Singapore, one of the world’s most dynamic, energetic and powerful economic engines and financial hubs, is widely admired and envied.
However, the wealthy city-state has a dark underside.
Singapore, like much of Southeast Asia, has very draconian laws, particularly with respect to drug trafficking – for which, a conviction often leads to the death penalty.
For example, any adult (aged 18 or above) convicted of trafficking (or possession for the purpose of trafficking) at least 15 grams of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine or 500 grams of cannabis, faces mandatory execution.
Amnesty International, which has long criticized Singapore for its harsh and unyielding form of criminal justice, estimates that at least 400 people have been executed in the island since 1991, mostly on drug-related convictions.
Thus, given its small population (about 5-million), Singapore has one of the world’s highest rates of executions per capita.
“Death sentences continued to be mandatorily imposed in Singapore, mostly for drug-related offences and mainly against foreign nationals,” Amnesty once said in a statement [although the Singapore government had produced figures which contradicted that assertion.]
Moreover, Singapore has defended its drug policies. During the 2009 session of the UN Human Rights Council, the government said in a statement: "We strongly disagree that States should refrain from using the death penalty in relation to drug-related offenses. The death penalty has deterred major drug syndicates from establishing themselves in Singapore."
At present, there has been much media focus on Yong Vui Kong, a young Malaysian man who was sentenced to death for drug trafficking in Singapore. Yong has exhausted all appeals and now faces a hanging, despite pleas from his own government.
International Business Times spoke to two Singapore-based lawyers about the country’s drug laws.
Jack Tsen-Ta Lee is Assistant Professor of Law at the School of Law of Singapore Management University.
Michael Hor Yew Meng is a Professor of Law at National University of Singapore
IB TIMES: Drug-trafficking laws in Southeast Asia, especially Singapore, are the toughest in the world. Why is this?
HOR: For Singapore, in any event, it probably has to do with the strong emphasis on governmental efficiency and effectiveness and the weakness of any internal lobby against draconian criminal justice measures.
IB TIMES: Can you estimate how many people Singapore has executed for drug trafficking offenses over the past ten years (or any recent time period for which data is available)?
HOR: As far as I am aware, there are only two sets of publicly available execution figures and these show that from 1999-2003 there was an average execution rate of 27.6 persons annually. This is to be compared with the figures for 2007-2009, when the average dipped to 4.6 persons annually.
IB TIMES: How has the Singaporean government reacted to criticism of its death penalty practices from Amnesty International and other Western groups?
HOR: The explicit reaction has been to stress its position that the decision to impose capital punishment is a matter within the sovereignty of Singapore and not something which is governed by international law -- simply, it is not the business of Amnesty or other Western lobbyists.
IB TIMES: Has Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, made any plans to ease the death penalty laws?
LEE: The Government has affirmed that in its view the death penalty has an important deterrent effect. As such, it has not indicated any intention to abolish the death penalty or reduce the number of criminal offenses attracting the death penalty.
IB TIMES: Are most death penalty convictions in Singapore commuted to life sentences?
LEE: No. Most death penalty convictions are carried out. My impression is that only a handful of such convictions have been commuted to life sentences, usually because the prisoners are suffering from a terminal illness.
I recall one case a number of years ago involving a woman with cancer whose sentence of death was commuted.
HOR: There are no published figures, but it is believed that commutations are extremely rare.
IB TIMES: Despite the severe drug laws, does Singapore have a problem with drug abuse?
HOR: I think it would be fair to say that there is nowhere in the world which does not have a drug problem, but it is also the general perception that the situation in Singapore is well under control. The question is whether the existence and use of capital punishment has materially contributed to this state of affairs.
IB TIMES: Does the Singaporean public generally support the harsh drug laws?
LEE: Yes, my impression is that most people generally support harsh drug laws, and the death penalty.
IB TIMES: Does the Singapore constitution allow for the death penalty for other serious crimes, like murder, rape, etc.?
LEE: Article 9(1) of the Singapore Constitution states that no person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty, save in accordance with law. Thus, the Constitution envisages that a person may be deprived of life (that is, the death penalty may be carried out) so long as legal procedures are adhered to, and it is not possible -- barring a constitutional amendment -- to argue that the death penalty is per se unconstitutional. Legal challenges to the manner in which the death penalty is carried out (namely, that hanging is a form of inhuman punishment or treatment) and to the mandatory death penalty for certain drug offences have so far been unsuccessful.
The death penalty is not imposed for rape, but is a possible punishment for other offences such as murder, treason, piracy endangering life, and certain kidnapping and arms offenses.
HOR: The current judicial interpretation of relevant Singaporean constitutional provisions is that the death penalty is not inherently unconstitutional.
IB TIMES: Would you describe Singapore as a democracy?
LEE: It depends on what you consider the elements of a democracy to be, but in general, I would describe Singapore as a democracy. We have regular elections at which voters have freely returned the People’s Action Party to power since 1959.
On the other hand, if you define a democracy as requiring broad freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, then it might be said that Singapore is somewhat lacking in this regard as there are various restrictions on these rights.
For example, it is necessary to apply for a permit to hold a political demonstration, and the Government has said that it is not its policy to grant such permits for demonstrations to be held in outdoor locations because of the possibility of public disorder. (Events in indoor locations such as auditoria are allowed, and permits are not required for demonstrations held at Speakers’ Corner if the participants are Singaporean citizens or permanent residents.)
IB TIMES: Are there human rights organization within Singapore itself seeking to abolish the death penalty?
LEE: I am aware that there are some activists who have called for the abolition of the death penalty, though I am not sure if they are organized into any formal association.
HOR: There are a handful of organizations which have expressed dissatisfaction over either the death penalty, or the manner in which it is applied in Singapore. For example, Maruah (http://maruah.org/); and The Online Citizen (http://theonlinecitizen.com/?s=death+penalty).
IB TIMES: What do you make of the case of Yong Vui Kong, the young Malaysian man sitting on death row in Singapore for drug trafficking? Is the Malay government applying pressure on Singapore to reduce his conviction? Is he becoming a “cause célèbre” of sorts?
LEE: I believe that there were some calls from Malaysian activists and possibly even Malaysian Members of Parliament for Yong’s sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment, but I find this rather ironic because as far as I am aware Malaysia also has the death penalty.
I do not sense that Yong is becoming a cause célèbre – since the final dismissal of his case, there has been little in the news about him.
I was not surprised by the judgment of the Court of Appeal in the Yong Vui Kong case, as it essentially reaffirmed legal reasoning that had been applied in the earlier case of Nguyen Tuong Van, a Vietnamese-Australian drug trafficker who was eventually executed.
The Singapore courts tend to be quite conservative where interpretation of the Constitution is concerned, and I did not think it was likely that the Court of Appeal would ‘discover’ a prohibition against inhuman punishment and treatment in Article 9(1) as it does not expressly state so.
HOR: The problem with Malaysian attempts to persuade the Singapore government not to execute Yong Vui Kong is that Malaysia itself has and uses a very similar set of drug laws which prescribes the mandatory death penalty.
By Palash R. Ghosh
June 22, 2011