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Maybe Shanmugam should debate the International Bar Association too

This week, we have a bit of a fuss over a challenge to a duel (sorry, I meant debate), and talk about what Rishi Sunak's rise to power means for Singapore's "not ready for non-Chinese PM" narrative.

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
5 min read

I had so much to put into last weekend’s newsletter, this weekend feels pretty quiet in comparison… I’m off to Chiang Mai for Splice Beta on Monday!

Apple users, if you haven’t updated your iOS, you should.


Another death sentence passed

A 31-year-old Singaporean man was sentenced to death for drugs this past week, after being convicted of trafficking in 34.94g of heroin. In his defence, he had said that he had agreed to keep drugs for someone else, but thought it was cannabis, not heroin. The judge did not believe him. The prosecution had not issued him a Certificate of Cooperation, and the court decided that his role had exceeded that of being a mere courier, so there was no chance for him to be spared the mandatory death penalty. I also heard that another man lost his appeal against his death sentence on the same day. 😔

Related to drug policy: five teenagers, aged 14–16, have been arrested for alleged trafficking of cannabis. It doesn’t look like the amount of cannabis they’re on the hook for hits the threshold that attracts the death penalty — in any case, they’re too young to be sentenced to death — but I’m wondering about how these kids are doing with the investigations. While there might be “Appropriate Adults” available to accompany them during interrogation, that still in no way makes up for the fact that they won’t have lawyers with them, and likely no access to legal counsel until the investigations are complete. TJC commented on this issue of access to defence lawyers recently.


Debate what debate

There’s been quite a bit of excitement over the challenge from the Ministry of Home Affairs for Sir Richard Branson to debate Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam on live TV. I sent out a special issue on this to Milo Peng Funders earlier in the week. tl;dr This is just political theatre and not about good faith engagement on the issues of capital punishment and drug policy.

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If you actually want to learn more about the death penalty and about on-the-ground efforts to work towards abolition, come join the Transformative Justice Collective tomorrow for the official launch of our #StopTheKilling campaign, followed by a panel discussion with people who have come to the anti-death penalty movement via different access points. You can get tickets here.

Apart from this hullabaloo over Branson’s views, the International Bar Associations’ Human Rights Institute and the International Commission of Jurists have also written an open letter to Shanmugam, responding to comments the government made about their previous statements calling for Singapore to halt executions and stop issuing cost orders to lawyers representing death row prisoners. I’m going to quote from it quite liberally because there are important points made in the letter that I think are worth attention!

The open letter goes into some detail to clarify IBAHRI and ICJ’s positions. They strongly disagree with the Singapore government’s position that the use of the death penalty for drug offences isn’t a breach of international human rights law:

“Under international law, where the death penalty is still practiced, it may only be imposed for “the most serious crimes”.6 Various UN human rights Charter and treaty-based mechanisms have consistently held that this term must be read restrictively, relating only to crimes of extreme gravity involving intentional killing, and that crimes that do not result directly and intentionally in death, such as drug offences, while serious in nature, cannot serve as the basis for the death penalty.”

IBAHRI and ICJ elaborated on why they think the imposition of cost orders on lawyers representing death row prisoners at a late stage of their case is problematic:

“While the Court of Appeal has held that a high threshold must be met before adverse cost orders may be imposed, there have also been troubling instances where the courts appear to have adopted an overly expansive and impermissible interpretation of what constitutes “lack of merit” or “abuse of process” to impose adverse cost sanctions on lawyers representing death row inmates.”

The example they point to is the case in which 17 Malay men on death row filed at civil suit against the state prosecution, arguing that the over-representation of Malays on death row point to the presence of discrimination (direct or indirect).

“The significant over-representation of the Malay population among those executed for drug trafficking is a strong factual indicator of a prime facie case of indirect discrimination and disparate impact of the imposition of the death penalty for drug trafficking offences, strongly suggesting structural racial and nationality biases in the criminal enforcement process. Since the plaintiffs have made out a prima facie case of disparate impact and indirect discrimination based on the significantly skewed statistics, the plaintiffs should not have to bear the burden of proving a causal link between the Attorney-General’s decision to prosecute Malay suspects and their ethnicity. This is especially true given the asymmetry of information possessed by the plaintiffs and the Attorney-General on prosecutorial and law enforcement decisions.”

Got some more…

📱PAP politicians are embracing TikTok. I find this move very cringe, but lots of other Singaporeans love it. This Rest of World story looks into why that is.

✈️ The guy who made a bomb threat on a Singapore Airlines flight — leading to fight jets being sent to escort the place to Changi Airport — is set to receive a stern warning for using threatening words. Stern warnings have no legal effect; it’s basically just a notice from the authorities saying “dude, don’t do this.” He will, however, be charged for voluntarily causing hurt by slapping another man on the same flight. He’ll plead guilty to that charge. His lawyer says that he suffers from schizophrenia.

🏠 Read this speech delivered by Teo You Yenn at the Singapore Economic Policy Forum earlier this month. What social conditions do Singaporeans need to lead flourishing lives? Can we fix the skewed balance between self-interest and solidarity in our society so that we can better address the inequalities that exist?


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Do you have an idea for a piece or a story for this newsletter? Is there something Singapore-related that you would like to write about, only you think you'd like some guidance/feedback? Check out the Kaya Toast Mini-Mentorship!

Checking in on the neighbours

🇬🇧 Okay so the UK isn’t our neighbour, but I thought it worth to do this check in since it’s something that people are talking about. After the short-lived disaster that was Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak is now the UK’s latest prime minister. He’s the first non-White premier of the country, which has got a lot of people talking about what a milestone this is. Unsurprisingly, Singaporeans are also pointing to this and asking how the PAP is going to maintain their “not ready for a non-Chinese PM” line when this sort of thing is happening around the world. Just in June this year Shanmugam was throwing “how many non-white Prime Ministers have there been in the United Kingdom?” in Stephen Sackur’s face during a BBC HardTalk interview.

I can see why Sunak’s rise is prompting this discussion, but also feel like we shouldn’t be pointing to this as an example of progress. It isn’t. He’s an unelected prime minister who only got to where he is because of a catastrophic omnishambles. Plus, he’s championing policies that are going to disproportionately hurt ethnic minorities and marginalised communities. Here’s the best op-ed I’ve seen so far on why Sunak-as-PM isn’t good news for racial justice.


From Day 1 of the Free Them, Free Us event!

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Weekly Wraps

Kirsten Han Twitter

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.


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