The details about the death penalty Singapore doesn’t want to talk about

The final photos of death row inmates taken shortly before they were executed. From left to right: Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, Nazeri bin Lajim and Kalwant Singh. Photos: Transformative Justice Collective
The final photos of death row inmates taken shortly before they were executed. From left to right: Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, Nazeri bin Lajim and Kalwant Singh. Photos: Transformative Justice Collective

Singapore has sent 10 people to the gallows in the past seven months. At least. 

We can’t be sure if there have been more because the Singaporean government does not see the need to notify the public about every execution it carries out. Nor does it release information about the number of inmates still waiting for their turn to hang. 

Anti-death penalty activists are why we know that at least 10 inmates have been executed this year and that at least 60 are currently sitting on death row. Much of their information comes from the families of the inmates themselves, who are quietly informed by the government of their relative’s executions just one week before the date. During that short timeframe, they must make funeral arrangements and also prepare a set of clothes for a customary final photoshoot done in prison shortly before the execution is carried out.

Death penalty opponents, who have long been vocal about what they see as the injustices of Singapore’s capital punishment regime, are increasingly being heard by their fellow Singaporeans. And their voices have been joined by a chorus of condemnation coming from international organizations such as Amnesty International and the United Nations, which have called for a moratorium on the executions.

The Singaporean government has responded to these criticisms by adamantly defending its use of the death penalty as an essential deterrent against the threat of drugs flooding the city-state. 

But despite their unabashed righteousness in justifying it, the government doesn’t reveal many details about how it carries out the death penalty or on whom. In fact, prison officials, executioners, and others involved in carrying out the sentences are bound by the Official Secrets Act not to reveal the details of their work. 

So here is what we do know. 

“I don’t think capital punishment solves anything. I think it’s just pure vengeance,”

said Kirsten Han, journalist and member of the Transformative Justice Collective.

Who does and doesn’t face the death penalty?

Singapore resumed executions after putting off hangings for two years due to the pandemic. According to the Transformative Justice Collective (TJC), a criminal justice reform advocacy group, there are at least 60 people on death row – most of whom are men from minority groups who were charged with drug offences.

According to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1973, any person convicted of trafficking the quantity of drugs stated below or greater must be sentenced to death:

  • Cannabis (more than 500 grams)
  • Cocaine (more than 30 grams)
  • Heroin (more than 15 grams)
  • Methamphetamine (more than 250 grams)
  • Morphine (more than 30 grams)

Most of the 10 known to have been executed this year trafficked heroin, although one case involved a 49-year-old Singaporean Malay man who was hanged in July for trafficking cannabis.

They also tend to come from destitute groups that do not have “as much capital or privilege in society,” said Kirsten Han, a journalist, activist and member of TJC. Han told Coconuts recently that it was rarely the “rich, evil, criminal, drug lords and kingpins” that ended up on death row. 

Many were drug mules who worked on behalf of syndicates and risked their lives for relatively small financial rewards. 

High-profile attorney Eugene Thuraisingam, who has worked pro-bono on numerous death penalty cases, recalled to Coconuts recently that there have been cases in which those sentenced to death were paid as little as 400 RM (S$124) to smuggle a quantity of drugs sufficient to hit the threshold for mandatory capital punishment.

Others were heavy drug users who resorted to trafficking to feed their own drug habits, as in the case of 64-year-old Nazeri Bin Lajim, who was executed in July. He had struggled with addiction for most of his life and argued that most of the 35.41 grams of heroin he was convicted of trafficking had been for personal use. 

READ: Drugs destroyed her brother’s life. On Friday, Singapore will hang him.

Something else the Singaporean government does not release information about is the ethnic makeup of those on death row. But according to the TJC, most of the 10 known to have been executed this year were of Malay and Tamil descent, which is consistent with the long-term data they have collected.

In August of last year, 17 inmates sentenced to capital punishment filed a suit arguing that the Singaporean government had discriminated against them based on their Malay ethnicity given their disproportionate numbers on death row. In December, the high court dismissed the suit, calling it “logically flawed”.

There are a few cases in which someone convicted of trafficking a sufficient amount of drugs may get life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. An amendment made to the law in 2012 provides exceptions for those who acted only as a courier and not a direct seller, those who provide “substantive assistance” to law enforcement and those suffering from an “abnormality of the mind” that “substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts”.

That final exception became a critical point in the outcry earlier this year over the execution of Malaysian Nagaenthran “Nagen” K. Dharmalingam, who had been sentenced to death for trafficking about three tablespoons of heroin in 2010. Nagen’s lawyers and activists argued that there was proof that he was intellectually disabled and therefore should be spared the gallows.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam fiercely defended Singapore’s use of capital punishment and Nagen’s execution specifically during a heated BBC interview in June. He said that Nagen was found to have the “workings of a criminal mind” and made a “deliberate, purposeful, calibrated and calculated decision”.

Shanmugam told the news outlet that he doesn’t “have any doubts” that capital punishment is a solution to Southeast Asia’s “severe” drug problem and a “serious deterrent” for traffickers.

What evidence is there that the death penalty works?

As detailed on Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs website, the government makes three main points to support their claim that the death penalty is necessary: that the majority of Singapore residents and non-residents believe that the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment in deterring very serious crimes; that there has been a significant reduction of very serious crimes, including drug trafficking, after the death penalty was introduced and that drug traffickers have decreased the amount of drugs they traffick in order to stay below the capital sentence thresholds.

But anti-death penalty activists argue that the data they present is not evidence for the death penalty’s effectiveness. As Han argues, “correlation does not mean causation” and there are many other reasons why Singapore experiences lower rates of serious crime. Additionally, there are studies that argue there is no evidence that the threat of the death penalty deters crime at a significantly greater rate than that of life imprisonment.

In a recent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Shanmugan pointed to countries that do not use the death penalty that have become major trafficking hubs, such as those in Latin America. But death penalty opponents argue that there are other counterexamples. Some countries that impose the death penalty against drug traffickers still have serious drug problems, such as Vietnam, while those with similarly hardline stances such as the Philippines (which officially has a moratorium on the death penalty but saw a massive rise in the extra-judicial killing of drug offenders under the regime of former president Rodrigo Duterte) still experience widespread drug abuse. On the other hand, countries such as South Korea and Japan do not use the death penalty against drug traffickers but still maintain low drug crime rates. 

Activists protesting the death penalty outside of Changi Prison in April. Photo: Kirsten Han/Facebook

Who supports the death penalty?

Home Affairs Minister Shanmugan points to surveys, conducted by his own ministry, showing that 80 percent of Singaporeans believe the death penalty had deterred offenders as evidence of the public’s overwhelming support for the policy. 

However, a 2018 survey conducted by the National University of Singapore found that, when Singaporeans were presented with the details of typical cases where capital punishment would be legally required, few thought the death penalty should actually be applied in all instances, including drug trafficking cases. The researchers found that the Singaporean public was generally poorly informed about the death penalty, with 60 percent saying they knew “nothing or little about it” and 80 percent saying they rarely talked about the subject to others.

But this year, discussions about the death penalty have become harder to ignore, in large part due to activists’ frequent social media postings raising alarms about the recent spate of executions, which has spurred increased media coverage on the subject both locally and internationally.

Singaporeans who are against the death penalty seem increasingly willing to voice their opposition. More than 400 people showed up in April at Hong Lim Park to oppose it after the execution of 68-year-old Malaysian Abdul Kahar Othman, who is the first person known to have been hanged this year. It was the largest such protest against the death penalty to have taken place in the country’s history.

Protestors fighting to abolish the death penalty at Hong Lim Park in April. Photo: Kirsten Han/Facebook

That same month, another protest was held to protest the upcoming executions of Nagen and Datchinamurthy Kataiah, another Malaysian who was convicted of trafficking heroin a decade ago. While appeals for Nagen to be spared went unheaded, Datchinamurthy was one of the few lucky ones to be granted a stay of execution and his appeal is currently pending.

The outrage soon spread internationally to Malaysia with thousands signing a petition, protesting and rallying against Singapore’s harsh penalty laws, and calls from the Delegation of the European Union and the United Nations to halt the executions.

The Malaysian Government shortly thereafter agreed to abolish the mandatory death sentences and instead leave sentencing up to the discretion of the courts. 

Questions of justice

To the Singaporean government, the justification for using the death penalty is one of simple utilitarian calculus. Drugs can kill many people and destroy many lives, so the government is justified in killing those who bring drugs into the country as it is effective in saving a greater number of lives.

But for death penalty opponents, the debate about whether the policy is effective is secondary to the question of whether it is moral and just in the first place. To put this sentiment more simply, the ends cannot always justify the means. 

Activists and families of death row inmates want the death penalty to be abolished because it is an extreme and cruel form of punishment. Han argues that the death penalty “distracts” people from the idea of justice and does more harm than good.

Family members of high-profile death row inmate Nagaenthran “Nagen” Dharmalingam before he was hanged in April. Photo: Kirsten Han/Facebook

“I don’t think capital punishment solves anything. I think it’s just pure vengeance,” Han said, adding that vengeance is not the same as justice.

A death sentence is different from other forms of punishment in that, once carried out, it can never be undone or rectified. While the Singaporean government is adamant that convicted traffickers are given every legal opportunity to appeal their sentence, the possibility that an innocent person might be executed remains.

Once a person is caught trafficking drugs past the threshold, convincing evidence would have to be presented in court to prove their innocence, lawyer Thuraisingam said. But sometimes, this can be “subjective.” 

“This whole process is human. Mistakes may happen. And that’s another reason why I’m against capital punishment. Because it’s irreversible,” Thuraisingam said.

In past rare cases where death row inmates won their appeals, it was because courageous lawyers filed late-stage appeals to the court that overturned the judgment. But such appeals appear to be increasingly risky to lawyers as many have been forced to pay court fines in the thousands of dollars for filing applications that judges ultimately deemed to have no legal basis and an abuse of the process of the court.

Few are willing to take that risk today, Han said.

In a statement released earlier this month by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) calling for Singapore to halt its executions, the NGO also called for an end to such fines on lawyers representing death row inmates. They argued, “The imposition of punitive cost orders has obstructed death-row inmates’ access to justice and effective remedies, their right to legal counsel — with several having had to represent themselves in court — and, in turn, their right to a fair trial and, ultimately, their right to life.”

While some simply hope that the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking will be replaced by life imprisonment, others hope that the government will one day go so far as rethink its current punitive approach to drugs to one based on the principles of harm reduction that many drug policy experts advocate for.

“I think we need to really go back to the drawing board and think about actually what harm and what suffering are we trying to address,” Han said. “So if we want to address the harms of drug use, then I think that requires a much broader look than just the death penalty, right?”

For example, reform activists say Singapore’s harsh laws scare offenders away from seeking help from doctors as they are legally required to report any drug users to authorities.

Some also argue that the country’s drug rehabilitation centers take a punitive approach that leaves those in their care feeling increasingly stigmatized and isolated upon their return to society. 

According to the sister of Nazira Bin Lajim Hertslet, the inmate who was hanged in July, that is what happened to her brother. She said he had been in and out of rehab numerous times throughout his life but always relapsed and eventually turned to trafficking to feed his addiction.

Han said she had interviewed several people who have been through the rehab program and they said that it destroyed their self-esteem and made it harder for them to find a job upon release. It was essentially a “prison” with “extra counseling,” she said.

Will Singapore ever abolish the death penalty? 

Despite the growing outcry against executions, there is no evidence that the Singaporean government is wavering in its commitment to carry out capital punishment. 

But Thuraisingam is optimistic that the death penalty will eventually be abolished, though he knows it’ll take a lot of time to change a lot of minds. 

“We will find better, more sophisticated ways to deal with the drug problem,” Thuraisingam said. 

Han said the government is “extremely stubborn and determined to retain the death penalty and to stick to the narrative that they have”. But she believes that her work and those of other activists are having some impact, even if it’s hard to perceive.

“I don’t see them listening to activists, or engaging properly with our points. But I feel like they are aware of what people are saying and they are aware of the international image that Singapore has when we hang people, so it’s something that they do pay attention to. Even if they act like they don’t care, I feel like they probably do”.

The death penalty is a highly complex issue, one that raises many questions about our ideas of dignity and compassion; who gets to decide who lives and dies; what constitutes a serious crime; what our commitment is to justice; and ultimately what message capital punishment conveys to society. 

We can’t claim to know the right answers to these questions, but we know that knowing all the details and discussing them openly is the only way to move forward.

Additional reporting by Anand Mathai.