Death Penalty in Singapore: Is It Time to Abolish It?

Rope tied into a noose against a dark background

In Singapore, there are 32 offences that could potentially warrant death sentences. 4 of these call for the mandatory death penalty, where the death penalty must be given and judges are not able to take into consideration mitigating circumstances when sentencing:

  • Murder
  • Drug trafficking
  • Terrorism
  • Possession of unauthorised firearms, ammunition or explosives

However, since an amendment to the law in 2012, the mandatory death penalty for the offences of murder and drug trafficking has been lifted in certain conditions and the courts can decide to impose life imprisonment instead. Specifically, for drug trafficking, the trafficker must have:

  • Only played the role of courier (i.e. transport, send or deliver) for a controlled drug; and
  • Either cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau in a significant way that has disrupted drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore; or had a mental disability that impaired their judgement of the severity of their actions in relation to the offence

Since the amendment, there have been a couple of cases where prisoners escaped the death sentence where they otherwise would not have.

People charged with capital offences will also be given free legal representation under the Legal Assistance for Capital Offences (LASCO).

How the Death Penalty is Executed

Singapore executes by hanging, and it is usually done on a Friday at dawn. However, the date of execution is usually not revealed in advance. Families are usually only informed on the Monday of the week of the execution. That said, families of foreign death-row inmates have slightly more time (roughly a week) in order for them to arrange to visit the inmate.

From the time when they are informed to the day of execution, family members are to make funeral arrangements and choose clothes for the inmate to wear during a pre-execution photo session, the photographs from which will be given to the family later. On the eve of the execution, inmates will get a last meal of their choice.

The actual process is carried out such that death is quick and the only people allowed to watch are doctors and prison officers.

Statistics on Execution in Singapore

According to Amnesty International, more than 400 prisoners have been hanged in Singapore since 1991, with the highest number of executions being 76 in 1994. In recent years, the number of executions seems to have decreased, but not to the point where none are carried out any more.

From 2014 to 2016, the estimate is at 2 to 4 persons a year. Lowy Institute reports there being a sudden increase to 8 persons in 2017, and while there has been no official statistics on the number of executions in 2018, activists believe it to be from 6 to 9.

The majority of those hanged have been Singaporeans, and most of these executions are the result of being convicted of drug trafficking or murder offences.

Some High-Profile Executions in Singapore

Took Leng How (Executed in 2006)

Took had been sentenced to death for the murder of 8-year-old Huang Na, who was reported missing on October 10 in 2004.

Forensic evidence strongly suggested that Took murdered the child but Took claimed diminished responsibility as a result of mental instability to escape the death penalty. The court was however unconvinced due to conflicting expert medical evidence that proved Took was not suffering from any mental abnormality at the time of the offence. In January 2006, he appealed against the sentence but it was rejected. Took was hanged on November 3, 2006.

Nguyen Tuong Van (Executed in 2005)

Nguyen was a Vietnam-born Australian citizen was caught carrying 396g of heroin, which is 26 times more than the mass of heroin that calls for the mandatory death penalty (i.e more than 15g). This case caught the attention of the press and government in Australia, who lobbied for months to stop the execution but to no success.

Kho Jabing (Executed in 2016)

Kho was a Sarawakian who was convicted of murdering a construction worker in 2008. He was originally sentenced to death but was re-sentenced to life imprisonment in 2013 after the lifting of the mandatory death penalty for murder in 2012. However, in 2015, the prosecution appealed and he was once again sentenced to death.

Is There Any Way for Offenders Sentenced to Death to Avoid the Death Penalty?

Singapore is known for its strict stance on the death penalty. As a result, it’s not common for offenders sentenced to death to be able to escape the death penalty.

Nonetheless, leniency may be granted in the following 2 cases:

1. Presidential clemency

Offenders are able to seek presidential clemency. However, successes are few and far between. Singapore has granted clemency to only 7 (Singaporean) inmates on death row since independence, with the last presidential clemency granted by President Halimah Yacob in December 2018 to the teenager involved in the killing of Anthony Ler’s wife.

Prior to this, the presidential clemency was last granted in 1998 by the late President Ong Teng Cheong.

2. Amendments to Singapore’s death penalty laws

The other situation leading to a possibility of escaping the death penalty is if there are amendments to Singapore’s death penalty laws. As mentioned earlier, Singapore’s law on mandatory death penalty underwent such a change in 2012.

Malaysian drug trafficker Yong Vui Kong and his accomplice were the first two people to be re-sentenced under the new law and escaped the gallows as a result.

Public Opinion on the Death Penalty in Singapore

At first glance, public opinion seems overwhelmingly in favour of the death penalty.

In 2006, a Straits Times survey reported that 96% of Singaporeans supported the death penalty. In 2016, yet another survey by Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry @ Home (REACH) reported 80% out of 1,160 Singaporeans supported the death penalty. 82% of the survey respondents also agreed that death penalty is an important deterrent to reduce serious crimes.

However, in the 2016 study of public opinion on death penalty in Singapore led by Associate Professor Chan Wing Cheong from the NUS Faculty of Law, it was revealed that:

  • Support for death penalty is nuanced – when presented with details and factual circumstances of individual cases where mandatory death penalty is warranted, a lower proportion of respondents supported the death penalty
  • Despite supporting the death penalty primarily for deterrence of crimes, approximately 75% of the participants ranked “greater number of executions” as the least preferable option in reducing the occurrence of crimes that call for the death penalty
  • A shift in opinion was observed if it was proved that innocent persons have sometimes been executed

Thus, public’s opinion on death penalty is often not held strongly or unconditionally. Rather, the opinion appears conditional upon:

  • The existence of mitigating circumstances of individual cases;
  • The death penalty’s effectiveness on deterring crimes; and
  • The strength of the belief that the process of administering the death penalty is error-free.

This suggests that the oft-spoken “public support” should not be taken as inherent support for death penalty because public opinion on the matter may not be reliable.

What Should be Done about the Death Penalty in Singapore?

The Singapore government takes a firm stance in retaining the death penalty, especially in relation to its war against drugs. It believes that the death penalty has been a strong deterrence to crime and keeping the drug situation under control.

However, international arguments have been made against Singapore’s use of death penalty, with the argument specifically leaning towards the global trend of eliminating the cruel practice.

The willingness of 106 countries to abolish the death penalty for all crimes further urges Singapore to abolish the death penalty as well. Since 2008, the UN General Assembly has been debating on a call for a moratorium (i.e. a temporary prohibition) on executions with a view of getting all member states, including Singapore, to abolish the death penalty.

In particular, the Human Rights Watch has also criticised Singapore’s use of death penalty as a “barbaric practice” and affirms that the death penalty deserves no place in modern society.

Regardless, Singapore urges the community, particularly anti-death penalty activists, to look at the bigger picture of the possible increase in crime caused by drug abuse, and the impacts of such crimes on victims and their families, should the death penalty be abolished.

In November 2018, the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin also revealed that there are “currently no plans to review the use of the death penalty in Singapore”.

Nevertheless, a survey is being conducted by the Ministry of Home Affairs to provide the government with an updated understanding of public sentiment on the death penalty in Singapore as part of regular research on Singapore’s criminal justice system.

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