Fear, fear and more fear. Then a loud parroting of the government’s line. That’s all you need. Only rookies need evidence.
That’s the impression one gets from today’s Straits Times editorial on the death penalty for drugs, anyway. (If you have an online subscription to the paper, you can read it here.)
In it, the piece wildly applauds the government’s amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act pertaining to the use of the mandatory death penalty. In times of such fear and peril, how else can we stay safe? Clearly this is the way to fight the war on drugs, with our brave ministers leading the charge!
This would all be great, only it’s not what’s actually happening.
Even if we ignore the editorial’s evidence-less claim that majority of the Singaporeans support the death penalty and the mandatory death penalty, it’s sneering at other society’s “ambivalent approach” deserves scrutiny. Which societies is it referring to, and what are the specifics? Is the writer talking about places like Mexico or Afghanistan, like our Law Minister K Shanmugam? As Lynn writes in her post, these countries are torn by conflict and war, with widespread (even systemic) poverty and allegations of corruption within government and even law enforcement.
In fact, it’s completely inaccurate to suggest that Central American nations like Mexico have an “ambivalent approach”. Thanks to the declared War on Drugs, Mexico can be considered to be in a state of civil war, government against powerful drug cartels. Every day there is violence and impunity, and the Mexicans have had enough. Earlier this year I stood in the zócalo in Cuernavaca photographing the one-year anniversary of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, watching Mexicans affected by the drug war call for a complete revision of their government’s drug policy. A few months ago they embarked on a Caravan for Peace across the USA, again calling for a change in drug policy. Guess what? They weren’t asking for the death penalty. Quite the opposite – they wanted an end to the War on Drugs, and for governments to explore decriminalisation, much like Portugal has done.
Just to make things more scary for everyone, the editorial also trots out the numbers. The number of drug abusers has increased by 30 million all over the world! If we don’t execute people in Singapore, we’ll be finished!
But hey, hasn’t the total world population also increased in the past decade? According to this, the population has grown by about 765 million from 2000 to 2010.
The Straits Times celebrates the changes, describing it as a “sensible” approach given “the nature of threats faced currently”. But it doesn’t examine the implications of these changes.
The amendments to the mandatory death penalty states that a judge may choose to sentence a convicted person to life imprisonment with caning instead of death in these cases:
– The offender is only a courier.
– The offender provides substantive cooperation to law enforcement.
– The offender has a mental disability that would affect his/her culpability.
It sounds pretty good on paper, but what happens when it’s practically applied? As the amendments are, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (being the prosecutor in this case) gets to determine whether the offender is a courier or not, and also to issue the Certificate of Cooperation that allows the accused to fulfil the second requirement. This process by the AGC is confidential and does not need to be justified to anyone. Unlike a judge’s ruling, there is no transparency in this process. If the prosecutor does not issue the Certificate of Cooperation, the judge will have no choice but to stick with the mandatory death penalty.
How is “substantive cooperation” defined anyway? In Sylvia Lim’s speech in Parliament she highlighted “that information which does not enhance the effective enforcement of the Act ‘will not suffice’”. This means that low level mules who have very little information may not even be issued with Certificates of Cooperation, just because they have nothing of use to investigators. Meanwhile, those higher up the food chain in the syndicate may be able to obtain Certificates of Cooperation because of the more valuable information they have. Essentially we will then be punishing people (with death!) not for their crime, but for their lack of usefulness to the Central Narcotics Bureau.
And what if the mule was tricked or misled? What information could they barter for their lives then?
And what if the investigators – for whatever reason – failed to act on the information? Will the offender have to pay for police incompetence with his life?
What is this all for?
Throughout this debate – and the whole anti-death penalty campaign – the government has stuck by the same line: we need the mandatory death penalty to keep Singapore safe, because drugs destroy lives but the death penalty saves them.
It’s all based on one assumption: our drug policy is the best solution. Therefore, any change to or deviation from the drug policy is a sign of increasing vulnerability and weakness.
But is that even true?
There is no evidence to show that the mandatory death penalty – or the death penalty itself – works as a deterrence to crime. This is because it’s something that simply cannot really be measured, because there are so many variables in our society to really isolate any one cause. When the numbers of drug abusers go down, is it really because of the death penalty? Or is it because of improving socio-economic circumstances, education and law enforcement? Or is it simply cyclical?
During the second reading of the amendments in Parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said this:
Our firm stand against drugs has led to an improvement in Singapore’s drug situation since the height of the problem in the mid-1990s, with a decrease in the number of drug abusers arrested from 208 per 100,000 of our resident population in 1994 to 88 per 100,000 in 2011.
But in the same speech he also said this:
On the demand side, the number of drug abusers arrested per year has increased by about 50 per cent from 2,211 to 3,326 in the five- year period between 2007 and 2011. Of particular concern is the increase in young abusers, with the number of youths below 21 years of age arrested for drug abuse tripling from 103 in 2007 to 326 in 2011.
So, according to him, the number of drug abusers has fallen from 1994 to 2011. Yet it has increased by 50% from 2007 to 2011. Even if we – with difficulty – ignore the fact that he chose to present the statistics in the first instance as “per 100,000 of our resident population”, and that our population has ballooned since 1994, the statistics present indicate that the numbers have (possibly) fallen, then risen again, even with the mandatory death penalty remaining constant.
What deterrent effect can we see then?
Our government trumpets the “anti-drug war” and takes pride in it, yet elsewhere in the world the War on Drugs is seen as failing. The Global Commission on Drug Policy launched a report in 2011 saying that the War on Drugs can never be won, and that it’s time to find alternatives. And they weren’t even referring to countries that use the death penalty for drug offences. Neither did they recommend the death penalty.
Drug abuse is a problem. It does endanger lives and threaten families. We all know that. Anti-death penalty activists do not deny the existence of the problem, nor do we turn a blind eye to those who suffer for their addiction. We agree that they are victims. But our current solution does not solve the problem; it merely creates even more victims just so we can trick ourselves into feeling safer. And every moment we cling on to this archaic punishment that doesn’t work is a moment spent not finding a better way.