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FAQ: The death penalty for drugs in Singapore

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
13 min read
FAQ: The death penalty for drugs in Singapore

The following is based on observations made and research done in the course of campaigning against the death penalty and working with the families of death row inmates, which I have been doing since 2010.

Efforts have been made over the years to verify information, but given the scarcity of publicly available data, this is always a challenge. If there are any inaccuracies, I’d be happy to correct or clarify them. I urge the government to make more information related the use of the death penalty in Singapore publicly accessible.


First, the basics

What offences are punishable by death in Singapore?

The death penalty exists as a punishment for a multitude of offences in Singapore, but it’s generally used for three main ones (in this order): drug trafficking, murder, and firearms offences.

Since the majority of death row cases in Singapore have to do with drug offences, the rest of this piece will focus on the death penalty for drugs.

Are Singaporeans in favour of the death penalty?

This question was the subject of investigation in a survey conducted in 2016 with 1,500 Singaporean respondents.

It was found that “Singaporeans apparently favoured the death penalty despite admitting that they knew very little about it, was not interested in it and could not give an accurate estimate of the number of persons executed.” Despite this, the researchers also noted that support for capital punishment in Singapore is “not as strong as it appears”:

“There was a much lower support for the death penalty when respondents were faced with scenarios of cases—all of which would have merited the mandatory sentence under the current Singapore law—than the proportion who said they favoured it in the abstract. This was particularly so for drug trafficking and firearm offences.”

How many people are executed every year?

The Singapore Prison Service publishes the number of executions carried out in its annual reports. In 2019, four people were hanged (two for drug offences, and two for murder). In 2018, however, there was a spike and 13 people were hanged that year (11 for drug offences, and two for murder).

(Taken from the Singapore Prison Service’s 2019 annual report.)

What is the process like?

The general process for capital cases is as follows (there are, of course, variations from case to case, depending on the circumstances):

  1. When one is charged with a capital offence, the trial takes place in the High Court before a judge (Singapore abolished jury trials in 1969).
  2. If one is convicted by the High Court and sentenced to death, one is entitled to appeal the conviction and sentence at the Court of Appeal, which is the highest court in the land. A bench of three to five judges will hear the appeal, after which they can choose to uphold or overturn the decision of the lower court. The decision does not need to be unanimous: it is possible for a death sentence to be upheld by a 2-1 or 3-2 split among the appeal judges.
  3. If the Court of Appeal upholds the sentence, the individual can then appeal to the President for clemency.
  4. If clemency is rejected, the prison authorities can then schedule the execution, which is carried out by long-drop hanging, usually (but not always) at dawn on Fridays.

There is no independent body that oversees executions and publishes its findings, and therefore no data on whether executions have been botched in Singapore.

How is the death penalty for drugs imposed?

Under Section 17 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, if someone is found in possession of a certain amount of drugs as specified in the law (for example, 2g of heroin or 15g of cannabis), they are presumed to have those drugs for the purpose of trafficking, unless they can prove otherwise.

If the amount of drugs goes over another threshold (specified in the Second Schedule of the same law), such as 15g for heroin or 500g of cannabis, the offence carries the mandatory death penalty — this means that, as long as one is found guilty, the only stipulated penalty is death, and the judge doesn’t have discretion in sentencing.

In 2012, the government amended the Misuse of Drugs Act to make tweaks to this mandatory death penalty regime. These changes laid out specific and narrow circumstances in which the courts will be able to sentence someone to life imprisonment with caning, instead of death. These circumstances are:

  • If the offender was only a drug courier (i.e. they have no other role except transporting drugs from one point to another), AND
  • Was suffering from an “abnormality of the mind” that “substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts”, OR
  • Has received a Certificate of Cooperation from the prosecution, certifying that they had “substantively assisted” the authorities in disrupting drug trafficking activities

While these amendments to the mandatory death penalty regime for drugs have allowed accused persons to escape the gallows, they continue to be very problematic.

One of the most troubling aspects is the Certificate of Cooperation system, as it’s unclear what the authorities mean by “substantive” assistance, and the decision of the prosecution whether or not to issue such a certificate cannot be challenged or reviewed in court unless it can be shown that the prosecution was acting maliciously or in bad faith.

There have been cases, such as that of Cheong Chun Yin, where the Attorney-General’s Chambers first refused to issue a Certificate, only to change their minds later. In other cases, co-accused persons who both told the authorities what they knew were found that one had been issued a Certificate, and the other not.

The Certificate of Cooperation system essentially reduces the question of whether a human being should be given the chance to live to a consideration of how useful that person is to law enforcement.

What is death row like? Who is on death row?

There isn’t much public information about what life on death row is like. Prison officers, executioners, and counsellors are bound by the Official Secrets Act and therefore cannot speak publicly about what conditions on death row are like. It’s currently not known exactly how many people are on death row, nor what the breakdown is in terms of race or socioeconomic status.

From what activists have been able to gather, death row inmates stay in single cells. I’ve heard from some family members that the execution chamber is in the same part of the prison as death row — some inmates say that when someone is executed, they can hear the opening of the trapdoor.

Inmates are usually allowed visits from family members once a week, for about 30 minutes each time, although the prison is able to make exceptions or extensions if necessary. Inmates, their families and lawyers are usually given about five days’ to a week’s advance warning of their execution. During the week in the run-up to hanging, the inmate will be allowed to have visitors every day, and for a longer period of time. These visits take place behind a pane of glass; no contact is allowed.

At some point in the week before their execution, the inmate is allowed to change into civilian clothes — provided by their family — and pose for photos. These portrait photos are given to the family as keepsakes; some families have used them as funeral portraits.

(Prabagaran s/l Srivijayan, executed 14 July 2017, aged 29.)

(Prabu Pathmanathan, executed 26 October 2018, aged 31.)

Frequently Heard

The following are common responses that I’ve come across over the years, accompanied by my responses/counter-arguments.

“This is the law, and everyone knows about this.”

The first thing to keep in mind: laws are man-made. Laws can be unjust, get out-dated, and be amended. History is full of laws that were enforced for years, only to be changed or repealed as society evolved, or as injustices were righted. Singapore itself made amendments to the death penalty regime following a review in 2012 — there are people who were hanged prior to 2012 who might have been spared the gallows under these amendments.

Just because something is legal or enshrined in the law does not automatically make it ethical, moral, right, or just. When talking about the death penalty, it isn’t enough to say “it’s the law” — we should also ask ourselves if the offence is one that is deserving of death, and why we think that.

We also need to ask ourselves if a country’s criminal justice system should be given the power to decide who lives and who dies. We should ask: What exactly does the death penalty achieve? Who does it help? What does it say about our society? What do we want “justice” to be about?

There are many reasons and factors behind the choices people make. These could be related to upbringing, socioeconomic circumstances, psychosocial disabilities, financial pressures, past trauma, and many others. It’s easy for us to judge someone based on our own experiences (which could be very different from theirs) and conclude that they were irrational, stupid, untrustworthy, or undeserving. But when the penalty is as harsh and irreversible as death, we must be careful not to pass judgment on others too easily or too quickly.

And all this is even before we consider the very important, very scary, and (worst of all) very likely possibility of wrongful executions. No legal or criminal justice system is perfect, and mistakes are bound to occur in both capital and non-capital cases. In non-capital cases, these mistakes can be addressed by releasing the individual from prison and sometimes even by paying compensation. In capital cases, however, there would be no way to bring back the individual from the grave.

Just this past week, the Court of Appeal overturned their own decision and acquitted Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi of drug trafficking, setting him free. The appeal court had previously convicted him of trafficking drugs, saying that he had made “numerous lies and omissions” in his statements to the Central Narcotics Bureau. However, his pro bono lawyers persisted and managed to get the case reviewed again (no easy feat), whereupon it was found that Ilechukwu was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which could have explained his behaviour during investigation, making it “unsafe to draw any adverse inference against him from his lies and omissions.”

If Ilechukwu’s lawyers hadn’t persisted, he could have been sentenced to death (or at the very least life imprisonment with caning), and been at risk of execution. He’s the second Nigerian in as many years to be acquitted of a capital offence related to drugs in Singapore: last year, Adili Chibuike Ejike walked free after spending over two years on death row.

Here’s a short clip of a debate on whether capital punishment should return to the United Kingdom that touches on the point of wrongful executions:

(This video is from BBC Question Time. Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, is debating capital punishment with Priti Patel, who is now the UK’s Home Secretary.)

“Singapore’s capital punishment regime keeps us safe, unlike other countries with higher rates of crime.”

While Singapore has a lower crime rate than various other jurisdictions, there’s no evidence proving that this is due to the death penalty. Remember: correlation does not mean causation! There are many other variables that come into play, such as education, socio-economic status, community support, quality of law enforcement, etc.

We should also ask ourselves: safe from what? There’s no evidence that the death penalty works better than any other punishment in deterring crime. While most of the research has been done in relation to homicide — including a study comparing the murder rates of Hong Kong (no death penalty) and Singapore (death penalty) — when it comes to studying capital punishment’s impact on drug-related crime, it becomes much more complicated, as pointed out by Harm Reduction International:

“A plethora of indicators could be used to consider deterrence with drugs. Might it be arrests for drug offences? Representation of drug offenders in the prison population? Hospital admissions for drug-related issues? Overdose statistics (which can be brought down anyway with simple and cheap harm reduction interventions)? Moreover, which drugs: marijuana, cocaine, heroin, so-called ‘party drugs’ like ecstasy? Would a reduction in arrests for marijuana represent a successful indicator for all drugs? Trying to prove or disprove the deterrent value of drug laws is extraordinarily difficult. Anecdotally, one could say harsh drug laws do not work. For example, Iran has some of the toughest drug laws in the world and a high prevalence of injection drug use. Sweden does not have the death penalty and it has comparatively low rates of problematic drug use.”

Oxford professors Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle wrote in their book, The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective, that in all the countries — including Singapore — that retain capital punishment for drug offences, “it has been argued that the death penalty is an indisputable deterrent to drug trafficking, but no evidence of a statistical kind has been forthcoming to support this contention”.

What we do know, however, is that the death penalty has been used against people from disadvantaged or marginalised backgrounds, people struggling with addiction, and even against people with borderline IQ.

“What about the victims? Drugs destroy lives and families — why are we pleading for traffickers instead of the victims?”

This is a common concern, and a fair one — we should be concerned about those whose lives have been negatively affected by drug use and abuse. But given that there’s no evidence the death penalty actually deters or reduces drug trafficking (see above), it’s unclear how the death penalty actually helps people struggling with addiction, or those affected by their behaviour.

It’s also wrong to imagine that “traffickers”, “addicts”, and “victims” are mutually exclusive categories. The lines are often not so clear. Sometimes those who are caught and charged as traffickers are themselves addicts (especially given the presumption clauses within the Misuse of Drugs Act). One example is Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin, a heroin addict who was originally scheduled to hang on 18 September 2020 until he received an interim stay of execution. Instead of helping drug addicts, the death penalty sometimes actually kills them.

Abolitionists don’t campaign against the death penalty because we don’t care for people who have suffered from drug addiction and abuse. Instead, we argue that society has to approach the issue in a holistic way that focuses on support, rehabilitation, and reintegration into society, rather than punishment. We believe that addiction should be predominantly treated as a public health issue, and not a criminal one. We believe that we should reform the way drug rehabilitation centres — described by some as “jail with a different name” — are run, so that all possible effort is made to provide drug abusers with the support that they need to kick the habit. We also emphasise the importance of dismantling prejudice and stigma in society against drug users and ex-offenders, so that they’ll have more support when trying to reintegrate and get their lives back on track.

The motto of the Singapore Prison Service — who describes its officers as “Captains of Lives” — is “Rehab. Renew. Restart.” This should apply to all inmates.

(Taken from the Singapore Prison Service website.)

Furthermore, the families of death row inmates — be they parents, partners, siblings, children, or other relatives and close friends — also become victims of the system. While they themselves haven’t been convicted of any crime, the death penalty puts them through significant emotional, mental, and often financial distress. (This Twitter thread provides an example of the anxiety that families and inmates can go through.)

If we don’t execute them, then what?

Under the current system, the alternative to the death penalty for drugs is life imprisonment (with caning, itself also a very cruel and problematic punishment).

Given the controversial yet fixed position of the capital punishment regime in Singapore (as well as broader restrictions on freedom of expression and dissent), Singaporeans have not yet had much opportunity or space to talk about what we want our criminal justice system to really look like.

Why should we spend taxpayers’ money to feed and house these criminals in prison?

This is a question of values. Abolitionists believe that no matter what someone has done, we cannot reduce human life to dollars and cents. This is why the question “why should we pay to keep someone alive?” is a highly problematic one. As an anti-death penalty activist, I find it difficult to engage on these grounds, because it already signals a great disconnect in terms of personal values and beliefs.

That said, it’s not always the case that the death penalty is cheaper than keeping someone in prison, even if it’s for a long period of time. This has already been proven in the United States, where capital cases turn out to be far more expensive than other cases due to the number of appeals and challenges. There is insufficient data in Singapore to determine what the situation is here.

Also, prison inmates are also members of our society. Many of them do continue to work and study while in prison.

If we’re concerned about the death penalty, what can we do as Singaporeans?

It’s not easy to advocate against the death penalty, because it’s a very emotive issue, and, in Singapore, is also considered politically sensitive. Singapore’s government is very committed to the retention of the death penalty, and ministers have spoken in favour of capital punishment even on the international stage.

But this doesn’t mean that Singaporeans are helpless. As the public opinion survey indicates, most Singaporeans don’t know very much about capital punishment and how it is applied in our country, and, when faced with specifics, support for the death penalty falters or drops. This means that there is a great need for public education and awareness-raising, so that more people can be prompted to get informed and to consider their positions on the issue. Sharing articles, petitions, videos, and other resources on capital punishment, criminal justice, drug policy, and harm reduction can help reach more people and encourage them to think about where they stand. It also creates more and more space for Singaporeans to discuss this issue; the more we normalise talking about the death penalty, the more we can push it into the public eye.

Writing to Members of Parliament, the Cabinet, and the President is also very useful and important. Not only is it a way to practice taking action as engaged citizens, it also signals to those in power that the death penalty is an issue that Singaporeans pay attention to and care about. The more people speak out against the death penalty and let politicians know about it, the greater the political cost of arguing for the death penalty or executing someone.

Issues that were once neglected or ignored — such as migrant workers’ rights — have, over the years, slowly made its way into the public consciousness, prompting action. This can be done for capital punishment too, and every little bit of effort counts.


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