I’ve read the article at least five times. I read it on my phone, then again on my laptop. The change in screen size didn’t help. I still don’t get what Wong Meng Meng is trying to say about the death penalty in his article ‘Understanding the death penalty‘.
The article meanders its way around the issue, picking apart arguments that no one has made, going on about history that bears no relation to modern-day application before ending with musing over whether we should spare murderers the noose lest their victims’ wives become prostitutes.
In his first rebuttal against “proponents for the abolition of the death sentence”, Wong happily deconstructs the argument that the death penalty is a breach of a person’s right to due process under the rule of law. It’s interesting that he’s picked this particular argument to tackle, since it’s not one that has been brought up by many – if any – anti-death penalty activists in Singapore. If I remember rightly, the closest we’ve got to this argument was when a challenge to the constitutionality of the mandatory death penalty was brought before the courts, and it was argued that the mandatory death penalty was in violation of international customary law. Otherwise, I don’t think this argument about the breach of due process has been brought up in the Singaporean context. I’m having difficulty understanding who Wong is responding to.
His next rebuttal is against the argument that “it is not within the human spirit to inflict death as a punishment”. He then goes on to talk about historical uses of the death penalty, going back to the Laws of Hammurabi, talking about how people were executed not just for murder, but for other crimes like adultery. I suppose his point is that the death penalty is not in conflict with the human spirit, since it has been used throughout history.
Again, this is not an argument that has been brought up by anti-death penalty activists in Singapore. We don’t say that it is against the human spirit, or that it is not in human nature to kill. We know that humans have always killed other humans. But what we’re saying is that regardless of whether it goes against our spirit or not, it is wrong. No one has the right to take away another human being’s right to live, not even the State. There is no logic in murdering someone just to show others that murder is wrong.
Also, the historical use of the death penalty does not justify its continued existence today. Societies evolve, people progress. We have come a long way from the Laws of Hammurabi (which also makes provision for the buying and selling of slaves and the laying of spells on each other, by the way).
As the President of Singapore’s Law Society, writing for Singaporean publications, I’m not sure why Wong has not chosen to address the arguments brought up within the Singaporean context. Here are some of the arguments that local anti-death penalty activists have brought up:
1) The death penalty is morally wrong, because it’s wrong to kill people. It’s also a breach of the right to life, a right recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
2) The death penalty is an ultimate, irreversible punishment. There is absolutely no room for error when it comes to execution. However, the entire system – like all other systems – is vulnerable to human error. Wrongful executions are not only possible, but only a matter of time. And when it happens, there is no way for us to bring the person back or rectify the mistake.
3) There is no evidence that the death penalty has any deterrent effect on crime. There is no evidence to prove that it is a deterrent to crime in Singapore, and studies done overseas have either been inconclusive, or have indicated that the death penalty may not be an effective deterrent.
4) The death penalty, already an ultimate, irreversible punishment, is made all the worse in Singapore with the existence of the mandatory death penalty. The mandatory death penalty removes the discretion of the judges in sentencing, and goes against the principle of having the punishment fit the crime and the criminal. Although the government has recently announced that there will be some changes made to the mandatory death penalty, the proposed changes are at best only slight tweaks, and do not necessarily offer judges a lot more discretion.
These are some of the more commonly brought up arguments in Singapore. See here for more.
Wong continues to argue that there is room for the death penalty in the modern world, especially for crimes that threaten the fabric of society. For example, he says, “The death sentence for drug traffickers (including the kingpins) is justified for nations whose youth are ravaged by easy access to harmful drugs. It would also be justified for nations who fear their youths could suffer the same fate.”
It would be helpful if Wong could clarify why he thinks the death penalty is justified in cases where the social fabric is threatened. Does he mean that the death penalty is justified because it will prevent future such incidents from happening (i.e. that there is a deterrent effect)? Surely not, because he himself says that “deterrence as an argument has been difficult to prove in reality.”
The only other reason that I can come up with, then, is that the death penalty is justified because when the social fabric is threatened, the people feel the need for revenge, or retribution. In which case, I would like to ask this: is vengefulness a quality we want to encourage in our society? Do we really want a community where we kill people just to satisfy our need to punish them in the harshest way we know how? Or will other punishments be sufficient?
Wong writes, “From a practical point of view, executing a murderer effectively kills the problem.” It is worth noting that he says it “kills” the problem, not “solves” it. Of course, unless one can bring the murder victim back to life, it’s impossible to “solve” the problem that a murder creates. The death penalty then allows the State to kill the murderer (i.e. the “problem”), removing the need for us to understand why a crime like murder happens in the first place, or the need to seek alternative solutions. But is this what we really want in our society? A system that allows us to dismiss problems by killing people?
Wong ends his article by speculating from a practical point of view the merits of keeping a murderer alive so that he can work and pay his wages to the family of his victim, as a form of compensation. Wong’s worry is that if the murder victim was the sole breadwinner, “[t]he wife might be driven into prostitution, and the children forced to leave school and ultimately become burdens to the state.”
Although I have no issue with compensation for the victim’s family, and think the idea of having the murderer make reparations is one that may deserve further consideration, I’m a little wary of the logic upon which this suggestion has been based. Would the murderer be kept alive only if he is needed to support the victim’s family? What if the victim was not the sole breadwinner, or if the victim had no family? Would we then execute the murderer because he loses all value?
The death penalty has no place in modern society because it is high time we move beyond our “tribal needs”. It is high time we recognise that the death penalty is a flawed system vulnerable to mistakes that we cannot afford to make. The death penalty is a system that holds us back from building a more compassionate, civilised society, and it’s time we put our foot down and say, “Enough.”