In an Information Vacuum the Hangman Reigns Supreme

In an Information Vacuum the Hangman Reigns Supreme
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
Why you need to know

The more people know about the death penalty, the less likely they are to support it, studies show.

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On Dec. 19, 2016, the United National General Assembly adopted its sixth resolution calling for a moratorium on executions (with a view to complete abolition) around the world. The resolution was passed by a landslide: 117 out of the UN’s 193 member states voted in favor. Only 40 voted against the proposal; 31 abstained.

The fact that the death penalty is retreating around the world is now a well-established fact. More and more countries are abolishing the death penalty, or becoming de facto abolitionists (by not carrying out any executions for a period of 10 years). But capital punishment still persists in Southeast Asia: Indonesia made headlines in recent years for high-profile executions, while the Philippines faces the very real possibility of a reintroduction of the death penalty despite its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Malaysia and Singapore, too, continue to execute for a range of crimes like murder, drugs and firearms offenses.

Popular support is often used as one of the justifications for the death penalty, but how true is this claim? It’s certainly easy to conduct straw polls in the media during high-profile cases, when the public imagination is caught up in the gory, scary details of a murder, but studies in Malaysia, and more recently in Singapore, point to a much more complex picture.

The survey on public opinion in Malaysia on the death penalty, conducted by Prof. Roger Hood from Oxford’s Centre of Criminology, was published in 2013. Using a slightly modified version of the same questionnaire, academics at the National University of Singapore and Singapore Management University polled Singaporeans on their attitudes towards capital punishment.

Both studies show a similar pattern: while Malaysians and Singaporeans would tend to say that they support the death penalty in general, actual support declines as details are added. For example, while 91 percent of Malaysians said that they were in support of the death penalty for murder, support dropped to 56 percent when it came to the mandatory death penalty for murder. The Singaporean study echoed these results, with 92 percent in favor of the death penalty for murder falling to 47 percent for the mandatory death penalty.

The same goes for drug offenses. Support for the death penalty for drugs – although still fairly high in general – is actually lower than for murder and firearms offenses in both Malaysia and Singapore, even though the majority of capital cases in both countries are drug trafficking cases.

The most illuminating findings, though, come when Malaysian and Singaporean respondents were presented with scenarios and asked to indicate whether they favored the mandatory death penalty in that instance. Despite a very high level of general support for capital punishment, the percentage of respondents choosing to impose death sentences in specific scenarios were significantly smaller than what one might have expected. Even when faced with the most aggravating scenario of a robbery-murder – where a perpetrator with prior robbery convictions shoots a man point blank while robbing his store – the percentage of Malaysians and Singaporeans who chose the death penalty were 65 percent and 64 percent respectively. What happened to the initial over 90 percent support of the death penalty for murder?

When it comes to drugs, the scenario of a man caught with 25 kilograms of heroin – far, far above the 15 grams threshold in both countries – 47 percent of Singaporeans chose to impose the death penalty while only 29 percent of Malaysians did so, even though 86 percent and 74 percent* respectively supported the death penalty for drugs.

These two studies show that we cannot simply take popular support for capital punishment at face value. It’s one thing to be in favor of the death penalty in theory, but another altogether when faced with the specifics.

This doesn’t come as a surprise for anti-death penalty advocates on both sides of the Causeway; our interactions with people and observation of the situation have long suggested to us that popular support for the death penalty generally doesn’t come from a place of understanding, but simply from an acceptance of the established rhetoric. The education systems in Malaysia and Singapore might do many things, but they do not provide young citizens with information on how the harshest and most final of punishments is carried out in their names.

It then becomes up to the abolitionists to provide this education. It’s no easy task, because activists in both countries face obstacles in trying to get their supposedly “alternative” messages into the mainstream. But efforts to tell the stories of death row inmates and reveal the problems of death penalty legislation need to continue; if these studies tell us anything, it’s that the more people know, the harder it is to support the death penalty.

*While the Singaporean survey did not provide a breakdown for support of the death penalty for different types of drugs, the Malaysian survey broke down support between heroin, cocaine, amphetamine, cannabis and opium. The 74 percent figure is based on support for the death penalty for heroin trafficking.

Read more about the death penalty in Asia:

INTERVIEW: Waking from a Nightmare, 16 Years on Death Row in Taiwan

FEATURE: Clock Ticks as Indonesian Execution Spree Looms

Questions over Execution and Mishandled Cremation in Singapore

INTERVIEW: Fighting for the Innocent on Death Row in Taiwan

DISCLAIMER: Kirsten Han is a founding member of We Believe in Second Chances, a group campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty in Singapore.

Editor: Edward White

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