Death penalty: Singapore’s ongoing killing spree

Oct 2, 2022
Singapore - Asia map, passport, hangmans knot and immigration card with death penalty warning for drug traffickers. The death penalty is mandatory for certain aggravated drug-trafficking offences.

Singapore continues to risk its reputation as leader in arbitration in the region through its use of the death penalty, primarily, for minor drug offences. This goes against the overwhelming global trend towards abolition of the death penalty and tarnishes Singapore’s reputation as a jurisdiction committed to upholding fair trial guarantees.

Since 30 March this year, 10 men have been executed, all for drug trafficking offences of various kinds. These included Abdul Kahar bin Othman, a 68-year-old man who lived with an addiction to drugs since the age of 16 and was convicted of trafficking 66.77 grams of heroin into Singapore (who had spent a decade on death row); Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, 34, convicted of importing 42.72 grams of heroin (who had an IQ of 69, a level that is internationally recognised as an intellectual disability and a diagnosis of ADHD); and Nazeri Lajim, 64, who started using drugs at 14 when his father died and who spent much of his life in prison or rehabilitation until 2017 when he was convicted of possession 33.39 grams of heroin and placed on death row.

Added to this, half of those executed represented themselves before the Court making applications to stay their executions in the days prior to their execution and Nagaenthran’s mother appeared on her sons’ behalf, a widow from a rural region of Malaysia begging for her sons’ life, aided by an interpreter. This is because of fines imposed by the Courts on capital defence lawyers appearing pro bono in Singapore once an execution warrant has been issued. The most striking example of this was in the first week of August, when death row inmate Iskandar bin Rahmat appeared on behalf of himself and 23 other inmates before the Court of Appeal in Singapore on a unsuccessful constitutional challenge arguing that the practice of the Attorney-Generals’ Chambers of seeking cost orders on lawyers’ appearing on behalf of death row prisoners at the post-appeal stage, resulted in death row prisoners not being able to access legal counsel (arguably, best demonstrated by the case in point). The right to legal counsel is enshrined not only in the Constitution of Singapore but also international law. To be meaningful, it must be afforded to the accused from the very start of a police investigation until a condemned person is literally led to the gallows.

In an interview with journalist, Chris Barrett, of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age published on 19 September 2022, Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister, K. Shanmugan, referred to the ‘overwhelming support’ for the death penalty in Singapore as a justification for this ongoing practice. Nonetheless, it is not clear on what basis he made this claim. Independent, scenario based surveying, adhering to best empirical surveying practice, including full access to data for transparency, would be the best method to assess the public’s opinion of this practice in 2022.

In the interview, Minister Shanmugan said that Singapore continues its ‘tough on traffickers’ policy but he also concedes that Singapore is not detaining the ‘kingpins’: “..if I say I don’t catch traffickers and wait for the kingpins, basically my drug policy will be out the window….the big guys don’t come into Singapore for good reasons”. Whilst it has long been established that drug offences do not meet the ‘most serious crime’ threshold set out in Article 6 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, this admission that those being executed are not those directing the illicit drug industry, shows that Singapore’s tough drug policy is not capturing those it was set up to target. It is a cruel failure judged against its own criteria. Singapore is executing the poor and the powerless who are, themselves, victims of the drug lords, the avowed targets of the policy.

In 2012, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was being amended to allow for discretion for offenders at the lower end of the drug syndicate, the then-Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean, stated “In particular, the mandatory death penalty will continue to apply to all those who manufacture or traffic in drugs – the kingpins, producers, distributors, retailers – and also those who fund, organise or abet these activities.”. Any analysis of the 10 people executed this year, alone, would show that their roles were far from those who directed and stood to significantly profit from the illicit drug transactions. More to the point, the reliance on this policy as a demonstration that Singapore’s claims of effective deterrence are not based on empirical evidence. Indeed, there is no evidence that the death penalty has any unique deterrent effect on drug offending.

Finally, the Law Minister referred to the case of Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam. While the threshold for ‘intellectual disability’ is not defined in domestic or international law, the medical profession defines intellectual disability as being characterised by ‘significant cognitive deficits’ involving an IQ score below 70 (that is, two standard deviations below the average IQ of 100), and by ‘significant deficits in function. In practice, however, courts have disregarded medical expertise in favour of their own discretion, as the US cases referred to by Minister Shanmugan demonstrate. Singapore ratified the UN Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2013, with Article 12(4) stating “States Parties shall ensure that all measures that relate to the exercise of legal capacity provide for appropriate and effective safeguards to prevent abuse in accordance with international human rights law”.

A psychiatrist from Australia and a psychologist from the UK raised concerns regarding the state of Nagaenthran’s mental health in November 2021, at the time he was initially scheduled to be executed. Minister Shanmugam is correct that neither expert had the opportunity to examine Nagaenthran. Unfortunately, even though the execution of Nagaenthran did not take place until 27 April 2022, no independent assessment of Nagaenthran was conducted. Accordingly, it is unknown whether there was a further decline in his mental capacity since his last assessment by Dr Yap on 1 February 2017.

There is no place for such punitive and cruel punishments in 2022. To be a true leader in the region, Singapore must immediately halt executions and step in line with the global trend of abolition of the death penalty. Minister Shanmugam’s media blitz provides its own evidence that Singapore’s pursuit of cruelty damages Singapore as well as the poor and the powerless and their families who are caught in its net.

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