Capital Punishment in Singapore: Why We Should Be Thinking About It

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On 11 September, family members of Syed Suhail Syed Zin received a letter notifying them that Syed would be executed at Changi Prison in a week, following a 2015 conviction for trafficking 38.84 grams of heroin in 2011. Syed previously had applied for an appeal, but was dismissed on 18 October 2018. Subsequently, his petition for clemency was rejected on 5 July 2019. 

Just 72 hours before his execution, Syed reached out to human rights lawyer M Ravi, imploring him to help. The latter filed a judicial review before the High Court of Singapore on 16 September, which was dismissed, but Syed was granted a stay of execution pending the hearing of his appeal against the judicial review.

On 22 September, the Court of Appeal extended the stay on his execution until further notice, pending further submissions to be filed by both the prosecution and the defense. The next hearing will be fixed after 7 October. 

Grounds for appeal

In the appeal for judicial review, M Ravi argued that Syed’s execution “violates his right to equality guaranteed under Article 12 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore” as the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) had practiced differential treatment between foreigners and Singaporeans in carrying out the death sentence. He alleged that due to COVID-19 border closures that prevent visitation access to foreign inmates, the executions of foreigners have been put on hold while that of Singaporeans have been brought forward instead.

Additionally, M Ravi also revealed in court that the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) had received Syed’s private letter to his former lawyer, which was forwarded by the SPS — a breach of attorney-client privilege. However, Senior State Counsel Francis Ng clarified that he had not seen any such letter. The ministry also explained that SPS’ actions were not against the law. 

Taking it into the the public sphere

In addition to filing for a judicial review, M Ravi has also taken to his personal Facebook page to appeal for public support against Syed’s execution by joining a campaign against the death penalty. 

Many other concerned citizens have also shown their support for Syed’s case online. 

Singaporean rapper, Subhas Nair, has written an online petition on change.org, directly addressing President Halimah Yacob to spare Syed’s life. The petition has more than 30,000 signatures so far. 

Local journalist and anti-death penalty activist, Kristen Han, has also written multiple online articles to urge citizens to play a part to halt Syed’s execution. In the article, she explains the wider implications of the death penalty in Singapore, mentioning that very little information about death row and its inmates is made available to the public, in a bid to keep “the death penalty distant and abstract for most of Singaporean society”. She urged Singaporeans to write to their Members of Parliament or Cabinet ministers, who have the power to advise the President to grant clemency to Syed. 

Media as one of the only outlets for death row inmates

As mentioned by Han in her article, not much is known about death penalty in Singapore. Executions are typically not announced publicly ahead of time, nor publicly confirmed to have been carried out — unless the inmate has already garnered prior media attention.

In recent years, many family members and relatives of convicted death row inmates have taken to the media to appeal for their loved ones. 

Petitions to save from execution

A death row inmate that was able to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment is Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian who was convicted of trafficking 47.27 grams of heroin, thereby incurring the mandatory death sentence. Yong was only 19 at the time of his arrest. 

A webpage was set up to urge Singaporeans and Malaysians to come together to save him from execution. An online petition was also created, which received more than 109,000 signatures. 

Another death row inmate that has received substantial support from online netizens is Pannir Selvam Pranthaman, a Malaysian that was convicted of carrying 51.84 grams of heroin at Woodlands Checkpoint in 2014. His letter, titled On my birthday, from death row in Singapore went viral on the Internet, which resulted in a petition to save him from the death penalty. A website has also been created, which provides information and updates about his case. 

Amendment to law on death penalty

In Singapore, there are 32 offences that could potentially warrant the death sentence. Four of these call for the mandatory death penalty, where the death penalty must be given and judges are not able to take into consideration mitigating circumstances when sentencing — murder, drug trafficking, terrorism, possession of unauthorised firearms, ammunitions or explosives. 

However, in 2012, an amendment was made to the law, whereby the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking and murder can be lifted under certain conditions, and the courts may decide to impose life imprisonment instead. In the case of drug trafficking, the accused must have: 

  • only played the role of courier (i.e. transport, send or deliver) for a controlled drug; and
  • either cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau in a significant way that has disrupted drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore; or had a mental disability that impaired their judgement of the severity of their actions in relation to the offence.

Since the amendment of the law, a few have managed to narrowly escape the gallows, such as Vui Kong and Subashkaran Pragasam, who were both given life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane. 

Why should Singaporeans be thinking about the death penalty?

For a very long time, very little has been published about the death penalty in Singapore, save for cases that have managed to gain media exposure. But what actually goes down within the confines of death row at Changi Prison? 

There is much difficulty in obtaining reliable information about death row in Singapore because prison officers, executioners, and counsellors who interact with death row inmates are bound by the Official Secrets Act. The main piece of official information only comes from the number of judicial executions that have taken place the year before, published in the annual reports by the SPS. Even then, official execution dates aren’t announced, unless they are flagged out by the media, like in Syed’s case. 

To dig further, there are no exact figures about the number of people who are on death row — no breakdown of gender, age, race, education level or socioeconomic status.

A distant topic for Singaporeans?

With so little to work with, it’s no wonder that the death penalty seems to be a rather distant topic for many Singaporeans. In a 2016 survey on public attitudes towards the death penalty, which was conducted by the National University of Singapore, almost two-thirds of the 1,500 respondents said they either knew nothing or very little about the death penalty in Singapore. When asked about the level of interest and concern about the issue, the respondents were split down the middle, with half saying they were either “not interested or concerned” or “not very interested or concerned”.

But what are the implications of maintaining status quo?

It’s not just about the death penalty acting as a ‘deterrent’ for drug-related and violent crimes; not thinking about the death penalty also affects how we, as a first-world country, view the rehabilitation of drug offenders in Singapore. Thinking about whether the death penalty should be enforced will affect how this country and its policy-makers want to do about individuals like Syed, and many others like him. 

In recent years, the government has also received much flak for its strict implementation of capital punishment, not just by local activists like Han, but also from the international community. For instance, seven years after the execution of Van Tuong Nguyen, Australian journalist Brigid Delaney wrote a poignant tribute to him, expressing how she still feels the after effects of his execution. 

Regardless of your personal opinion about whether or not the death penalty is just, perhaps it is a good time to consider the wider ramifications of what the death penalty entails not just for its victims and their family members, but also our views on capital punishment as a nation. 

Perhaps we need to start asking more questions about how the death penalty works in Singapore, and engage those whose lives have been radically altered because of it, before we can truly come to a conclusion as to whether the death penalty is warranted. 

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