Will an Anti-Death Penalty Movement Take Root in Singapore?

Will an Anti-Death Penalty Movement Take Root in Singapore?
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What you need to know

Two recent near-executions have, in a small way, rekindled efforts to abolish the death penalty in Singapore.

The death penalty is not a topic that usually comes up in Singapore, but the near-executions of two Singaporeans have drawn attention to the issue in the city-state.

Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin and his family were told that he would be hanged on September 18, while Moad Fadzir bin Mostaffa’s execution date was scheduled for September 24. Fortunately, both men have received temporary stays — Syed through the courts as they considered applications filed at the 11th hour by his pro bono counsel, and Fadzir through a respite order issued by President Halimah Yacob.

Both Syed and Fadzir had been sentenced to death after being convicted of drug trafficking, as are most of Singapore’s death row inmates. Singapore was one of only four countries known to have hanged people for drug offenses in 2019, according to a global overview produced by Harm Reduction International,

The other three countries were China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) stipulates strict limits on the use of capital punishment, such as reserving it only for the “most serious crimes.” This doesn’t faze the Singapore government, though, since it has not ratified the ICCPR and does not intend to do so any time soon.

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Attendees at a forum in Singapore on the death penalty held in a room decorated with posters of Nguyen Tuong Van, who at the time was facing charges for drug trafficking, and Shanmugam Murugesu, who was hanged earlier this year, Monday, Nov. 7, 2005. Van was executed on December 2, 2005.

Since introducing the death penalty for drugs in 1975, successive People’s Action Party governments have defended the use of capital punishment to combat drug crime and abuse. They heavily lean on the claim that the death penalty deters drug trafficking, thus reducing the amount of drugs in Singapore and keeping Singaporeans safe. Despite years of pushing this narrative, the PAP has not yet produced any conclusive evidence that capital punishment is more effective than any other punishment at deterring crime.

Still, repeated assurances, spread in schools and in the mainstream media, have ensured that misplaced belief in capital punishment’s efficacy is widespread in Singapore. It’s a challenge that abolitionists like myself constantly struggle against. According to a 2016 public opinion survey, 72% of Singaporean respondents were in favor of the death penalty in general (although only 9% of them felt strongly about this support).

Given this reality, it was a surprise to see an online petition, calling for Syed’s execution to be stayed and for the president to grant him a pardon, hit over 30,000 signatures. It was a far greater response than many of us had expected, given a general lack of sympathy for convicted drug traffickers.

It’s far too early to extrapolate this into some sort of turning of the tide. The petition might have done better than activists have expected, but it would be unwise to read too much into it. There are many reasons for signing a petition seeking clemency for one specific inmate that don’t necessarily equate to a desire to abolish capital punishment. For comparison: a similar online petition calling specifically for the abolition of the death penalty has only crossed 3,000 signatures — nowhere near the outpouring of sympathy for Syed.

Still, 3,000 signatures is not a bad start, and abolitionists in Singapore are used to uphill battles that feel more like scaling cliffs. The support that Syed has received, and the interest and openness that many young Singaporeans have shown in discussing the intersectionality of justice, race, class, crime, punishment, and rehabilitation, suggest that there’s reason to be hopeful as we keep chipping away at mainstream pro-death penalty propaganda.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
A view taken through a vehicle window shows cell blocks inside Changi Prison in Singapore May 26, 2009.

Last week, I published a couple of Twitter threads; one told the story of Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, the other Rozman bin Jusoh. Both were young men executed by Singapore despite issues with their cases. In Tochi’s case, even the trial judge had acknowledged that there was “no direct evidence” that he knew he’d been carrying heroin, but nevertheless ruled that Tochi should have done more to find out the nature of the things he’d been asked to deliver.

During Rozman’s trial, he had been found to have had a borderline IQ of 74. A private psychologist testified that he might have been easily manipulated and may not know right from wrong. The trial judge had deemed it unsafe to convict him of trafficking, which attracted the mandatory death penalty, but his decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal. Rozman was hanged on April 12, 1996.

They’re just two examples of how the death penalty can ensnare the underprivileged and marginalized, taking lives out of a bloodthirsty commitment to punishment.

In conversations about capital punishment, stories like these are just as important as arguments about deterrence and crime rates. The 2016 public opinion survey on the death penalty in Singapore also found that 51% of respondents weren’t interested in the issue, while 62% said they knew little or nothing about it. This disinterest and ignorance about capital punishment and those affected by it leave the issue abstract and distant. That’s why it’s important to repeatedly put this information and these stories out there, to create more and more opportunities for people to discover, learn, and share.

It would be naive to imagine that sharing stories will make people change their minds about the death penalty. Years of working on this issue have taught me how closely and tightly some assumptions are held; there’s no way to force someone to let them go. Abolitionists like myself had our own journeys — however short or long — learning about capital punishment before arriving at our conclusions. The best thing that we can do is provide as many chances as possible for others to make this journey too.

In the middle of a long court hearing on September 21, Syed interjected to make his hopes clear. “If you are speaking of fairness, using a lot of legal terminology, what I [and the 50 other men on death row] want... is mercy. We want mercy to be extended to us. We feel that we can make a difference. Give us a chance.”

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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