Removing death penalty will lead to more drugs entering Singapore: Shanmugam

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Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam addresses parliament on Thursday, 3 March 2022 during his ministry's Committee of Supply debate (SCREENGRAB: Gov.sg YouTube channel)
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam addresses parliament on Thursday, 3 March 2022 during his ministry's Committee of Supply debate (SCREENGRAB: Gov.sg YouTube channel)

SINGAPORE — Abolishing the death penalty will lead to more drugs being trafficked into Singapore, and hence more drug abusers and more families and individuals being harmed, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament on Thursday (3 March).

Citing the deterrent effect of the city-state's "strong stance" against drugs, the minister alluded to a 2018 study conducted by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which found "a very high level of awareness" of the death penalty among convicted drug traffickers.

This in turn influenced their behaviour. For example, one of the traffickers in the study said that he trafficked below the threshold amount in order to avoid the possibility of execution.

It was a fair assumption, said Shanmugam, that removing the death penalty would lead to more drugs entering the country, calling it a "stark choice" for Singaporeans.

"Our approach to the death penalty works for us and continues to be relevant in our context. By being tough on drug offences, we minimise the harms of drugs on our society," said the minister.

Criminals' behaviour changed by death penalty

Speaking during the Committee of Supply (COS) debate, the minister noted that the mandatory death penalty for trafficking more than 1,200g of opium was introduced in 1990. Comparing the four years before and after, there was a 66 per cent reduction in the average net weight trafficked.

It has also had a "clear, strong impact" on other criminal offences, said the minister.

For example, the death penalty for kidnapping was introduced in 1961. The three years before that saw an average of 29 cases per year, but in the three years after, the average became one case per year. The number of such cases has remained very low since.

Firearms robbery was also on the rise in the 1970s, with 174 cases In 1973. But with the introduction of the death penalty in November 1973 for firearms offences, such cases immediately fell by 39 per cent the following year, to 106 cases. It continued to decline in the subsequent years and remains rare today.

Shanmugam also noted that in the 1990s, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) arrested about 6,000 abusers per year. The figure has now fallen to about 3,000 to 3,500 abusers per year, which means a large number of potential abusers have been saved, he said.

"This is precisely the point: crime is kept low because the drugs abuse situation is kept low...if we change the laws, we cannot expect crime to remain unaffected."

Regional study

Shanmugam also alluded to a regional study conducted by MHA in the places where most arrested drug traffickers arrested in the city-state have come from. The study aimed to get a sense of what people in these places knew and thought.

It was found that 82 per cent of respondents believed the death penalty makes people not want to commit serious crimes in Singapore. About 69 per cent also believed it is more effective in discouraging people from committing serious crimes, compared to life imprisonment.

In addition, 83 per cent believed that the threat of execution makes people not want to traffic substantial amounts of drugs into Singapore.

Strong support among Singaporeans

Shanmugam also noted that most Singapore residents support the use of the death penalty, and agree that it deters serious crimes.

A 2019 MHA survey showed "very strong support", while a follow-up survey was also done in 2021, with a segment on the mandatory death penalty. While the results are still being analysed, preliminary results for the latter show that there is also strong support for it.

A majority said it was appropriate as the punishment for intentional murder (81 per cent), firearm offences (71 per cent), and drug trafficking (66 per cent). More than 80 per cent also believed that the death penalty had deterred these offences in Singapore.

The minister added that results of the 2021 survey will be made public.

Death penalty insufficient

In response to those who advocate abolishing the death penalty as Singapore’s laws are already adequate, Shanmugam said, "We have never said that the death penalty alone is sufficient."

And while it is a key part of the arsenal in keeping the city-state relatively free from drugs, the minister pointed to other factors such as good intelligence, strong enforcement, stiff punishments and rehabilitation for offenders.

"Those who advise for removal often compare us with countries who have already lost the drug war. I am not sure if these people understand the consequences, or choose not to understand them."

He added, "We prefer not to have to impose the death penalty on anyone. But we have to continue to do what is best for us."

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