JULY 4 — Last week, Singapore’s Minister of Law K. Shanmugam appeared on the BBC’s HARDtalk programme and very robustly defended Singapore’s use of the death penalty.
Shanmugam maintained that Singapore’s imposition of the death penalty, especially in cases of drug trafficking, had saved thousands of lives.
Speaking on the case of Nagaenthrean Dharmalingam, a Malaysian recently executed in Singapore, he said the court had found Nagaenthran had the workings of a criminal mind and had intended to traffic drugs for money, therefore implementation of the death penalty was justified.
The case had attracted significant attention both locally and internationally. Nagenthran was believed to have an extremely low IQ and was on the borderline of being intellectually disabled.
Activists argued he didn’t fully comprehend his crime and that the imposition of the death penalty in this case was wrong.
In general, Shanmugam defended Singapore’s use of the death penalty by maintaining that the harsh punishment saved thousands of lives by deterring crimes.
He called the Western media’s coverage of the Nagaenthran case biased and even paraphrased Stalin saying “that a single hanging of a drug trafficker is a tragedy, a million deaths from drug abuse is a statistic.”
He was implying that the focus on a single case and a single execution missed the bigger picture: the thousands of lives saved.
This is a complex issue.
Singapore's Law Minister K. Shanmugam speaks during an interview in Singapore July 31, 2019. — Reuters pic
Shanmugam’s argument that executions are for the greater good is a longstanding one in favour of the death penalty But is the argument in terms of saving lives necessarily that clear? Singapore does have extremely low rates of drug trafficking and drug related deaths.
Yet countries without the death penalty for drug trafficking like Japan and Korea also boast low drug related use and death rates.
In fact, Korea has had a moratorium on the death penalty since 1997 and yet the country maintains very low crime rates.
On the other hand, countries that do regularly execute drug traffickers — Thailand, Indonesia — have high rates of drug use and trafficking.
So the correlation between the death penalty and low drug use and drug related deaths isn’t as clear.
In reality, it’s more about enforcement. Regardless of the severity of the punishment, the fact you will likely be caught and punished is a big deterrent.
In Singapore, our Customs and law enforcement is very effective. Officers can detect even small amounts of drugs coming in and if you’re caught, your life as you knew it is over. Even without the death penalty.
If you’re a businessman or gang leader, you stand to lose your freedom, your bank accounts — your entire operation.
As a low-level trafficker, you will lose your job — have your life completely upturned by jail terms — and possibly get life-long jail terms.
So even without the death penalty these are strong incentives and coupled with strong enforcement and high chances of being caught — this is enough to keep drug trafficking low.
Perhaps it is more about the efficacy of enforcement than the severity of the punishment?
Singapore’s history of strong enforcement and low levels of drug use mean we can attempt more humane and innovative solutions to the drug problem.
It is an opportunity to show the world another way instead of an outdated one.
Portugal, for example, decriminalised the possession of all drugs — including hard drugs — in the year 2000.
Penalties for traffickers in the country are also relatively light.
Instead of criminalising users, the government poured resources into rehabilitating serious drug users: opening treatment centres, needle exchanges etc.
And while radical for its time, the country’s policy appears to have borne fruit.
Portugal now boasts lower drug use than its neighbours and less of a problem with serious drug abuse.
Despite decriminalising all drugs, Portugal has not become a centre of violent crime and murder.
Now every nation has its own conditions and nuances and I am not recommending we copy or emulate Portugal.
My point is just that there are alternatives to simply hanging drug users and it might be time we explored some of these alternatives.
Because every death is a tragedy and if deaths, especially death imposed by the state, can be prevented, shouldn’t we prevent them?
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.