Glimmers of hope

Over a year since it was first amended, we have been seeing the changes in the mandatory death penalty in Singapore.

Several lives have already been saved. One of those who received new sentences was Yong Vui Kong, for whom his family and anti-death penalty activists have campaigned so hard for. He fell to his knees when he realised that he would not be hanged.

It was a relief to know that some inmates would not be executed after all. But alongside these (relatively) happy announcements is something more serious: the changes in the mandatory death penalty have led to important developments that will affect future cases, and even the way we talk about the death penalty itself.

In a written judgment that was recently released Justice Lee Seiu Kin explained that he decided not to hang Wang Wenfang (who was convicted of murder about five years ago) because the prosecution had failed to prove that life imprisonment would not be enough of a deterrent to others.

“…it is one thing to impose a higher fine or period of imprisonment for an offence against a taxi driver to deter like-minded from carrying out offences against taxi drivers,” he wrote. ”It is quite another to say that it is necessary and appropriate to impose a sentence of death where life imprisonment is otherwise called for.”

Of course, there’s even more to say about the deterrent effect of the death penalty, which has been inconclusive at best. (There are just too many variables in crime – especially one such as murder – to be able to pinpoint such a deterrent effect.)

But Justice Lee brings up an important point; it is not enough to say that the death penalty is a deterrent. To truly justify the death penalty (if it can ever be justified), one not only needs to prove that it is a deterrent, but that it is more effective than any other punishment.

I might be wrong, but I believe this is the first time the deterrence argument has been addressed in such a way by a Singaporean judge. Of course, it wasn’t really possible before; the mandatory nature of the death penalty meant that there was no room for a judge to make such a point or such a decision. Now that judges are allowed more leeway, we will hopefully see more of such discussion in court. Such arguments are important, as they shift the way we think and talk about the death penalty.

Another matter of significance is the expanded bench that will sit in the Court of Appeal next week for the case of Muhammad Ridzuan Md Ali. Two additional judges have been added to the bench so that a decision can be made with ”with the benefit of the collective wisdom and insights of a larger pool of judges.”

Ridzuan is appealing the decision to uphold his death sentence after his friend – who was charged for drug trafficking with him – was given the Certificate of Cooperation (CoC) and re-sentenced.

It would be interesting to see what the arguments will be and what the judges will decide. There are a number of death row inmates whose fates will no doubt be affected by this judgment (one of them could very well be Cheong Chun Yin, who has been denied a CoC).

There are reasons to see glimmers of hope. It’s all come down to the amendments in the mandatory death penalty. Little by little, Singapore moves towards a more nuanced, mature discussion of the death penalty. And that can only be good for all of us.

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