Majority still believes death penalty deters the more serious crimes

  • The impending execution of a convicted drug trafficker who is intellectually disabled has sparked debate.
  • Both the Singapore Government and its public are convinced the death penalty continues to deter wrongdoings.
  • TheHomeGround Asia finds out the differing views on capital punishment and the need to strike a fine balance between deterrence and securing the country’s safety.
Capital Punishment in Singapore is carried out by hanging. (Photo source: Amnesty International)
Capital Punishment in Singapore is carried out by hanging. (Photo source: Amnesty International)

The case: Convicted Malaysian drug dealer Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam had attempted to bring about 43 grams of heroin into Singapore in April 2009.

The verdict: He was scheduled to be hanged in November last year. 

This decision sparked criticism due to concerns he has intellectual disabilities. 

Between 1991 and 2019, more than 450 prisoners have been hanged in Singapore. These statistics were compiled by Amnesty International, an international organisation on human rights, from several sources but detailed statistics were not released by the Singapore government between 2000 and 2006. 

It seems that every time the Singapore courts deliberate on a case that may result in the death penalty, almost everyone has something to say about it.

According to Amnesty International,

“There is no evidence that the threat of execution acts as a greater deterrent to crime than life imprisonment, something confirmed in multiple studies, including by the UN, across the globe. Singapore, which regularly tops global indexes for standards of living, lags far behind global sentiment against the death penalty. As of today, the majority of the world’s states have abolished this cruel punishment in law for all crimes.”

The Singapore Government and the majority of Singaporeans, however, respectfully disagree.

A 2019 Government survey involving 2,000 Singapore residents revealed that seven out of 10 agreed or strongly agreed that the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment as a deterrent against using firearms and committing murder in Singapore. 

A similar 68 per cent believed the same about the deterrent effect when it comes to drug trafficking offences in Singapore.

Minister of Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam on 3 March 2022, told Parliament that “abolishing the death penalty will lead to more drugs being trafficked into Singapore, and hence more drug abusers and more families and individuals being harmed”.

Citing preliminary findings from a survey conducted last year, Mr Shanmugam said, “Majority of Singapore residents support the use of the death penalty and agree that the death penalty deters serious crime.” He was responding to questions on whether Singaporeans continue to support its use.

“On the question as to whether the mandatory death penalty is appropriate, 81 per cent said it was appropriate for intentional murder, 71 per cent said it was appropriate for firearm offences, 66 per cent said it was appropriate for drug trafficking. And more than 80 per cent also believed that the death penalty had deterred the commission of these offences in Singapore,” he added.

While the findings of this survey are still preliminary, Mr Shanmugam said they were given to him with a “reasonable degree of confidence”. The survey will also be made public when finalised, he said. The Minister noted that in the four years before and after the introduction of the mandatory death penalty in 1990 for trafficking above 1,200 grams of opium, there was a 66 per cent reduction in the average net weight trafficked.

Figures from the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) show that the number of abusers arrested fell from about 6,000 a year to between 3,000 and 3,500 a year today.

The impact of the death penalty is also evident in other crimes that attracted capital punishment.

For kidnapping, there was a dramatic decrease from an average of 29 cases a year in the three years before to an average of one case a year after.

Firearms robbery was a rising trend with 174 cases in 1973. After the introduction of capital punishment in November 1973 for such offences, the number fell by 39 per cent the following year and today, it is rare for such crimes to happen.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has defended Singapore’s tough laws as instrumental in making “Singapore one of the safest places in the world”. 

However, the MHA emphasised that Singapore does not mete out the death penalty frivolously but reserves it “only for a very limited number of offences, involving the most serious forms of harm to victims and to society, such as intentional murder and trafficking of significant quantities of drugs”, and that there are numerous “judicial safeguards regarding the use of capital punishment”.

What happened in the case of Nagaenthran

Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam. (Photo source: The Star)

Nagaenthran was arrested in 2009, convicted and sentenced to death in 2010. 

He was scheduled to be hanged in November 2021, but the decision had sparked fierce criticisms because he has an IQ of 69, which is recognised as an intellectual disability, and his claims that he had committed the crime under duress.

Among the detractors are the European Union (EU), the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC), British businessman Richard Branson, Amnesty Australia’s death penalty campaigner Rose Kukak.

The two opposing views

The EU Delegation to Singapore “call on the Singapore authorities to half the execution of Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, and to commute his sentence to a non-capital sentence”, before adding that the use of capital punishment “can never be justified, and advocate for Singapore to adopt a moratorium on all executions as a positive first step towards its abolition”.

The UN HRC tweeted to “urge authorities to halt execution for drug offences”, adding that Nagaenthran has “psychosocial disabilities”.

Dr Kevin Tan, a law professor who holds teaching positions at both the National University of Singapore (NUS) Law School and Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, says that the deterrent effect is only effective if the crime was premeditated in advance and that the perpetrator has time to consider his options carefully.

“If the perpetrator commits an act of murder in the ‘heat of the moment’, he would not have had the time to think about its consequences. In such cases, the death penalty would not have the desired deterrent effect,” said Dr Tan, who specialises in Constitutional and Administrative Law.

“People often just think about the deterrence but not about the possibility that the penalty is inflicted on the wrong person. If there was a mistake, it would be an irreversible one. Even if you don’t come from a religious or moral perspective and just focus on the practicalities, you can’t reverse the action after convicting and hanging the wrong guy. It’s the end of the story,” he adds.

While the state might not be able to pay a victim of a wrongful conviction back for his or her lost time and suffering, Dr Tan feels that the comparison is inappropriate “since the state can still make it up to a victim who is still alive, but if a person is dead, there is nothing you can do to make it up to the victim or the family. The person is just gone.”

There is also the sense of equity and the fear that would-be criminals would be emboldened by the assurance that their lives will not be taken away from them.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher best summed this up, “I personally have always voted for the death penalty because I believe that people who go out prepared to take the lives of other people forfeit their own right to live. I believe that death penalty should be used only very rarely, but I believe that no-one should go out certain that no matter how cruel, how vicious, how hideous their murder, they themselves will not suffer the death penalty.”

And as Minister Shanmugam said, “We prefer not to have to impose the death penalty on anyone. But we have to continue to do what is best for us.”

Join the conversations on TheHomeGround Asia’s Facebook and Instagram, and get the latest updates via Telegram.

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