DEATH TO THE DEATH PENALTY?
The imposition of the death penalty is one that always polarises society, not just in Singapore but in states where it remains law. Even in states where it has been repealed (notably the EU), there remain calls for its' re-introduction especially after an act of savagery has occurred.
In Singapore, the death penalty can be pronounced in the following cases:
a) Waging war or mutiny
b) Treason (like espionage)
d) Attempted murder by a prisoner on a life term.
e) Kidnapping or abduction to murder (it used to be for ransom as well)
f) Abetment of suicide of a juvenile or insane person
g) Perjury (false testimony) resulting in execution of an innocent person
h) Any unlawful discharge of firearms (previously there had to be intention to caused hurt/death), Of course the unlawful discharge must be accompanied unlawful possession.
i) Gang (5 or more) robbery resulting in death of the victim.
And the 2 most common cases of its imposition:
k) Drug trafficking
In some of these cases, the imposition of the death penalty is mandatory (firearms, murder, drug trafficking) while in others it's left to the judge to decide. In the former, the decision to charge a person with a capital offence lies entirely with the Public Prosecutor (and his DPPs). If an accused is convicted of the charge, he must be sentenced to death. The judge has no discretion whatsoever. However a person under the age of 18 (at the time of offence) and pregnant women will not sentenced to death.
For some strange reason, the authorities here are hesitant to provide an up to date detail of persons under capital punishment, or their impending execution or list the names of those executed. They will only provide a list of the number of executions the following year and that's about it. Here's an example:
In 2012, they indicated that 4 persons were hanged in 2011, the last in July 2011. Since then the Govt has done a review, presumably at the Law Society's urging:
As such there have been no executions since then. There are around 34 persons facing execution who will have their cases reviewed to see if they come under the new amendments. The amendments in a nutshell allow judges to instead of imposing the death penalty, substitute it with life imprisonment if they meet the following:
1) No intent to commit murder for murder charges
2) Some mental disability in drug traffickers
3) Substantive cooperation by drug traffickers who were not involved in manufacture, supply or distribution of drugs.
For the last category, they have to help in investigations and make a dent to their bosses operations, before the DPP will issue a Certificate of Cooperation, and the judge can impose the life sentence upon conviction. (Yeah I know, uniquely Singapore, even a certificate at sentencing!) Before I go further, I find this amendment too general or insufficient. What happens if the courier has no contact with the bosses? Most of them are just mules, facing some dire economic situation and tempted by unscrupulous traffickers who offer them fast cash, but themselves remain in the dark. I mean I doubt many of them will use real names and contacts, or leave a trail that leads back to them or their backers.
What happens to the mule that is unable to shed any further light on his trafficking other than his own involvement, because he simply doesn't have enough or more information to share, not that he is unwilling? How does he compare to one who has more information and is able to lead authorities here and abroad to bigger fish? Will he lose his life (not given a certificate) while the latter gets life instead?
Because of so little by way of information, the public may never really know how this certificate is given or withheld. We only get to see the statistics a year later. Will the judge or defense counsel know, if the prosecution doesn't tender the certificate? The decision whether to tender is theirs to make after all. Can a judge question that decision? If he can't then obviously, he has to invoke the death penalty if he finds the accused guilty. Even if he can, can he order the prosecution to tender it, or must he proceed with the death sentence if it isn't produced?
We will need to see how this affects cases when a trial comes before the High Court or an appeal to the Court of Appeal. Until then, with a lack of transparency all round, we have to wait. To those who oppose the death penalty altogether, these new amendments at least offers some hope that wasn't available before, but many feel it doesn't alter the status quo much, with only a handful of cases that may actually benefit.
Anyway back to the main question: Is it good for Singapore to continue to have the death penalty? Are the offences listed from (a) to (k) proper and correct to have a death penalty?
Before we consider this, we must look at the obvious alternative to the death penalty - life imprisonment. Previously life imprisonment meant 20 years behind bars, after which the offender would be released. (I can't remember if it was 13 years before this for life terms or was it 20 years all along). Then in the late 90s, then CJ Yong Pung How decreed that life imprisonment was just that - life. The practise now I believe is that life imprisonment means a minimum of 20 years to be served, with reviews after that to see the suitability of returning the offender to society. If he fails these reviews then he will die in jail.
Some people will argue that the death penalty is a suitable deterrent, that certain crimes are so heinous or that some offenders so vile, that it must remain. Then they are some who agree with the above, except that for certain categories of offenders like drug mules, the death penalty should be spared. Finally there are those who feel the death penalty is not a suitable deterrent, especially in drug trafficking, because we still get such cases. When people are desperate they don't think right and will always take risks.
I am actually among a small percentage of Singaporeans who have been indirectly or directly touched by the death penalty. It is easy to comment about something that you are not part off and take a certain stand, but it's a bit different when you are closer to it, and you wonder about its merits.
I was previously for the death penalty for most cases, notably murder, waging war and firearms possession. Now after more thought on the matter, I think we shouldn't use the death penalty as a deterrent because it can never fulfill that role fully. Rather I think the death penalty should be a proper punishment for certain offences that justify its use - like waging far, treason and in certain cases of murder. I don't think the death penalty deters drug traffickers anymore than a life sentence does. No trafficker wants to spend 20 years or more behind bars anymore than he wants to hang for his offences.
I also think we should not impose strict mandatory sentences that judges must follow. I think more discretion can and should be allowed. I also think a new sentence between death and life imprisonment should be enacted - life without the possibility of parole. I think this provision gives judges more leeway in sentencing certain offenders guilty of murder, firearm and other offences, and such cases which they feel do not deserve the imposition of death, but that the offender shouldn't ever be released to society.
The alternative would be more exercise of the clemency option available to the President. Malaysia and other Asean countries also have the death penalty and it's routinely imposed, however it's carried out sparingly, as the Govts usually advise the Head of State to commute the sentences. After all the the imposition of the death penalty is purely a legal issue while the issue of mercy remains an Executive one.
I think that's the fairest way to go about it. We retain the right to use the death penalty for certain offences, while also retaining the right when not to carry out, as opposed to the current practise, where it becomes a foregone conclusion and a matter of routine. It meets both the pro and anti groups half-way, retaining the deterrent effect the former wants, whilst cutting back as the latter advocates. But it's not about pandering to 1 or the other, it's about a fair and just use of a lethal exercise.
Sir Anyhow Hamtam
*Article first appeared on http://anyhowhantam.blogspot.sg/