[Home Affairs] The Death Penalty: Pragmatic & Moral Considerations





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During parliamentary sittings in early July, DPM Teo Chee Hean and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, Mr. K. Shanmugam, announced changes in the legislation which would moderate the application of the mandatory death penalty for the capital offenses of drug trafficking and homicide. Under the proposed amendments, two classes of criminals may be able to avoid meeting their end at the gallows- criminals who lacked the intention to kill, and convicted drug traffickers who have mental disabilities or who only served as drug mules and gave “substantive cooperation” with the police which lead to “concrete outcomes”. Notably, the mandatory death penalty still remains for the unlawful possession of firearms, culpable homicide amounting to murder and drug trafficking cases which fail to meet the aforementioned criteria.

The proposed amendments have nevertheless been well-received by the legal fraternity as well as both international and local civil rights groups. Many of these civil society groups however, have criticised these legislative changes as being too timid, and advocate the complete abolition of the death penalty. On the other hand, some like Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor of the Straits Times, have questioned whether these changes give the impression that Singapore is “getting soft on crime”. It is difficult to judge the sentiments of the layperson from the relatively sparse coverage on this topic in the mainstream media, perhaps due to the nature of the subject (after all, debates on legislation hardly makes for riveting news). The lack of a nationwide survey with a representative sample size on the support for capital punishment does not help matters either. In light of the recent legislative reforms, it seems pertinent to examine the debate on the death penalty.

Generally, proponents of capital punishment justify its use through two main arguments: deterrence and retribution. Deterrence arguments hold the position that the fear of paying with their lives discourages would-be criminals from committing capital offences, and is thus vital in maintaining the safety and security of the country. This is the primary justification given by the Singapore government in explaining its continued use of capital punishment, and officials have cited the admirably low homicide and drug trafficking rates as evidence that capital punishment has indeed served as an effective deterrent.

Abolitionists have, in turn, pointed out that the correlation between capital punishment and low crime rates does not necessarily signify a causal relationship. Measures such as the increased allocation of resources to law enforcement may also have had a significant, and perhaps more important role in decreasing crime rates. As of yet, there has been no empirical study, in Singapore or elsewhere, which conclusively demonstrates the causal link between the use of capital punishment and falling crime rates. However, I feel that the lack of statistical evidence does not necessarily count against the argument for deterrence. The dearth of such evidence may be a result of fallible methodology, especially since measuring deterrence involves taking into account those who might have become criminals were it not for capital punishment, and as such cannot be obtained from studies of the incarcerated.

In fact, a case can be made for capital punishment through a more common sense approach, armed with a rudimentary understanding of human psychology. The threat of death is probably the most fear-provoking one of all, because of its finality and irrevocability. Lifetime imprisonment may take away one’s right to freedom, but death takes away one’s very existence, and along with it the ability to even chafe at one’s lack of freedom. It is therefore almost intuitive to believe that a potential criminal, upon conducting an analysis of the risks and benefits of committing a crime, would in most cases be more likely to commit a crime with a less severe punishment as opposed to one with harsher punishment. Rational cost-benefit analysis of this sort would not deter crimes committed in the heat of the moment, nor would it affect recklessly optimistic prospective criminals who believe that they can elude the arms of the law, but it is doubtful that these groups constitute a substantial proportion of the population of would-be criminals. Reserving the imposition of the death penalty to the most heinous of crimes would attach a strong moral stigma to them, and ingrain into the collective social consciousness the strong moral taboo of such acts that it would warrant the taking of another human life in return.

If the act of killing a person is intrinsically immoral, can the state be morally justified in taking away a convicted criminal’s life? What justification does Singapore, and other countries with capital punishment, have for holding different ethical standards from the countries which have abolished it? Should there be a universal moral code with regards to capital punishment?

The second argument in support of capital punishment is the retributive argument, which essentially holds that criminals, having committed illegal acts, ought to be punished for them, and that the severity of their punishment should be adjusted in proportion to the cruelty of the crime. This stance is prima facie acceptable to most until one tries to put it into practice, particularly when placed within the context of Singapore. Should the evils caused by engaging in drug trafficking be punished with the same severity of the evils caused by carrying out a premeditated murder? And given that there is already a death penalty for murder, is there a need for the mandatory death penalty for the possession of firearms, since the most evil outcome of possessing the firearm would be murder?

Abolitionists could justifiably argue that capital punishment violates the sanctity of life, and that the right to live is a fundamental human right which the state has no moral authority over. Amnesty International has described the death penalty as the “ultimate denial of human rights… [and] cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment”, for which there will never be any justification. Certainly, this is the position taken by most liberal and progressive societies, and an estimated two-thirds of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty. This stance does however raise questions about the moral principles governing our society. If the act of killing a person is intrinsically immoral, can the state be morally justified in taking away a convicted criminal’s life? What justification does Singapore, and other countries with capital punishment, have for holding different ethical standards from the countries which have abolished it? Should there be a universal moral code with regards to capital punishment?

In spite of the legislative reforms, the government has categorically stated that capital punishment will remain an integral part of the Singapore criminal justice system. Despite the moral quandaries involved in justifying the death penalty, I am inclined to agree, broadly at least, on the continued use of the death penalty in Singapore on the basis of more pragmatic considerations, albeit with more changes made to current legislation. The mandatory death penalty should be eliminated entirely, as adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to capital offences, neglecting the existence of any mitigating factors in the individual cases is an extreme oversight, which comes at a very dear and non-refundable cost. In the same vein as the proposed reforms, the mandatory death penalty should be replaced by a death penalty which allows for more discretionary punishment to be meted out by the judiciary, who can serve as an additional calibrator of the severity of the punishment on top of the power of discretion exercised by the prosecutors. This temperance of justice with mercy would hardly hamper the deterrent effect of the death penalty, as the severity of the punishment can be adjusted in accordance to the culpability of the criminal. If however, it can be proven that capital punishment does not deter crime, or an alternative, less irreversible and more merciful punishment is found to have similar deterrent effects, my support for capital punishment would wane considerably.