Singapore might be a small city-state, but its pro-death penalty stance is well-known. Just last year, Law and then-Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam gave a speech in defence of capital punishment to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
All this makes campaigning against the death penalty an uphill battle, one that We Believe in Second Chances has been involved in for the past five years. This campaign is important to us because – despite what the Singapore government has claimed – research done by well-established and respected criminologists have indicated that the death penalty does not work as an effective deterrent, and is therefore not particularly useful when trying to prevent crime or support the victims of drug abuse or murder.
In January 2016, Singapore will be up for its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR), and both Second Chances and the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign are part of the Alliance of Like-Minded Civil Society Organisations in Singapore (ALMOS) that submitted a joint report to the United Nations. In addition, Second Chances submitted our own individual report, where we highlighted issues related to Singapore’s death penalty regime and also addressed problems that have arisen from the changes to the mandatory death penalty that came into force in 2013.
When Singapore had its first Universal Periodic Review in 2011, the government rejected all recommendations – made by UN member states like France and the United Kingdom – to impose a moratorium on executions with a view to doing away with the death penalty.
It did, however, agree to two recommendations related to the death penalty, considering them either already implemented or in the process of being implemented:
95.14. Modify its legislation in such a way as to shift the burden of proof of the guilt of a person facing the death penalty to the prosecution instead of requesting the person to prove its own innocence (France);
95.15. Make available statistics and other factual information on the use of the death penalty (Finland);
In our experience working on the death penalty over the years since Singapore’s last UPR, Second Chances has observed that far more can be done about these two accepted recommendations. In fact, it is our view that there is long way to go before these two recommendations can be truly considered as implemented.
The Misuse of Drugs Act in our Penal Code continues to carry presumption clauses such as this one:
Similarly, a person who is in possession of the keys of a premises in which controlled drugs are found is also presumed to have been in possession of the controlled drug, and presumed to have known the nature of the drug. The law also states that these presumptions “shall not be rebutted by proof that the accused never had physical possession of the controlled drug.”
Such presumption clauses lead to a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ situation, where the burden of proof is placed upon the accused rather than the prosecution. Although Singapore accepted France’s recommendation to rectify this situation, the presumption clauses remain in our legislation today.
Second Chances has also faced issues with accessing statistics and factual information related to the death penalty. The Singapore Prison Service does provide the number of executions each year in their annual report, but other important information, such as the number of individuals on death row and their background (i.e. gender, nationality and socio/economic background) are not publicly disclosed.
Such information is important and would allow advocates and researchers alike to draw better conclusions on the use of the death penalty and the people it affects. Having such information permits us to have better informed and constructive discussions on an important subject that affects the lives of many. Our requests for more data have either been denied or ignored.
Although the Singapore government earlier released press statements on the executions of Tang Hai Liang and Foong Chee Peng in 2014, as well as the execution of Muhammad bin Kadar in April 2015, another two were executed in the latter half of the year without any announcement. We later found out about these executions through death row inmate Kho Jabing, himself at risk of imminent execution.
On 27 January 2016, Singapore will go before other UN member states for its Universal Periodic Review. Two of our directors are currently in Geneva, where they will address the UN and raise the issues covered in the civil society shadow report.
But while it is useful for the international community to go over the human rights situation of its member states, the UPR also provides us a good opportunity to reflect on the progress that we’ve made as a country.