Official rhetoric and international pressures: the beginning of the end of Singapore’s death penalty?

Official rhetoric and international pressures: the beginning of the end of Singapore’s death penalty?

Olivia Jones | 21 August 2021

In 2004, in a widely circulated report, Amnesty International declared that Singapore had the highest per-capita execution rate in the world, besting the likes of well-known retentionist countries like Iran and China. In preceding years, Singaporean state officials stressed the necessity of the death penalty in keeping the country a ‘well-ordered, clean and pure society’, telling Amnesty International they make no apology for their tough law and order system. This rhetoric has continued in recent years, with the Delegate of Singapore telling the United Nations Human Rights Council in February 2021 that states must respect each other’s prerogative to determine whether or not to use the death penalty. Yet, astute observers like Professor Michael Hor have noticed granular shifts in Singapore’s death penalty practice. During our Conversation Series seminar, Hor noted that despite Singapore’s death penalty rhetoric remaining consistent, the gradual decline in Singapore’s execution rates and amendments to drug trafficking offences may signal the beginning of the end of Singapore’s death penalty.

A brief look at the numbers

Over the 1990s, Hor described Singapore’s death penalty as reaching a ‘high water mark’, where the nation executed between 50-70 people per year. He noted, though, that in the present millennium, this figure dropped drastically to single digits, down to 5-6 people per year. But what triggered this drastic drop? Hor puts it down to the international reaction to Singapore’s high per-capita execution rate following the publication of Amnesty International’s report. He explained, ‘Singapore relies on international connections, money, and business, so it is deeply concerned with how it appears to the world’, indicating that ‘international adverse publicity does have an impact on the way that the government uses the death penalty’.

Amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act

A further softening of Singapore’s use of the death penalty came in the form of the amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act, which came into effect in 2013. Under the amendments, for individuals convicted for trafficking in controlled drugs, the court may exercise its discretion in either handing down the death penalty or sentencing the individual to life imprisonment with 15 strokes of the cane if that individual satisfies two criteria. Firstly, the individual must have merely been involved in transporting, sending or delivering the illicit drug. Secondly, they must have meaningfully cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau to receive a ‘Certificate of Substantial Assistance’ from the prosecutor, or otherwise be suffering from an abnormality of the mind that substantially impaired their mental responsibility for their acts or omissions in relation to the offence. Hor notes that these amendments have not ‘in practical terms made that much of a difference [in lowering execution rates]’, as ‘cases that succeed under the 2013 exceptions in the past would have avoided the death penalty by other means’.

However, the amendments do mark a symbolic retreat from the mandatory death penalty, and one that personally surprised Hor. He believed the impetus for the amendments was once again caused by a growing discontent in the international arena towards Singapore’s death penalty. While the nation fell out of the international gaze in the years following Amnesty International’s 2004 report, it garnered international attention again around 2010. This renewed attention was caused by a surge in domestic ‘activist litigation’, where defence counsel began challenging every aspect of the death penalty, from ‘the pardon discretion and prosecutorial discretion’ to the very constitutionality of the death penalty. These challenges reached the highest courts in Singapore, attracting international attention. Hor argues these challenges served as a ‘repeat of Amnesty International’, leading the government to pass the amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act that eroded the reach of the mandatory death penalty.

Despite the little practical difference that the amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act have made in lowering execution rates, Hor still believes that ‘even if only formally, this is a step in the right direction’.

Where to from here?

While there have indeed been shifts in Singapore’s death penalty policies and execution numbers over the past 20 years, curiously there has been no corresponding change in Singapore’s enthusiasm for defending the death penalty on the international stage. Hor speculates that this harkens back to the mode of governance in Singapore. The People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since 1959, have leveraged the death penalty for drug crimes as ‘one of the pillars of their policies’, with the death penalty serving as a trademark of the government’s ‘strong law and order image’. He believes the government utilises the death penalty to send a message of social control that ‘the government can do anything to you it feels like it needs to’. So, if there were a retreat from the death penalty, ‘it would affect the philosophy of governance itself’.

However, as Hor observed, the Singaporean government’s pro-death penalty rhetoric is increasingly at odds with the ‘progressive, green, ideal society’ that the government seeks to portray. Additionally, profound shifts in Singapore’s political culture have seen the People’s Action Party facing a stronger oppositional presence and increased calls for accountability and transparency than any time before in the nation’s history. These factors, coupled with the nation’s arguable display of self-consciousness in reducing execution numbers, may leave room for cautious optimism about the demise of Singapore’s death penalty. After all, ‘if Singapore can well afford a reduction in executions from 28 to six per year, a reasonable member of the public might well ask why it is unacceptable to make a rather less drastic move from six to none’.

Olivia Jones is in her penultimate year of a Bachelor of Law (Hons)/Global Studies degree at Monash University. In 2019, she travelled to Jakarta for two months to intern at LBH Masyarakat, an organisation that provides legal aid to people facing the death penalty in Indonesia. She later completed a clinical placement at the Eleos Anti-Death Penalty Clinic in 2020. She is passionate about procedural fairness and human rights and is currently exploring these topics in her honours thesis in administrative law.