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Professor Roger Hood (right) and Michael Hor (left)

Singapore can no longer use majority support as the reason for not abolishing the death penalty

Speaking in a panel of a public forum held on last Friday (9 Dec) , Michael Hor, Dean of the Faculty of Law in University of Hong Kong, said that with the results from the survey, “Public Opinion on the Death Penalty”, the Singapore government can no longer support the use of death penalty by claiming it has majority support of the Singapore population.

While Roger Hood, the Professor Emeritus of Criminology at Oxford University and an Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, spoke on the ambiguity of the death penalty and how the general public change their impression of the death penalty when probed further about the implications of the punishment.

Along with Mr Hor and Professor Hood, Chan Wing Cheong, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore; Jack Tsen-Ta Lee, Assistant Professor at the School of Law, Singapore Management
University; Tan Ern Ser, Associate Professor of Sociology and Academic Adviser to Social Lab,
Institute of Policy Studies and Braema Mathi is founder and former president of MARUAH were present at the panel.

The survey on Public Opinion on the Death Penalty conducted by the National University of Singapore (NUS) in April to May 2016, showed support for mandatory death penalty by Singaporeans is much lower that what have been inferred from previous surveys which sought opinion about the death penalty in general.

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Results from survey conducted on opinion towards death penalty

The survey sampled 1500 respondents aged 18-74 with a questionnaire. While 70% of the surveyed express support for the death penalty, only 8% of them said that they were strongly in favour, and of the 27% who said that they were opposed, only 3% were strongly opposed.

Michael Hor said in response to a question from the audience, “I’ve been thinking for many years, what is it in the governmental psyche that prevents the government from abolishing death penalty, what exactly is it?” after looking at various reasons such as deterrent, public opinions and etc.

But despite the lack of clarity on the reason(s) by the government of not abolishing the death penalty, Mr Hor noted that the results of the survey would mean the Singapore government can no longer hide behind reason that the majority of Singaporeans do not wish to abolish the death penalty.

Pointing to the results, those who strongly support death penalty are in the very small minority. While there are a significant number of people who support the death penalty but when asked if they would support the abolishment of the death penalty, they did not mind if that is the case.

Mr Hor then said that he thinks every state, every country, wants to appear to be civilized among the community of nations.

He explained that the sudden drops in execution in Singapore can be traced to the year 2004, which is likely to be because Amnesty International published a report that year, saying that Singapore had been the highest (country) in capital execution in the world.

“Almost immediately.. something happened.. and the execution was stopped,” he said, “So don’t underestimate this government’s desire to look civilized.”

“Even Chinese government, they too started reducing prosecutions. Why? I think they want to be seen as world’s leaders, and world’s leaders do not execute people like that,” Mr Hor concluded.

Professor Hood, who is also an honorary Queen’s Counsel and a Fellow of the British Academy commented on an earlier response by a member of the audience that there are hideous crimes that the offenders have to be killed for.

He said, “No one doubts that a certain type of killer might be condemned more than others, no one doubts that some other people would do the worst crimes, having the most disadvantages, the most hurt, the most stigmatised and those with the most severe mental illness.”

Noting that there is a certain segment of population who feel that they are not in it for the death penalty but wishes death penalty to be used on certain criminals, states that such mindset is problematic as there is this fundamental question of who decides whether death penalty should be enforced.

“How do you decide who deserves to die, how can it be done without it being arbitrary.” said Professor Hood.

Professor Hood has published studies of public opinion on the mandatory death penalty in both Trinidad and Malaysia, and recently served as a consultant to the review of the death penalty in Malaysia by the Attorney General’s Chambers.

Such problems exist in countries, such as India. Professor Hood informed the audience that in India, even if the convicts are sentenced to death, they’re not being executed. This is because the Court of Appeal, the supreme court has to decide which are cases that truly deserve death; “Some judges favor the death penalty while others will never do it,” Professor Hood stated, and added “…it is impossible to maintain a fair, error free form of execution in India for murder and therefore death penalty has to be abolish.”

Professor Hood said, it has been shown that wrongful conviction is most likely to happen in the most serious of crime due to the pressure from public upon the justice system, so there would be mistakes.

The Professor noted that when people are asked about their support towards death penalty if they knew that people had been executed, had the possibility of being innocent.”, the proportion of support drops. In Malaysia, support drops to 35 percent, the same in Trinidad, China and in Japan.

“Now we see an action in Japan, which doing away with that penalty because it’s a terrible example of a really wrongful conviction and somebody could easily have been executed,” he said and believes that it will similarly be the case in Singapore in time to come.

Earlier this year in its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Singapore received 13 recommendations that called for progress towards abolition of the use of death penalty while twenty countries recommended the Singaporean government re-establish a moratorium on executions.

The government defended the use of capital punishment as “legitimate” to deter the most serious crimes, including drug trafficking.