Singapore’s death penalty: Opportunity for change?

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Drug trafficking carries a mandatory death sentence in Singapore. (Yahoo! Photo)

OPINION

By Andrew Low

As Singapore prepares for its 12th General Election post-independence, 23-year-old Malaysian Yong Vui Kong languishes in Changi Prison's death row.

Caught in 2007 in Singapore's Orchard Road shopping district with 47g of heroin, Yong was charged under the city state's Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) for trafficking. He was found guilty and was subsequently sentenced to death.

The campaign to save him from the gallows has been going on for more than a year, initiated by activists and supporters from both Singapore and Yong's home country of Malaysia. Having exhausted his appeal to the courts, Yong's last hope is an appeal for clemency to the Singapore President.

The provisions in the MDA and Singapore's application of the death penalty have been criticised locally and internationally by activists and various non-governmental organisations. Receiving particular attention are the clauses which effectively put the burden of proof on the accused rather than the state, and the provision for the death sentence to be mandatory for cases where the possession of the drugs are above certain statutory limits. In other words, trial judges have no authority to consider mitigating factors in individual cases and are required by law to sentence the accused to death, if he is found guilty of trafficking. No other (discretionary) sentences are allowed or provided for under the law.

It is the latter issue which perhaps is what activists and some Singaporeans cannot understand — why not allow judges discretion in sentencing? Why make death mandatory for traffickers, many of whom are small-time drug mules?

Government officials have been reluctant to be drawn into a debate about the issue, preferring instead to defend Singapore's use of the death penalty by citing the law's deterrent effect on traffickers. The government has so far avoided commenting  specifically on the mandatory application of the death penalty rather than the death penalty itself.

In any case, anti-death penalty activists dispute the deterrent claim, arguing that there is no hard evidence or studies to substantiate this.

With the government adopting a hardline stance and relative silence on the matter, it is hard to see that any changes to the law will happen in the near future. But all is not lost, as far as the activists are concerned. The campaign to save Yong has generated public awareness on a wider scale than in past campaigns, partly due to the Internet which campaigners have used extensively in trying to save the Malaysian.

Coincidentally, the release of British author Alan Shadrake's book, Once A Jolly Hangman, which delves into the little-told aspects of those sentenced to death in Singapore, has played a part in raising awareness, too. Shadrake himself was arrested a day after he attended the book launch in Singapore in 2010. His arrest made the news around the world and cast a spotlight on the use of the death penalty in Singapore.

Shadrake was found guilty of being in contempt of court for certain statements in his book, and was sentenced to six weeks in prison and fined S$20,000. He has appealed the sentence and is awaiting the court's decision.

Perhaps campaigners can also take heart that several political opposition parties have spoken out against the death penalty, namely the Singapore Democratic Party and the Reform Party. The Workers' Party (WP), which is the biggest and best-supported opposition party in Singapore, hasn't called for outright abolition, a position which perhaps is borne out of the recognition that the Singapore public do support the death penalty, by and large. Instead, the WP wants the processes in sentencing convicts to death to be tightened.

For example, in its election manifesto released on Saturday, the party wants trials for capital cases to "be conducted by a tribunal of two judges whose decision to impose the death sentence must be unanimous." Currently, such trials are heard before a single judge.

"On appeal," the WP says, "the death sentence should be upheld only if it is confirmed unanimously by all three judges in the Court of Appeal."

The party also wants "discretion [to] be given to judges to decide whether the death penalty or a lesser penalty is justified for each case. Parliament can set limits on the degree of discretion, depending on the offence."

Will the government accept these recommendations? It remains to be seen. But it is likely that some sort of rethinking on the part of the government will take place, if not in public, at least in private.

Cases of wrongful executions, such as that of Chiang Kuo-ching in Taiwan, have given impetus to the global campaign to abolish capital punishment.

Campaigners in Singapore can be hopeful that eventually the city-state will have to turn in the same direction as most countries which have already done away with the mandatory death penalty, and that more people are being made aware of the flaws in the laws through heightened public awareness.

In the meantime, the clock ticks away for Yong, who's been on death row for three years.

Andrew is the co-founder and current editor-in-chief of socio-political website The Online Citizen. He writes frequently on issues which are close to his heart, particularly those affecting the less fortunate, and on politics.

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