If everyone who enters Singapore knows the penalty for drug trafficking is death, it must be asked, why do they do it? If the death penalty is the ultimate deterrent, then, after decades setting an example to would be traffickers why do we continue to execute more each year?
There are many in Singapore—perhaps even the majority—who adopt the uncompromising view that those who are caught trafficking in drugs deserve what they get since they knew the risks.
This is harsh. And, it fills me with great sadness. Punishment isn’t the same as justice. With the death sentence, entire families are victimised.
Certainly, it is easier to sleep at night feeling that we are putting to death monsters, all of whom should face up to the consequences of their actions. In fact, the entire system is carefully engineered to allow people to sleep easy at night without feeling responsible for state-sanctioned execution.
The jury system was abolished in 1969 in part because juries were less likely to award the death sentence. Singaporeans and their consciences have slept better at night since then.
The mandatory death sentencing for drug traffickers means judges sleep well with the knowledge that their hands are tied—they had no discretion in sentencing and could only give the death penalty upon conviction.
The President sleeps easy because he has no decision to make when it comes to clemency appeals. It is the Attorney-General’s Office and Cabinet which advise him on the matter. Since the AGO successfully convicted the trafficker, it is a vested party and is hardly apt to recommend clemency. The Cabinet conveniently defers to the AGO since it is the entity most knowledgeable about the criminal and his offences. At the end of the charade, no one is responsible.
The public too sleeps easy. Mitigating factors are not heard in court trials of drug traffickers as they are considered irrelevant to the offence and the penalty, which is mandatory. It is easy then to demonise the criminal when we only read about his offence and are not allowed to hear anything else about the person or motives.
Perhaps there are some who do not want to know more because they can’t handle the truth. Certainly, it makes life easier to know only enough to confirm one’s own view of what should be.
The truth is, in Singapore, one can kill 5 people in a carnage and the death sentence is not guaranteed to the killer. Mitigating factors can be considered, mental health assessments can be conducted, murder charges can be reduced to manslaughter. What seems black-and-white is given the opportunity to become grey during trials. There are several murderers the judiciary and public have come to accept are not monsters in spite of their serious indiscretions.
Those convicted of being drug traffickers are not given the same access to justice in court. In this context, execution is a grossly disproportionate punishment. It is a travesty of justice.
It will be obvious to all that the death sentence is irreversible. It is a most unforgiving punishment that gives no opportunity for rehabilitation and reintegration into society. By all appearances, the eight convicts who were executed in Indonesia all died better human beings than the day they were apprehended. It counted for little though.
Society must accept that the judicial system is not infallible nor incorruptible, even in Singapore. Investigating officers’ careers can depend on convictions as can those of zealous prosecutors. The veracity of witness statements too can be suspect particularly when testifying against others in return for immunity or reduced charges.
In cases where multiple defendants are charged with a capital offence, prosecutors can be persuaded, when evidence is scarce, to reduce charges against some of the defendants to secure convictions against others. This does not make one defendant less guilty than the other—it just makes the prosecutor’s case easier.
In Singapore, the law heavily favours the prosecution. Alleged offenders do not have access to a lawyer until the investigations are complete apparently because all lawyers help their clients lie. There appears to have been instances where informants have not had to testify in court and cannot be cross-examined even when the defendant’s life is at stake.
In the trial of Malaysian, Vignes Mourthi, in 2003, the prosecution withheld knowledge that its key witness was himself being investigated by the Criminal Investigation Department for bribery as well as rape and sodomy. Mourthi, who maintained till the end that he was innocent, was found guilty and executed at the age of 23. The witness, Sgt Rajkumar, the investigating officer who arrested Mourthi, was later found guilty of bribery and given a jail term of 15 months. The case remains a smear on the judiciary.
Whether or not allegations Indonesian judges in the trial of the Bali Nine were willing to accept bribes or that governmental influence affected the convictions is true, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the judicial process can be susceptible to corrupt influences. Even when all parties act with integrity in the investigation and trial, mistakes can be made. The system, after all, is made up of people.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the legal system is corrupt, only that it is not perfect. As such, the death penalty cannot be considered lightly.
Anecdotal evidence suggests elites favour harsh laws and are less sympathetic to criminals. Generally, this occurs because they are unable to comprehend why people commit crimes which they, their family, and those in their social circles do not. A lesser reason is they may feel that these laws do not apply to themselves. Where have we heard that there is one law for the elite and another for the peasants? If this true, we need to be careful that in a society with possibly the highest income inequality in the world, the rich do not lose the ability to sympathise and empathise with the problems of the poor.
Returning to my original question, why do they do it?
Could it be that people sometimes find themselves in situations so desperate that they may be tempted to take great risks, even at the cost of their lives? Anecdotally, it appears we execute poor people, many of them mules from third-world countries in ASEAN. The rich it seems either do not traffic drugs or do not get caught.
Many have defended the Indonesian government for standing firm against what they perceive as unreasonable Western pressure against the executions of the drug traffickers. They see it as interference in domestic affairs.
Again, I feel these are reactions which stem from one’s own views of the death sentence. To me, the so-called Western countries did what it needed to do and the Indonesian government did what it thought best. The push in opposite directions is a good thing, it keeps society true and informed.
Societies change and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Indonesia and Singapore may one day change its positions on capital punishment for drug trafficking and commit resources toward other measures to rid themselves of the scourge of drugs. We should, therefore, be open to all viewpoints.
It should not be assumed that everyone who opposes the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking stands against the death sentence. Most see the injustice in the mandatory aspect of sentencing. Some feel capital punishment should only apply for the most heinous of crimes particularly with repeat offenders. Others are more concerned with humane methods of execution, while a few feel execution should be painful. There aren’t just two camps so there is much room for discussion and movement on the issue from the current situation.
Some cite from religious texts to support their stance on the death sentence. It is my view that the texts are not decisive in its endorsement of capital punishment. Enough contradiction exists in scripture that we should not abdicate to it our responsibility in this matter. Imams, pastors and priests can do more to clarify matters.
If we feel convicts need to take responsibility for their actions, the rest of us need to take responsibility for the punishments which we endorse even if it means our quality of sleep is affected.