by Ivan Teo
The death penalty doesn’t make for good dinner conversation. In Singapore, tacit approval of it is a foregone conclusion. To question it is taboo. Many deem the death penalty integral to our justice system and society.
I used to ignore it; it was something for someone else to worry about. Until I came across a few videos, of tearful relatives pleading their loved one’s case. Not faceless “others”, but real people begging for their lives.
It made me sit up, take notice and wonder: Why has the death penalty so captivated Singapore? Why can’t we seem to let it go?
Perhaps we need some background information on the subject. Singapore and the death penalty go back a long way: it was codified in the then-British colony’s Penal Code, and enacted in 1871. It’s a punishment that Singapore has fiercely defended and retained to this day. Singapore has not been hesitant in using it, with one of the highest per-capita execution rates in the world between 1994 and 1999. Data released has shown that Singapore executed 4 people in 2011.
Still, what do these numbers actually mean? To me, fairly little. Because I believe a life is worth far more than any statistic can tell us.
I don’t believe in the death penalty. But I do not want to only trot out cases that win sympathy. I do not want to cherry pick cases rife with allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. I want to talk about the place death penalty has in Singapore and whether it is deserved.
The nature of this punishment should make anyone hesitate. It is irreversible. You cannot recompense a life. And while we may have faith in our justice system, it is human to err and it is humans who work within this system. The propensity for a miscarriage of justice and the gravity of the consequences are considerations that must be taken into account. Issues of proportionality also come into play. A bulk of those executed within our shores is for drug-related charges. Should non-violent drug offenders be sentenced to death?
Finally: the deterrent factor. The most commonly used — and overstated — argument. An attractive one due to its simplicity. Commit a crime, get punished, future crimes are prevented. However, this truism has not fared well under scrutiny, much research done on it have been inconclusive at best. Furthermore, the intentional homicide rate in Singapore is comparable to that of Norway and Hong Kong, and Singapore’s drug-related crime rate is worse than those in countries such as Costa Rica and Turkey. All these states have managed to deter heinous crimes without recourse to the ultimate penalty of death. I don’t think we need to do so either.
The death penalty in Singapore raises important questions about the kind of criminal justice system we want. Do we want an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ custom that legitimizes executions based on retribution? Or do we want a system that is merciful, that believes in rehabilitation and reparative justice?
We all want closure for the victims’ family and friends. We all want to deter crime. But the dead can’t make amends. The dead cannot be deterred. And while the death penalty may have some benefits, the question asked should not be: Does it work?
It should be: Is it right? Is it necessary?
All we can do now is to ask these questions and try to change minds. This will not be easy. Singapore has often used nationalistic language to jealously guard capital punishment. So it is up to us, Singaporeans who care about this issue, to raise it, to make it into a national conversation. While there have been some positive steps in the right direction, we have a long way to go. And we will work and wait for the day when cooler heads prevail and Singapore finally makes a clean break from the death penalty.