Online media keeps alive debate on death penalty


By P. N. Balji

It is a rare occurrence when politics plays a part--however teeny weeny that part may be--in relaxing a tough piece of legislation like the death penalty in this city state.

More than 40 years after hanging was introduced for murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking and firearms offences, the Singapore government has decided to ease up a little.

Judges will be given the discretion to go for life imprisonment for those charged with murder and drug trafficking, if certain requirements are met:

For murder, if lawyers can prove that their clients had no intention to kill.

For drug trafficking, if they can show those charged were only transporting, sending or delivering drugs, have helped the Central Narcotics Bureau substantively or are mentally disabled.

As expected, it is the drug laws that have attracted attention. And for good reasons.

First, since the tough Misuse of Drugs Act came into force in 1973, the only changes made were to tighten the law.

This is the first time it is being relaxed.

Second, as one newspaper reported, more than 70 per cent of the 450 hangings in Singapore since 1990 were for drug trafficking offences.

Third, many are not convinced that those hanged for such offences are really guilty because they are just bit players in the nefarious drug business with the kingpins licking their wounds in some nearby hideout.

Fourth, the tough laws don't seem to have made Singapore a drug-free country. Heroin use has surged, drug seizures have spiked and since 2005 drug arrests have jumped by 300 per cent.

But it is the online media, like The Online Citizen, NGOs, like Second Chances and the Singapore Anti-death Penalty Campaign, and lawyer M Ravi whohave highlighted and championed the cause.

From campaigning against the death sentence imposed on 24-year-old Malaysian Yong Vui Kong, to organising forums, to examining the law, they have made some headway.

Said its chief editor, Kumaran Pillai: "Our opposition to the death penalty is based on the principle of compassion. Death sentences are irreversible and do not allow for redemption in cases of miscarriage of justice.

"We also note that the mandatory death penalty has not been an effective deterrent for drug related offences. While we have made some inroads in the recent past, there is a lot more work that needs to be done for the complete abolishment of the death penalty."

The efforts are seeing some results. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, while tabling the proposed changes in Parliament, said: "Our society's norms and expectations are changing. While there is broad acceptance that we should be tough on drugs and crime, there is also increased expectation that where appropriate, more sentencing discretion should be vested in the courts."

The focus will now shift to the 34 people in death row. The government has said they will get a chance for their cases to be reviewed.

If some are spared the hangman's noose, then the debate might move to those who had already been executed before the changes to the laws were implemented.

Did these prisoners deserve to die? That could just be the next war cry of those championing the anti-death cause.

And if none are spared, then the allegation is likely to be that the amendments are just a smoke-screen.

Like nearly everything else in today's Singapore, the government is caught in a classic "half-empty, half-full" syndrome.