SINGAPORE: After numerous reviews in recent years, the Singapore government is finally tweaking the death penalty laws.
Speaking in Parliament on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean mooted lifting the death penalty for drug couriers under certain conditions.
Firstly, they must have only played the role of courier and not been involved in the supply or distribution of drugs. Secondly, they would need to have cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau in a substantive way or demonstrated mental disability.
In such cases, the courts will have the discretion to now impose a life sentence instead of sending traffickers to the gallows.
Nine Members of Parliament raised supplementary questions on the proposed changes to the death penalty framework in Singapore.
Several asked about the level of cooperation needed from the accused drug trafficker to be exempted from the mandatory death penalty.
Christopher De Souza, MP for Holland—Bukit Timah GRC, asked: "How much cooperation must be given? I certainly hope that a high level of cooperation is needed and required by the courts and by the amendments, such that we can go upstream with the information collected through that cooperation and go to the people who run these rackets outside of Singapore."
Alvin Yeo, MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC, said: "I’m also slightly troubled by the remark that cooperation needs to lead to concrete outcomes. As DPM has rightly observed, the many drug cartels are very difficult to penetrate the high levels. And indeed, the lower down the hierarchy the courier is, the less likely he is to have information that will lead directly to the ringleaders. Are we in some danger of setting too high a barrier?"
In reply, Mr Teo said: "On the cooperation element, we believe that it will help us, give us an extra set of tools, to reach higher up into the drug syndicates.
"It’s going to be very difficult. I’m not sure that we will succeed, but it gives us an extra set of tools to encourage the couriers in this case, to assist us, to dismantle drug syndicates, or to arrest or prosecute members of the syndicates. And I’ve described a substantive cooperation in those terms. We’ll have to define the precise way of having this enacted in the law as we go ahead."
Workers’ Party Secretary—General and MP for Aljunied GRC, Low Thia Khiang, asked if there is a need for a mandatory death sentence.
"Why can’t we leave it to the court to decide and to impose appropriate sentence, rather than mandatory sentence, especially death penalty. And if mandatory death penalty is an important deterrent, how does non—mandatory, compared to mandatory, have more deterrence? If the court imposes death sentence under certain circumstances, is it not deterrent enough?"
Mr Teo replied: "The mandatory death sentence provides on conviction a very certain and severe punishment. And it has been a very strong deterrent.
In the case of the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking, we can see that drug traffickers, and others involved in the supply chain, are deliberately, where they can, opting to come below the threshold levels for the mandatory death penalty.
"So it clearly has an impact on behaviour. Hence the changes we are making are carefully calibrated to maintain the strong deterrent value of the mandatory death sentence, while providing for the courts to have discretion in certain specific, tightly—defined situations."
Sylvia Lim, MP for Aljunied GRC, said: "An overriding concern is that, while we look at the death penalty itself, it should not be looked at in isolation of the criminal procedure as a whole. Because the sentence finally comes out at the end of that process. And I think all of us are interested to ensure that we don’t convict the wrong person!"
Law Minister, Mr K Shanmugam, said: "We work with the Bar, and with the judges to make sure we have a system that doesn’t fall into either extremely liberal such that prosecution becomes a game of catch—me—if—you—can with a series of procedural hurdles which have no real substantive value, or another system where even innocent people can be convicted.
"We want the cases to be proven beyond reasonable doubt, in a fair and proper way. All suggestions to make the process more rigorous would always be welcome. My ministry as well as Home Affairs would be willing to listen to any suggestions in that context. Ultimately the test is: does it improve the system?"
NMP Faizah Jamal said: "Very often, most of these couriers are very young, and probably driven by hard circumstances. While I understand the primary objective is always for the society, my concern is that in the course of the long period of time when they are in remand or in prison, change happens. I wonder if that can be taken into account. People change, and there could be real remorse, and this can be attested to by authorities."
Replying, Mr Shanmugam said: "I think if we focus on any one individual, a powerful case can emotionally be made out for saving a life. For saving lives, powerful cases can always be made out. It is more difficult if you want to balance that against the reality.
"15g of heroin is 300 people using that for a week. Somebody who peddles that, and usually they peddle much more than that, will bring ruin, possibly death, or at least a life of ruin, to a large number of people.
"Let’s say, instead of 15g it is 100g, you work it out for yourself, how many thousands of people (are ruined).
"What is never in the headlines is the number of lives that have been lost; the number of children who are orphaned either literally or through their parents being in jail; the amount of sadness and impact on the social fabric of society that those who are on the ground see every day.
"The headlines never focus on the victims of crime. If you look at it — the number of people who are impacted and how tough you need to be to try and save the society as a whole, then you need to send out a clear and consistent message.
"And the clear and consistent message is that if you deal in drugs in a quantity that is enough to support 300 people or more, then you face the death penalty. It’s never an easy debate. It’s not because we like the death penalty, it’s not because we think it ought to be imposed for no reason. It’s not because we want to simply, be tough.
"It’s because imposed with the duty of ensuring the safety and security of every single Singaporean who goes out on the streets, we feel there’s no choice but to have this framework. And that is a conversation we ought to continue to have."
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