Holding onto my hat

Holding onto my hat

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Dear Readers

Before you start reading this posting, I had better tell you that what I am about to discuss, is an issue which will have virtually no impact on your lives, your livelihood, your choices, your lifestyle or your pocket. It is a matter which only affects …maybe 20 people? … in a year, some of those affected will not even be Singaporeans.

But for those who are affected, it is quite literally a matter of life and death. What we Singaporeans think and say about this issue, will make a difference to whether someone lives … or dies. I am talking about the use of the death sentence in Singapore. For certain crimes like murder and drug trafficking, the death sentence is mandatory, meaning that the judge has no power to change the death sentence to life imprisonment in deserving cases. They must hang.

Don’t get me wrong, I want a safe and secure Singapore. I want a low crime and drug-free society where I can raise my kids and walk around in freedom.

We have been told that Singapore’s low crime rate is due to our tough laws, including our willingness to impose the ultimate penalty of death.

We have been told that the mandatory death penalty for murder and drug trafficking has been an effective deterrent against would-be murders and drug traffickers.Sparing the lives of convicted murders and drug traffickers, would signal that we have gone soft. Going soft will put our families and loved ones in danger of crime.

And we have been told that a Singapore Press Holdings survey conducted in 2006, indicated that a large majority of Singaporeans are in support of the death penalty, and thus, the death penalty is the will of the majority.

If it were really so straightforward that “death penalty means low crime”and “no death penalty means high crime”, then of course, we should and must retain the death penalty, and to oppose those idealists who seek to abolish it. Why should I risk the safety and well-being of my family for the sake of a worthless criminal who should have known better?

But is it really as simple as “death penalty means low crime”?
· Why do people kill?
· Why do people agree to be drug mules?
· Does the death penalty really deter murder or it is to exact revenge, as in “life for a life”?
· Will murders and drug trafficking be more rampant if Judges were given power to change the death sentence to life imprisonment in deserving cases?
· What are other effective ways to reduce crime?
· What are other ways of keeping down crime besides the death penalty?

I am glad to see that today in Singapore 2011, we are more discerning and a lot more sophisticated. Decades of emphasizing the value of a good education has produced a generation of new Singaporeans who ask for the facts and figures behind claims and statements.

In the old days, whenthere was no Internet, it was harder to double check statements and not easy to find alternative views to a proposal. Today is the age of information technology. The new generation Singaporeans are better educated, well-travelled and well-informed.

Today, we do not accept propositions at face value. If someone tells us, “eating durians causes baldness” we will automatically retort: “How so? Who said that? What are his credentials? Where are the surveys, scientific studies or research showing the correlation between eating durians and baldness?”

We don’t let people get away with saying something, without providing hard evidence for what is being said.

So if we cannot see the evidence that the death penalty for a particular crime has served its role as an effective deterrent to that crime, then I am afraid to say, that such a proposition is a belief which is at best a hypothesis and at worse a myth!

Now surely no one will be party to taking away a person’s life on the strength of anunsupported hypothesis or a personal belief?

When it comes to the issue of death penalty, the stakes cannot be any higher. A person’s life is to be taken from him. The sting of the death sentence is after all based on the fact that the wrongdoer highly values his own life. If it were not so, then it would not mean much to take it away!

When it is a matter of life and death, surely we need to call for convincing evidence proving the deterrent effect of the death penalty, so as to justify using such a drastic measure. Surely it is only right that we think long and hard about whether or not to use the death sentence.

We have been told: Look at Singapore’s low rate of drug abuse – that is evidence that mandatory death penalty has been an effective deterrent against drug trafficking. I am thankful that Singapore’s drug problem is well under control. But aren’t there also other factors which contribute to Singapore’s successful fight against drug abuse? Factors like a well-organized police force, well-trained investigation officers, a well-equipped central narcotic bureau and a comprehensive anti-drug abuse education program – don’t all these also help in the fight against drug abuse?Will Singapore’s fight against drug abuse be seriously hampered without the mandatory death penalty?

The mandatory death penalty for murder has been with us since the colonial days. We have had the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking since 1975. Today is 2011. We have at least 40 years of data on state executions. It is time to take stock and review in detail all the statistics on state executions to date. The public should also be involved in this extensive review. The results of the review should be published for the public to digest and to ask questions about the findings. After all, it is has been said that the death penalty is the will of the majority of Singaporeans. So Singaporeans should be informed.

The public has the right to see the studies, statistics or research published by officials which support their claim that the mandatory death penalty has been an effective deterrent against drug trafficking. The burden of proof must rest on those seeking to retain the mandatory death penalty.

In the absence of such evidence, then we Singaporeans must conclude that it is not necessary to resort to using the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking. In which case, we should seriously consider changing the law to give judges the power to convert the death sentence to life imprisonment in deserving cases.

There is also the question whether it is even necessary to retain the death penalty at all. Again, without convincing documentary evidence that the death sentence has more of a deterrent effect than a life sentence for drug trafficking, then it is only right that we do away with the death sentence altogether.

A person’s life, even the life of a drug trafficker who should have known better, is too high a price to pay for an opinion not supported by enough evidence.


  1. Thank you for raising this most important issue. To me, an even more perverse aspect of Singapore's application of the death penalty is the presumption of guilt in drug cases. How can there be any justification for this reversal of the normal rule that one is innocent until proven guilty?

  2. Well said, Jeanette. I like especially the intro about it not affecting the majority of us, except maybe 20 people a year some of whom are not even Singaporeans. They are human lives, nonetheless. From what I understand, over 100 countries have either abolished the death penalty or at least suspended executions even though the penalty remains in force. We continue to go against world opinion not only in imposing the death penalty but in making it MANDATORY in certain cases.

    @Chong-Yee: I think in traffic offences motorists are also presumed guilty until proven innocent. Such are our laws.

  3. Doing away the death sentence altogether may be too drastic a change for some, and might cause a public outcry. (For no reasons other than humans just don't usually like changes. Especially when we don't foresee the said changes to benefit us personally)

    I would think it would be a good first step to give the judges the power and flexibility to choose not to apply the death sentence as and when they think appropriate. The way I see it, it's already happening in murder cases. There's always the alternative charge of "manslaughter" if all parties feel the case is deserving. Perhaps a similar "workaround" for drug trafficking can be formulated. (By the way, I think parents who sexually assault their own children deserve the death penalty. Too bad it isn't the way the law sees it.)

    I don't believe the death penalty is any kind of deterrent (unless we try to count the one who got the penalty. Death certainly stops anyone from becoming a repeat offender) Take the example of AIDS, which is certainly a sort of death penalty at the moment; does anyone think it as an effective deterrent for..well, you know. And when AIDS patients (who got AIDS through their own irresponsibly acts) were interviewed, they always say that they didn't believe they will be "suay" enough to kenna.

  4. Agree with Samantha.

    I am conflicted about the effectiveness of the death penalty. On one hand, I suppose I buy into the argument that it's fitting punishment for the most heinous crime. Yet on the other, I disagree with its finality and vengeful nature. On one hand, the state forbids individuals from taking the life of another individual. Yet on the other hand, the state as a supposed collection of individuals presumes the right to take the life of another individual.

    But the thing that distresses me the most is the mandatory death penalty where no judicial discretion in sentencing is allowed. I would prefer that the law allows a range of sentencing options (from long term prison stay to the ultimate death penalty) for the judge to choose from. And also that in such capital cases, a tribunal of 3 judges to try the case instead of one.


  5. Hi Jeannette, the link from TOC brings me to this article of yours.

    In fact, your article actually refresh my memory of this particular clause (not sure whether i use the correct term) that i have come across under the Misuse of Drug Act and it mentions something about "guilty until proven innocent".

    I was quite taken aback by it and till now i could not comprehend why this Act is so different from the rest as we all known that normally for other crimes, those individuals whom are charged will be sort of being declared "innocent until proven guilty".

    It has set me thinking why is there such discrimination between drug traffickers and other criminals? Aren't we all human beings and equal in the eyes of the law?

    Probably, it might be due to the fact that our human rights are being suppressed from the start when the ruling party came into power in the 50s.
    Till this day, our country have never been able to improve much on this area as compare to other countries.

    That is why i often find it an irony that SG can progress from nothing to become one of top in terms of economy but when it comes to human rights, we are still so "stagnant" and not able to stride forward.

    I apologise for the bad english as i am not really good with words but just feel that your article have strike a chord with me so i will like to share this little thought with you.

    I will share this article in my FB profile with all my friends if you don't mind.

    Thank you and have a great weekend ahead =)

    JC Lim

  6. thanks for bringing up this up. congrats on your amazing work. never been so proud and pleased at the same time. thank you for your courage! love n peace, winni x

  7. As a lawyer, you have some connection with this. As a former police man, I also have one. In 1994, I arrested a couple for possession of heroin, which after analysis was found to contain not less than 18 gm of pure heroin. He was convicted and later hanged. That same year my friend arrested another person who was found to have not less than 27 gm of pure heroin. However he lawyer was able to convince the judge, Justice Rajendran, that it was for personal consumption and he was a hard-core addict. He got 30 years. I don't think judges like sentencing people to death, but their hands are tied because of the law. It should never be mandatory.

  8. I don't think you can get the "evidence" you want. Anything sociological or economic isn't going to allow you to perform repeated experiments in identical conditions to produce repeatable results the way science demands.

    Good topic though, I'll engage with some points if I may.


    A quick google gets me this link - the United Nations crime survey: it's a bit outdated, covering the period 1990-2002, but it will still do nicely since, as you say, we've had the death penalty for a long long time. It's almost 500 pages long, but the relevant pages are 44-47 and 1-4. Don't bother opening it unless you don't believe me, I'll print out some the relevant stats here.

    Total Recorded Drug Offenses per 100,000 population. (latest year available)
    Singapore: 105
    United States: 559
    United Kingdom: 310

    Police Personnel per 100,000 population (latest year available)
    Singapore: 302
    Unites States: 326
    United Kingdom: 258

    Singapore has a comparable police enforcement to these two countries but a significantly smaller drug problem, which many people are going to attribute to their tougher penalties - after all, if enforcement is equal, the main deterrant is the punishment. The only "evidence" you're going to be satisfied with, is, unfortunately, for Singapore to try it out - relax laws on drugs, and wait for the results in the next few years. Unfortunately, if the drug problem does get worse, many lives would have been destroyed, and I don't say this lightly. There are some drugs that are incredibly destructive and lethal: once addicted, a person's life path is irrevocably changed.

    I'll tackle the logic of ever rising punishments. For the most part they assume the criminal is making a rational decision: the reward of the crime, versus the potential cost (chance of getting caught multiplied by the penalty). As the penalty increases, with effective enforcement, the potential cost approaches infinity - losing their life. Yet this system fails in many areas, notably crimes which are NOT rational crimes. As we can see, there are still drug crimes in Singapore even with this infinitely costly penalty. The conclusions we can draw from it is that, the vast majority of people who break drug laws aren't fat cats in it for the money, or people who are out to gain pleasure from destroying people's lives. They are going to be people who are either ignorant of the law, or mentally impaired and unable to make sound judgements, or so completely desperate to make some money they are willing to die for it.

    We kill these people and call it justice.

  9. Found some interesting comments about this posting made in this thread from theonlinecitizen FB page: