Singapore Justice Minister Addresses Death Penalty Issue on Astro Awani

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SINGAPORE, September 2 – Will the death penalty in Singapore go the way of Section 377A as public attitudes towards it change? Minister of Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam, addressed this and other capital punishment issues in an interview with a Malaysian TV channel aired on Thursday evening (September 1).

Mr Shanmugam was being interviewed on Malaysian news agency Astro Awani’s Consider This program, a transcript of which was shared with Singapore media.

In the 25-minute video interview, Ms. Melisa Idris, Deputy Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Astro Awani, questioned the Minister about Singapore’s continued use of the death penalty, amid what she said to be of international concern over the frequency of executions occurring in Singapore this year.

The consider this program has previously interviewed analysts and experts to comment on a range of topics such as political events in Malaysia, as well as social and environmental issues, among others.

The following is an edited version of how Mr. Shanmugam answered questions.

On the death penalty

Ms. Melisa: In recent decades there seems to be a clear trend away from capital punishment. I think over 70% of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty, in law or in practice. Do you see Singapore’s tough drug policies eventually going the same way (or changing)?

Mr Shanmugam: Melisa, first, in terms of country. China, India, the United States – the three most populous countries and together 40% of the world’s population – apply the death penalty.

I think we have to try to accept that a significant part of the world imposes the death penalty, (and has) the death penalty on the books.

Second, when you talk about Singapore’s ‘tough’ penalties, I think you have to understand the framework.

If you look at our laws, our position on the death penalty is pretty clear. We have it because it has been an effective deterrent for us and has saved lives in Singapore.

Regarding the death penalty for drug trafficking – after the introduction of the mandatory death penalty for opium in 1990, there was a 66% reduction in the average weight of opium trafficked to Singapore .

In the 1990s, we were arresting about 6,000 drug addicts in Singapore a year. Now we arrest half that number, or around 3,000, even though our population has increased, and even though Singapore’s wealth has increased and people can pay more.

That’s 3,000 abusers a year saved from the effects of drugs, and countless more – family members, parents, children.

So what if we move away from a softer approach to drugs? You don’t have to guess.

From international criticism

Ms. Melisa: I would like to ask you about the international chorus of criticism regarding Singapore’s use of the death penalty. Why are we seeing such a backlash? More recently, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Office and the International Commission of Jurists are among the few to criticize Singapore, in particular, for its continued executions.

Mr Shanmugam: The UN has different organizations, so some parts say well, you shouldn’t have the death penalty for drug trafficking, and in fact, you shouldn’t have the death penalty at all.

But do you see the same “chorus of criticism” when the United States executes people?

I think we have to look at what is the basis of the criticism, what are they saying?

Look at countries like Latin America. The Financial Times recently published an article (according to which) 18 of the 21 continental countries have now lost control due to drugs. Organized crime has taken over, their countries are a major source of transit, and big problems — kidnappings, crime.

Now, who is watching these people’s lives? Have you seen the United Nations Human Rights Office talking about the lives that have been lost in the United States or other countries in Latin America and Asia? What about that? Don’t we have compassion for the victims?

On reputation

Ms. Melisa: Don’t you think that Singapore’s international reputation has suffered from the executions?

Mr Shanmugam: Well, tell me, did he suffer? From stealing to quality, or people coming here in the thousands? And the flow of investments and the flow of transactions? Singapore’s reputation has never been stronger.

On support for the death penalty

Ms. Melisa: Are the majority of Singaporeans convinced by the government’s justification for retaining the death penalty?

Mr Shanmugam: In Singapore, our most recent survey in 2021 (found that) seven out of 10 people support the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking and almost 80% support the mandatory death penalty for murder.

Why do they support him? Because over 80% think the death penalty has deterred these crimes in Singapore. The data speaks for itself.

Ms. Melisa: What is the government’s approach to those fighting against the death penalty, especially if that effort comes from across the street?

Mr Shanmugam: Our effort is to explain to people why we bother. Any punishment can only be justified if you can rationally explain why you have it.

In Singapore, our job, like (with) any government, if we think it’s the right thing to do, is to persuade our people, including the 20-30% (who don’t support the death penalty), that we are doing the right thing.

Of course, if there is a different view that is in the majority, ultimately that will prevail, and the laws will have to change to reflect the majority view.

But, if you’re in government and you believe something is right, let it be (the) majority point of view or minority point of view, you explain your position, then you decide if morally, you are ready to stay, even if you think that the measures which are going to be taken are against the public interest.

Ms. Melisa: Singapore recently repealed Section 377A of the Penal Code, the law that criminalizes sex between men, because public attitudes have “significantly changed”. Would the same be true of the death penalty — that the government might reconsider its position if public attitudes change significantly?

Mr Shanmugam: First of all, it will not be entirely accurate to say that the repeal of Section 377A was announced by the Singapore government simply because public attitudes have changed. The question arises whether Section 377A raises public order issues.

With the death penalty, the stakes are slightly different. It’s not quite the everyday morality. It’s related to…philosophical questions that have real consequences, like can you put someone on death row, even if you’re convinced that more lives will be saved?

Now, the point that (I)… make to you is that more lives would be saved.

But suppose an election has been held and a party puts it on their platform that they are going to abolish the death penalty, and they win – that is their manifesto… (and) they have a duty towards the electorate to abolish the death penalty.

Public opinion therefore matters. But if you ask me…I would say that it is my duty to keep trying to persuade Singaporeans that the death penalty has a serious deterrent effect and keeps Singapore safe.

On the availability of cannabis in Thailand

Ms. Melisa: Thailand (is) the first country in Asia to legalize cannabis. How (do you see) this impacting the drug situation in the region, (and) what impact could this have on Singapore?

Mr Shanmugam: On (June 9th of this year), the Thai government…decriminalized the sale of cannabis. Within a week, cannabis was everywhere – in drinks, food, toothpaste and cookies. The government then had to try to limit its effects.

But once it’s in cookies, and once it’s in soft drinks, and once it’s in toothpaste, how do you protect nursing mothers? How to protect pregnant women? How do you protect young children? How do you control this? So there are difficulties to control once you do that.

Would that be a problem? I think the more open availability of cannabis in Thailand, where a lot of Singaporeans go and where a lot of tourists come to Singapore from, is going to present more challenges. I’m sure.

On the abolition of the death penalty in Malaysia

Ms. Melisa: Malaysia is considering abolishing the mandatory death penalty, returning full discretion to judges in sentencing capital crimes. Is this something Singapore would consider?

Mr Shanmugam: There is a good reason why we have the mandatory death penalty. It is a matter of politics. We (the Singapore government) have decided that once a certain threshold is crossed, in order to have a deterrent effect, people need to know that the mandatory death penalty will apply.

If we remove that, the deterrent effect of the death penalty will be greatly reduced.

We are unlikely to change just because Malaysia is changing. We will change when we think the deterrent is no longer there, for example, or the conditions are different, and you need to take a different approach to have that deterrent – TODAY

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