SINGAPORE'S DEATH TRAP
The tiny island nation of Singapore has taken the chilling phrase
"zero tolerance" to a new level. It considers anyone found with more
than half an ounce (14 grams) of heroin or more than 17 ounces of
marijuana to be trafficking in drugs, a capital offence. Judges have
no discretion in sentencing. They must apply the death penalty.
As a result, Singapore has earned itself a dubious distinction.
According to a report just released by Amnesty International, it is
thought to have the highest execution rate in the world. The United
Nations calculates that Singapore had about 13.6 executions for every
million people between 1994 and 1999. That's four times the rate of
Sierra Leone, three times the rate of Saudi Arabia and six times the
rate of China, the nation that executes the greatest number of people
overall. Since 1991, more than 400 people have been hanged in
Singapore, which has a population of four million. By contrast, the
United States has executed 747 people in a population of 290 million.
Most executions in Singapore were for drug trafficking, though some
were for firearms offences or murder.
Singapore is quite unapologetic about its world-beating record. It
says its liberal use of the death penalty discouragesdrug use and
violent crime. "By protecting Singaporeans from drugs, we are
pro-tecting their human rights," MP Inderjit Singh said in response to
the Amnesty report. "The rule-breakers have to be dealt with. It's the
same in any part of the world."
But as Amnesty points out, the death penalty is a blunt instrument. It
tends to fall most heavily on the poor and the marginal. Many of those
executed in Singapore have been drug addicts, migrant labourers or
poorly educated workers. Because the law considers possession of more
than a minimal quantity of drugs to be proof of trafficking,
defendants are in effect presumed guilty, a gross violation of their
rights. Amnesty also accuses Singapore of veiling its use of the death
penalty by failing to publish regular statistics on the number of
executions it performs. Even now, the number of people on death row is
This suggests that despite its boasts about the efficacy of the death
penalty, Singapore feels at least a little ashamed of its status as
the world's leading hangman -- as it should.