Singapore's mandatory death penalty for capital crimes is well known. Increasingly, however, critics of the law have been more vocal in recent years. Awareness of the death penalty has grown, albeit rather slowly, among Singaporeans as campaigners against this particular law continue to seek its abolition.
Many Singaporeans, however, still do not or cannot make the distinction between the idea of the death penalty (DP) and that of the mandatory death penalty (MDP) in capital cases. The MDP provides that anyone who is found guilty of a capital crime must be sentenced to death.
Judges have no discretionary powers to mete out any other sentence.
For example, if one is found guilty of trafficking above the statutory threshold of a certain prohibited drug, the sentence is automatic death. That is the only and compulsory sentence the trial judge can and must mete out.
While some have called for the total abolition of the death penalty itself, others want the process by which the mandatory death penalty is exercised to be tightened or improved to prevent mistakes being made. This, they say, is important because in cases of death sentences, once a person is put to death, it is irreversible. Thus, all preventive measures must be taken before anyone is prescribed the ultimate punishment.
Perhaps it is this argument which will find more acceptability among the general public which seems to support the death penalty but may not necessarily support the mandatory death penalty.
The Singapore government, however, also seems to not want to change the law, despite calls for it to do so from many quarters, including the country's own Law Society, academics, activists (both local and international) and opposition parties such as the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the Workers' Party (WP).
The WP, for example, has been calling for the system to be improved and indeed had called for mandatory sentences to be removed. It made the call in its election manifestos of 2006 and 2011. The party says mandatory sentences "take away the discretion of the judge to adjust a sentence to suit the individual case circumstances."
"Under the current system of mandatory sentences," the party said in 2006, "the real power to determine the offender's sentence shifts from the Courts to the prosecution who will decide which charge to proceed on to produce the appropriate sentence. This encourages plea-bargaining which makes justice less transparent as the exercise of prosecutorial discretion cannot be reviewed or appealed against." It repeated the call in its 2011 manifesto too.
The party also suggested that for capital cases, "the trial should be conducted by a tribunal of two judges whose decision to impose the death sentence must be unanimous. On appeal, the death sentence should be upheld only if it is confirmed unanimously by all three judges in the Court of Appeal."
These are not unreasonable or unrealistic propositions. Indeed, short of abolishing capital punishment itself, allowing judges discretionary powers is what ought to be done.
Activists and supporters of such changes to the law would hope that the WP, coming off a somewhat victorious general election in 2011, would pursue these suggestions in Parliament and see if the government will not consider them.
If nothing else, perhaps tabling these suggestions for debate in Parliament may bring the issue into the public sphere for a broader discussion, and create awareness of the matter. Singaporeans then may have a chance, finally, to engage in a deeper understanding of what the MDP entails, and its failings and dangers which were most profoundly highlighted in several cases so far.
Back in 1989, Zainal Kuning was accused and found guilty of the murder of a coffeeshop caretaker and subsequently sentenced to death. It was only by a stroke of pure luck that he was later found not guilty, even though he had already signed a confession to having committed the murder. He was only exonerated after a fellow inmate heard another inmate admitting to the crime.
And then there were the more recent cases of Ismil Kadar and Azman Sanwan.
Kadar, like Kuning before him, had confessed to the murder of Madam Tham Weng Kuen, 69, in her Boon Lay flat in 2005, and was sentenced to death. It was only in 2011 that his sentence was overturned by the courts which cited 'serious lapses' by police and prosecutors who handled the case. Kadar had been on death row awaiting death for 6 years.
Sanwan was convicted of trafficking in more than 1.5kg of cannabis, more than the statutory limit which would trigger the mandatory death sentence, in 2010 and sentenced to death. He was eventually acquitted by the Court of Appeal after it found that "key evidence against him was flawed."
Some have defended the system by saying that these cases show that the system is self-regulating, that it can and has detected flaws and failings. Otherwise, these three would have been executed.
But that is a lame argument, really. Take for example, the case of Kuning. His exoneration came about not because of any initial proactive investigations by the authorities. Instead, it was by pure chance that he came to know of the person who admitted to the crime, while both of them were in prison!
As for Kadar, it was through the sheer perseverance of his legal aid lawyer, who unstintingly believed in his innocence and stayed the course. The appeal judge said Kadar's "confessions were obtained 'in troubling circumstances' which appeared to be deliberate breaches in procedures rather than mere carelessness."
How many lawyers in Singapore would spend such an amount of time — six years — fighting a case for inmates on death row, even if they believed in their innocence?
Sanwan's conviction and eventual release is an important one to observe as Singapore executes many drug traffickers. The provisions under the Misuse of Drugs Act have raised serious questions of whether they are appropriate and fair.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to how much value we place in human life. It is not a popular position to take. Some dismiss such considerations for convicted criminals and believe that they should be dealt with as harshly as the law allows, even if it is to put these criminals to death.
Be that as it may, as a society which prides itself on being first world and having a legal and judicial system which it constantly boasts about, it is indeed time to do some soul searching and see if we cannot, at least, improve and tighten the process by which we take the lives of those we consider to have harmed or could potentially harm society.
When asked if the WP has changed its position as laid out in its latest manifesto about capital punishment, party chairman Sylvia Lim said the party's position remains the same.
It may not be a vote-winning issue to highlight, especially in this time when "more serious" concerns occupy the public consciousness.
However, with news reporting that "26 drug syndicates [are] busted every year" from 2000 to 2011, there is a real potential that many more may be put to death if the cases of trafficking grow.
One might therefore argue that it not a "less serious" matter than any other.
The WP did not indicate when it would pursue this issue, when asked. Lim only said that it will be made known if and when the party chooses to do so.
Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.