In an interview with Yahoo!SG, Law Minister K Shanmugam said that the upcoming changes to the mandatory death penalty were part of the government’s original plan to review the legislation, and nothing to do with the campaigning of anti-death penalty activists in Singapore.
It’s fine if the government doesn’t want to acknowledge the anti-death penalty campaigns. As long as the issues are recognised and the change is real, it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. But from what I’ve seen in the Yahoo!SG article, all Mr Shanmugam has done throughout the interview is repeat the same assumptions and rhetoric that the government trots out every time the death penalty is mentioned. For some reason, the journalist seems not to have probed deeper.
According to the article, the Law Minister said that “nearly all drug offences are committed by people who have made careful calculations to do so.”
I wonder how Mr Shanmugam came to this conclusion. How closely has he studied all the cases? Has he gone down to death row to visit each and every drug offender so as to examine their motivations?
The binary between ignorance and “careful calculation” is a false one. Drug offenders aren’t either innocent lambs or physical manifestations of evil. Oftentimes you get people who are somewhere in the middle – they know that they’re committing a crime and risking arrest, yet circumstances have put them in a situation where their “calculations” may not be as rational as we may like them to be. In many of the cases I have seen offenders come from difficult, disadvantaged backgrounds.
In the years I have been involved in the anti-death penalty campaign and looking into the issue of drug policy, one of my major observations has been this: while drug abuse is a social health problem, drug crime can be seen as a socio-economic one. When our law minister says that all offenders have committed the crime after “careful calculation” he is dismissing and obscuring the complex and serious issues that lead to people making bad decisions (not just with drugs, but a myriad of other offences).
Those damn kingpins
Mr Shanmugam talks about the drug kingpins, admitting that it is very difficult to put them behind bars. He says: “…often they stay outside Singapore, and the few who come in or who we catch sometimes, there isn’t enough evidence to charge them in court, because the drugs are not found on them and we have to rely on someone else giving evidence.”
It’s true. Kingpins are a tough nut to crack. They’re powerful and they’re savvy. It is going to take a lot of work and ingenuity and luck to get these people.
But doesn’t he see that the difficulties he’s highlighted point towards a problem with the system? It is precisely because the kingpins do things like staying outside Singapore and making sure that they don’t have drugs found on them that the Misuse of Drugs Act ends up targeting only the small time mules who are dispensable and vulnerable enough to be found with drugs in their possession in the first place. (This, despite the fact that when the MDA was amended in 1975 the government specifically said that it was not to target mules.) These are the people who have very little effect or information on the syndicate, or the flow and supply of drugs. And yet this is the Act that comes with the mandatory death penalty attached, and these are the people who pay the ultimate price.
That 14.99g thing
“A lot of people don’t realise this, but in a significant number of cases this discretion has been exercised and a charge for 14.99 grammes has been brought in court. The AG only proceeds on cases where he feels the death penalty really is merited — on the facts.”
So says Mr Shanmugam. I think this point is meant to show that the death penalty isn’t wielded willy-nilly on any offender, but those who really have it coming. Look, the prosecution isn’t a bloodthirsty beast, it saves lives sometimes with this 14.99g discretion!
Damien, the co-founder of We Believe in Second Chances, has this to say: “The way Shanmugam puts it, the prosecutor effectively retains control over sentencing. He says that the Public Prosecutor exercising discretion has saved lives, but it should be the job of the judges to decide the sentences of the offenders. And furthermore judges are obliged to give reasons. The prosecution does it under a veil of confidentiality. We dont know why or how they decide whether a person should get the death sentence or not.”
Even after the changes kick in, judges still don’t have much room to manoeuvre: they only have one additional option – life imprisonment with caning – on top of the death penalty. When the prosecution decides to apply the discretion to charge a person with 14.99g rather than the full amount, the prosecution is making a decision that should be left to the judge. This whole mess with the 14.99g exists because the judges’ discretion has been so needlessly restricted.
Just in the past few years alone I have seen interest in the death penalty and its application in Singapore increase. From modest turnouts in Speakers’ Corner to packed rooms and theatres I have seen Singaporeans of all shapes and sizes come forward to plead for second chances for inmates, and to call for an end to an archaic and barbaric punishment in an otherwise advanced, developed nation.
It’s a pity that the government chooses to ignore these Singaporeans and their concerns. It’s a pity that when it comes to something as serious as killing a human being in all our names, the government chooses to dismiss the voices of Singaporeans.
Thank you, national conversation.