about his safety. In addition, Vui Kong may very well have responded differently if this path away from a mandatory death penalty had been in place back then. We trust that the Government will adopt an enlightened position and take these factors into account, when assessing the cases in question.

As some lawyers have already pointed out, it is important not to give the convicted persons on death row false hope until the legislation is actually out. Similarly, those who have been working against the mandatory death penalty should appreciate its true significance, but should not over-state it. Singapore has taken one small step in the right direction, now we have to continue working towards more such steps.

 

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