The article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao on 30 November 2018.
Rethinking the death penalty
On 10 October 2018, the Malaysian government announced that a proposed Bill to abolish the death penalty would be tabled at the next parliamentary sitting. This prompts us to consider if we should do the same for Singapore. What this piece will attempt to do is to lay out the case for and against the abolition of capital punishment and explore whether there is a middle ground.
Case against the abolition of capital punishment
This case is best made with a hypothetical situation which we hope may never happen. It starts with a newsflash that reads:
We are saddened by the terrorist bomb attack aimed at Jurong East MRT Station during morning peak hour claiming thirty lives and leaving numerous people injured. The injured were rushed to NUH for medical treatment. There were school children amongst the fatalities. The bomb was reportedly concealed inside a freezer box for ice cream. It was detonated after MRT Security Officers had stopped a suspicious looking man who ran off. No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing. The authorities have condemned this cowardly act and vowed to apprehend the terrorists.
With the loss of innocent civilian lives and sufferings of their families, can the terrorist murderers justifiably not face the death penalty for their deliberate pre-meditated actions? Such brutal acts of violence are deserving of the death penalty. How would you feel if your loved ones were such victims of terror? How would you truly react? Consider the emotional upheaval versus forgiveness.
Quite understandably, the victims’ families demand the death penalty which provides for their own closure and healing. In some cases, the family members are so devastated that they are unable to recover from such huge loss. The law of retaliation (lex talionis) has been used historically as a proportionality requirement. The act of the punishment (e.g. taking away of a life) must match the action of the crime (taking away of the victim’s life).
Lex talionis can justify punishment with death penalty in certain offences, such as intentional murders, gang robbery resulting in death, terrorism related offences, kidnapping, arms trafficking, firearms offences, treason, military offences-assisting the enemy, war crimes-genocide, piracy amongst others.
Government feedback unit REACH Poll of June 2016 – Findings of Poll on attitude towards the Death Penalty states 80% of those surveyed wanted the death penalty retained. In fact, 82% concluded that it was an important deterrent that kept Singapore safe from serious crimes. Only 10% wanted the death penalty abolished whilst the remaining 10% were unsure or provided no answer.
The majority also favoured keeping the death penalty for violent crimes such as murder (81%), using a firearm (78%) and arms trafficking (74%). For drug trafficking only 67% showed support.
Deterrence was the main reason why the death penalty was retained after the most recent review in 2011. In fact, the ministerial statement stated that “Singaporeans understand that the death penalty has been an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for very serious offences, and largely support it. As part of our penal framework, it has contributed to keeping crime and the drug situation under control.”
Case for the abolition of capital punishment
This case is grounded on the empirical observation that the death penalty does not have the desired deterrent effect on crime. It has been shown that there was an overall decreasing trend in homicide rates in both Singapore and Hong Kong from 1973 to 2007. Despite abolishing capital punishment in 1993, Hong Kong was statistically as safe as Singapore from homicide. This suggests that capital punishment was unnecessary as a deterrent.
The other compelling argument against capital punishment is its irreversibility when carried out. New facts may arise later which could exonerate a wrongly accused person.
There appears to be a wind of change in the official stand on capital punishment. In 2012, the legislature introduced the Section 33B of the Misuse of Drugs Act to militate against the harshness of capital punishment in drug offences relating to couriers. For a person who is merely a courier, he can escape capital punishment if he assists the Central Narcotics Bureau in disrupting drug trafficking activities, and receives a Certificate of Substantive Assistance from the Public Prosecutor. Similarly, if a courier suffers from an abnormality of mind, which is an about-face from previous case law that held that capital punishment will be imposed even on individuals who suffer from an abnormality of mind.
We recognise that it is evident from the straw poll conducted by REACH in 2016 that the average Singaporean believes in the principles which underpin the death penalty. As expressed in this opinion, it strikes home when a heinous crime is committed. Nonetheless, we hope that we are caught up in this wind of change by seriously considering a complete abolition of the death penalty, or at the very least, a calibrated abolition of the death penalty, with the death penalty being reserved for the most heinous of crimes, or crimes which violate national security.