A few days ago I did an interview with Channel NewsAsia for a documentary. Despite my obvious ineptitude when it comes to being in front of the camera (I’d much rather be running errands on the other side of the lens), everyone was really nice to me, although parts of the interview got a little awkward:
“So, what do you blog the most about?”
“The issue that I give the most attention to would be the death penalty.”
“… Ah. We’re not really allowed to go into that, so can you say something else? What do you second-most blog about?”
(NOTE: The above conversation is not verbatim, but put together from memory. The words may not be accurate but the gist certainly is.)
It was therefore with surprise that I woke up on Thursday to find that another member of Singapore’s mainstream media – The Straits Times – had not only mentioned the death penalty, but had done a whole Special Report on it!
I notice, though, that the report does not contain any quotes or interviews with anti-death penalty activists, so We Believe In Second Chances has taken the liberty of making a response to the report, which you can read here. This blog post is just an opportunity for me to set down my own further thoughts on the article.
The first thing to note, of course, is that a reduction in the number of executions each year, while positive, is ultimately meaningless if we are still constantly sentencing people to death. If we’re continuing to build up a huge backlog of inmates waiting for execution, it means that there could be a potential bloodbath whenever executions resume with regularity. Therefore, it is important for us not just to know the number of executions each year, but the number of people on death row each year.
Secondly, the article mentions towards the end that the death penalty has had a deterrent effect (which is why less foreigners come to Singapore now and go on “crime sprees”), yet fails to provide any sort of evidence to prove that the death penalty works as a deterrence. This is probably because there isn’t actually any evidence that the death penalty works as a deterrence, as has been pointed out time and again.
In fact, the article itself suggests various other reasons for the dip in serious crime as well as the number of executions:
“In the past, murders were often gang-related, so they were carried out in large groups,” [criminal lawyer Amolat Singh] said. “As many as seven to eight people could be charged for one murder. However, murders now are usually crimes of passion, where there are just one or two offenders.”
“Street corner gangs” are now popular with young people looking for fun and companionship. However, they are less aggressive than those of the 1990s and confine themselves largely to petty crimes such as theft and vandalism. … As they are not making a living through the gang, they take it less seriously and are less aggressive…
The nature of drug trafficking is also changing… Criminal lawyer Chia Boon Teck said they are bringing in different types of narcotics or reducing the quantity to avoid the mandatory death sentence.
“There is a changing pattern of consumption for drug abusers to soft drugs [which do not attract the death penalty].”
Lawyers said executions were also falling because the Attorney-General’s Chambers had been exercising greater discretion when prosecuting offenders.
From these excerpts, we can extrapolate that the reason for the falling execution rate is not necessarily because the death penalty has been so effective that there is no more crime to tackle, but because
1) youth gangs are no longer as violent as they once were due to changing socio-economic status,
2) there is now a demand for a different type of drug (which happens to not attract the death penalty),
3) that drug smugglers are bringing in smaller quantities and
4) the AGC is choosing not to press for the death penalty for certain cases.
None of these reasons suggest that we are dealing with the problems that we’ve been told the death penalty deals with. These reasons merely suggest that crime and criminal behaviour (especially when it comes to drug crime) is evolving, while our methods remain the same. So, what will happen when Ecstasy becomes overwhelmingly the new drug of choice? Would we include it as a drug that attracts the mandatory death penalty too? And what happens when some other drug appears on the market after Ecstasy? And another one after that? And after that?
And if drug syndicates are getting smart and sending through three mules with 10 grams of heroin each instead of one mule with 30 grams, what are we going to do? Lower the threshold that attracts the mandatory death penalty, and hang more mules?
Is it really smart to stubbornly stick to the same old system – which has never been proven to be effective in the first place – when everything else is changing around us?
P.S. For the brevity’s sake I have decided to focus on just a couple of points. There are other problematic aspects of the article which I will leave to my fellow activists to point out, and for the public to discuss.
However, I would like to add that I felt the comment on human rights lawyer Mr M Ravi – saying that his efforts to save Shanmugam Murugesu were “publicity stunts” that gave the family “false hope” – were completely unfair and uncalled for. The death penalty is not a late-stage incurable illness from which there is no hope of salvation. It is a man-made system that takes away the life of a healthy individual who would otherwise potentially live for a good many more years. Are we really so mean as to fault someone for trying every possible way of saving a life?
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