Death penalty change came from review, not activists: Shanmugam

Singapore is on the cusp of passing into law key changes that could spare the lives of people convicted of several types of homicide and drug offences. (Getty Images)

During a recent exclusive interview with Yahoo! Singapore, Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam shares his thoughts on the upcoming amendment to the mandatory death penalty law. In the second part of the series based on that interview, Shanmugam explained the reasons behind the review on an issue that is being closely monitored by human rights activists both at home and the world over.

[Click here to read the first part.]

It’s been a long time coming, but change is underway.

In what is expected to be a landmark legislation later this month, the Singapore government is expected to abolish the mandatory death penalty (MDP) for certain homicides and drug offences. This, nearly 40 years after the law was first introduced for murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking and firearms offences.

But as Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam told Yahoo! Singapore in an exclusive interview recently, the proposed changes were the result of the government’s continuous review of laws and not from activist campaigning.

“This is something we do continuously. We monitor to see firstly, is it necessary, because it’s a serious penalty. Secondly, is it effective? And, thirdly, are there tweaks or changes that need to be done to this system?” he said. “Any responsible government will do this — which is what we’re doing.”

The abolition of the MDP, which was first proposed in Parliament in July and will be expected to be passed when Parliament sits again on 12 November, comes with certain conditions.

For murder, lawyers must first prove that their clients had no intention to kill. For drug trafficking, the defence must be able to prove that those charged were only transporting, sending or delivering drugs, have helped the Central Narcotics Bureau substantively or are mentally disabled.

Most importantly though, judges will now have greater discretion in meting out the death penalty.

In the case of homicides, Shanmugam explained the purpose of the MDP in those scenarios was to reduce and deter them. In that light, he noted then that there were 16 recorded ones last year, translating to a rate of 0.3 for every 100,000 people.

“Given that, we can ask, do we really need the mandatory death penalty for all homicides? So we keep it for the most serious intentional murder, but for the other kinds of homicide we say look, we can give discretion to the judges,” the 53-year-old former top lawyer pointed out.

On drug cases

For drug cases, judges too will have the ability to hand down life imprisonments instead of the death penalty, especially for cases involving a reduced level of mental faculty.

While the new legislation will give more discretion to the courts, Shanmugam pointed out that it is made clear at immigrations, whether through land or air, that Singapore’s strict drug laws are still intact.

He explained that nearly all drug offences are committed by people who have made careful calculations to do so.

“In the first place, if there is mental incapacity, you’re not even guilty because that’s a defence,” he said.

“We’re not talking about people who didn’t know what they were doing; we’re not talking about insane people; we’re not talking about people with mental incapacity. We’re talking about people with lesser IQ, or a level of diminished responsibility — that’s the technical term.

“They hide the drugs, they smuggle the drugs because they know it is illegal. They know what they are doing is wrong, so let’s be clear about that… but if there is diminished responsibility, that should be taken into account,” he said.

When the landmark legislation is passed later this month, at stake will be the lives of 34 prisoners on death row, among them the likes of 24-year-old Malaysian Yong Vui Kong and Singaporean Pathip Selvan Sugumara, who was convicted of killing his girlfriend in 2009.


Drug kingpins

“If we catch them and have evidence, we will charge them in court, and that has been done. But often they stay outside Singapore, and the few who come in or who we catch sometimes, there isn’t enough evidence to charge them in court, because the drugs are not found on them and we have to rely on someone else giving evidence. If I know you are a drug kingpin but I have nothing on you, what do I do? That’s where we detain them for maximum periods. If there is a different, better approach, tell us.”

The 14.99g rule

“The Attorney-General has the leeway to decide to charge people who carry amounts that just exceed 15g with a token figure of “14.99g” instead — a move that decides whether or not a person will face the death sentence, or 20 years of prison instead.”

“We are now giving this additional discretion (of life sentence) to judges, but the prosecution will continue to have that discretion. In a fair number of cases AG will look at the particular facts and say, okay, look — this is just above 15 grammes, or if there are peculiar reasons why for this person, discretion ought to be exercised, AG exercises it. A lot of people don’t realise this, but in a significant number of cases this discretion has been exercised and a charge for 14.99 grammes has been brought in court. The AG only proceeds on cases where he feels the death penalty really is merited — on the facts.”

Click here to read the first part of this series, where Minister Shanmugam shares his views on the Internal Security Act.