Singapore’s Capital Punishment Debate: Time for Change?

Growing dissent against the death penalty is unprecedentedly visible in Singapore, but the government is not expected to make a U-turn from its long-standing stance.

Singapore executed two men in one month in the spring of 2022 for drug offenses, marking the resumption of the death penalty in the country after a pause of more than two years. The executions stimulated unusual abolitionist sentiment in Singapore as well as international concern, especially the execution of a 33-year-old Malaysian national.

Capital punishment has quite a long history in Singapore, dating back to the days before its independence, and with public support it remains applicable in practice for certain categories of offenses. However, winds of change could be sweeping through Singaporean society as capital punishment seems far more controversial than it once was.

A century-long British legacy

International attention suddenly turned to Abdul Kahar bin Othman, a 68-year-old Singaporean, when he was hanged for drug trafficking on March 30, because no executions had been carried out in Singapore since 2019. Less than a month later, a second death row prisoner, Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, was executed, further embroiling the country in controversy.

But capital punishment was not established by the Singaporean government. When Singapore was the capital of the former Straits Settlements and a subsequent “crown colony” in the 19th Century, the death penalty was introduced by the United Kingdom. When Singapore became independent in 1965, capital punishment had not yet been abolished in the United Kingdom, and this British legacy was inherited, becoming an integral yet controversial facet of the country’s criminal law.

Therefore, Singaporean procedures are quite similar to those formerly used in the United Kingdom and its overseas territories. Even the sole method of execution, hanging conducted at dawn by a long drop, was introduced from the United Kingdom in 1872 by William Marwood.

While retaining the death penalty, Singapore has been narrowing its application. In 2012, it further amended the law to exempt some cases from a mandatory death sentence. Today, capital punishment is applied only to certain categories of crimes including murder, drug-related crimes, and some firearm-related offences stipulated in the Penal Code and four Acts of Parliament.

Children play in a puddle of water amid the rain in Singapore, Apr. 2, 2022. (Photo/Xinhua)

Since an amendment of the Criminal Procedure Code 30 years ago, all capital cases have been heard by a single judge in the High Court of Singapore. After conviction and sentencing, the offender can choose to make an appeal. If the appeal is rejected, the only remaining hope for recourse is the President of Singapore, who has the power to grant clemency, as advised by the Cabinet.

Before 1994, offenders could also file civil or criminal appeals to the United Kingdom’s Privy Council in London if they had exhausted all the appeal methods in Singapore, but today all the chances of overturning the death sentence are within the country, and successful applications have been rare.

While expanding enforcement of the death penalty, the country has added more exemptions in the past decade. Alongside underaged, pregnant, and offenders of unsound mind, criminals who commit murder without intent to kill are also usually exempted from hanging, but sentenced to life imprisonment with mandatory caning instead. Judges’ discretion also applies to offenders convicted of drug trafficking. Death sentences exemptions also usually include offenders who acted only as couriers, those who substantively assist Singaporean authorities, and those with mental disabilities.

Considering that over 80 percent of hangings since 2012 have been for drug related offenses and that only 37 offenders were executed in that period, Singapore has been comparatively discrete about depriving felons of their lives.

More importantly, the low crime rate in this city-state (847 per 100,000 residents in 2021) could explain why maintaining this British “legacy” still has such strong support from a majority of Singapore residents. According to the country’s Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, a survey conducted last year showed that more than 80 percent of the population believed that the death penalty deterred commission of serious crimes.

Among the many reasons, analysts believe that the Chinese-majority society is heavily influenced by the traditional Chinese view that harsh punishment deters crime, restores normalcy, and maintains “Confucian peace and harmony.”

“An inherited value system that sees hard, heavy punishment as a solution is at the core of Singapore’s resistance to abolishing the death penalty or even agreeing to a moratorium on executions,” said Vanu Menon, former Permanent Representative of Singapore to the United Nations.

If applied sparingly, seemingly a contributor to Singapore’s reputation as one of the world’s safest countries, and strongly supported by the public, the former British colony seems to have every reason to keep this British legacy even though the UK has already abandoned it. It was quite unexpected that the two executions this spring stirred up such a negative public reaction.

Understated but growing dissent?

For a long time, public debate on the death penalty was hardly heard in Singapore and usually almost non-existent. Yet when some Singaporeans become more outspoken in opposition to capital punishment, the phenomenon is not out of nowhere, because “public support isn’t as overwhelming and unshakeable as the government often portrays it to be,” according to Kirsten Han, a Singaporean journalist and social activist who spent a decade campaigning against the death penalty.

Even in the findings cited by Mr. Shanmugam in the Parliament of Singapore during his ministry’s Committee of Supply debate, public opinion still varies regarding capital punishment for different offences: While 81 percent of the population thought it appropriate to make death penalty mandatory for intentional murder, the figure fell to 71 percent for firearm offences, and further to around two thirds (66 percent) for drug trafficking.

Yet drug-related offences have been the super majority of death penalty cases and have received the least public support in recent years. What’s more, support for capital punishment in general has been declining steadily: A 2005 survey conducted by The Strait Times showed 95 percent support for the death penalty.

Photo taken on Mar. 24, 2022 shows the sunrise in Singapore. (Photo/Xinhua)

Even today’s supporters are often more inconsistent in their position. In 2016, four scholars from National University of Singapore, Singapore Management University, and MARUAH Singapore conducted an in-depth survey and found a large difference between the proportion of respondents who thought death penalty appropriate in various scenarios compared to support for the death penalty in the abstract only.

On drug trafficking, 87 percent of the 1,500 surveyed supported death penalty in principle; when it comes to specific cases, the share of death penalty supporters decreased drastically to 29 percent.

The scenarios surrounding the execution of both Abdul Kahar and Nagaenthran were fairly sympathetic to most Singaporeans, which contributed to the growing abolitionist sentiment and kindled widespread public debate on the death penalty itself.

The issue of human rights always comes first in such debate. After the violation of the right to life, the most glaring issue in the eyes of abolitionists has been the harsh living conditions for those on the death row at Changi Prison, which has been criticized by local activists for its small size, hot and humid environment, lack of clean water and sunlight, and poor ventilation. Such conditions have been shown to be detrimental to the emotional and mental health of the death row prisoners.

For many Singaporeans, neither of the cases against Abdul Kahar or Nagaenthran provided reasonable grounds for death sentence.

Abdul Kahar struggled with drug addiction since his teenage years, and he and his family never received substantial assistance from society such as sustainable treatment, counseling, or support to reintegrate into society. “Instead, all Abdul Kahar received was punishment in the form of incarceration that only served to further alienate him from society and subject him to stigma,” said Han. “And now he’s gone.”

Nagaenthran was on the death row for eleven years before his execution on April 27 due to a moratorium pending judicial changes of the mandatory death penalty laws. The reason for the international outcry over his death sentence mainly focused on his low IQ of 69 and an assessment by a psychiatrist defining him as mentally impaired to an extent that he should not be held liable to his crime and execution.

Still, a more important argument is always about utilitarianism: Is death penalty really more effective than any other punishment in deterring drug offenses and other felonies?

The Singapore government has been insisting on the efficacy of capital punishment as its justification, but a growing number of Singaporeans are now questioning, challenging, and even dismissing the dominant narrative. The issue has been debated globally at great length to no conclusive end. And it would be implausible to conduct scientific control on such an issue.

For abolitionists, one thing is crystal clear: There is no remedy for a wrongful execution.

Growing dissent against the death penalty is unprecedentedly visible in Singapore, but the government is not expected to make a U-turn from its long-standing stance. However, on a case-by-case basis, the country’s already discrete judiciary will have to be even more cautious in practice after such intense scrutiny from local society and the international community.