Deadly Silence

How can it be that the death penalty receives such scant public attention in Singapore?

The recent hanging of Mr Kho Jabing has thrust the topic of capital punishment into the limelight in Singapore once again. The controversy surrounding the facts of the case and the multiple attempts to save Mr Kho’s life has elicited much discussion, including reactions from Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan and The Middle Ground journalist Daniel Yap, not to mention the passionate arguments put forth by activist groups like We Believe in Second Chances (WBISC) and the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC).

Before this, the last public discussion about the death penalty that I can recall was back in 2011-2012, when the book Once a Jolly Hangman was released (and then censored) in Singapore and the author, Alan Shadrake, was jailed for six weeks for “scandalising the judiciary” in his book.  Soon after that, in 2012, the government completed its review of the Mandatory Death Penalty (MDP) and introduced some reforms to the policy.

Besides these two instances, I have no personal recollection of any other public discussion about Singapore’s death penalty – and I don’t think this has to do with my young age or ignorance. Of course, through my research for this article, I’ve learned about the numerous efforts of local activists to encourage greater public engagement with this issue. But questions about the morality, desirability and effectiveness of capital punishment still receive a paltry amount of attention from Singaporeans.

The government itself admitted in its response to a 2004 Amnesty International report on capital punishment in Singapore that the death penalty is “not a burning issue in Singapore”. Seven years later, in a response to an International Herald Tribune article on Shadrake’s imprisonment, the Law Ministry claimed that “the death penalty is openly and vigorously debated in Singapore”. Moreover, a recent ST article claimed that “the death penalty is nevertheless a hot political issue in Singapore”. But I just cannot see the evidence of this. Instead of stimulating discussion, there’s deafening silence. Either that or the argument bounces back and forth between “He deserved to die” and “An eye for an eye makes the world blind” – followed by more silence.

This needs to change. Capital punishment has serious and irreversible consequences that warrant more frequent discussion about its place in our penal system. I do not intend to evaluate pro- or anti-death penalty arguments in this article. My main concern is with the paucity and imbalance of discussion about the death penalty in Singapore. We have all grown up hearing the same refrain – the death penalty deters serious crime and saves lives. Most Singaporeans imbibe this argument without seriously questioning it – including myself, until a few weeks ago. But how can we be sure of the deterrence value of capital punishment if we don’t question it? And how long can we keep sweeping this issue under the carpet?


“Hot political issue?”

How often do Singaporeans discuss this issue? Granted, this is a difficult topic to discuss in private settings because it isn’t polite dinner conversation. But in public forums and the media, this issue receives a lot less attention than COE prices and CPF policy. It is hardly discussed in Parliament, sidelined in General Elections, and completely ignored in Presidential Elections. It is neglected at all stages of education. Singaporeans are not regularly asked for their opinion on the death penalty. My guess is that capital punishment is never discussed in any religious community at all. And although there are NGOs dedicated to tackling this issue, their reach is still limited.

As mentioned earlier, the last time the death penalty was discussed in Parliament was in 2012 after the review of the MDP. But this amounted to ministerial statements about the decisions made by the review commission, followed by 9 parliamentary questions, only 3 of which questioned the need for the MDP at all. Before that, it was discussed in Parliament in 2007, when then-Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee claimed that a survey reported in the Straits Times in 2005 – which I have been unable to find – showed that 95% of Singaporeans feel that the death penalty should stay. In 2001, the late JB Jeyaratnam brought the case of death-row inmate Zulfikar Mustaffah to Parliament, and Mr Ho Peng Kee claimed that “it is not for us in Parliament to discuss cases”. Besides these instances, I am not aware of other times when the death penalty was discussed across the despatch box.

Does the death penalty feature as an election issue in Singapore? Unsurprisingly, the PAP manifestos of 2011 and 2015 did not mention the issue. The Workers’ Party proposed reforming the MDP to allow greater discretion to judges in their 2011 manifesto (p.8) and their 2015 manifesto (p.39). The Reform Party manifesto in 2015 called for a moratorium on the death penalty and its eventual repeal. As far as I’m aware, the Singapore Democratic Party has never discussed the death penalty in their manifesto, but they criticised Singapore’s use of the death penalty back in 2004. But other than these brief mentions, the death penalty has always taken the backseat to more salient concerns about the cost of housing and healthcare, the quality of education and infrastructure upgrading projects.

Students in Singapore hardly discuss the issue of capital punishment. Perhaps it is discussed in certain philosophy classes or Knowledge Inquiry classes in JC. But it is not discussed in Social Studies lessons. While issues like the Little India Riot in 2013, the usefulness of a poverty line, and the relationship between foreigners and citizens are now being discussed in the new SS syllabus, the death penalty is not being debated despite its supposed importance in keeping our society safe.

If not in schools, how about in institutions of higher learning? I don’t know how often capital punishment is discussed amongst university students, though I imagine that law students frequently deliberate over Singapore’s MDP. I know from experience that Singaporean overseas students are often challenged by their contemporaries on this issue. But looking beyond university students, I have not found any research by policy institutes or think tanks on Singapore’s death penalty. The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) held a debate on whether the death penalty should be kept or abolished, but I have not found any policy research about the effectiveness of the death penalty. I also have not found any research on Singaporeans’ attitudes towards the death penalty. A recent ST article repeated the claim that “an estimated 95 per cent of the population still support the death penalty”, but it is unclear where that information is from.

Besides schools and universities, NGOs play an important role in public education. I am aware of three NGOs that focus specifically on the death penalty in Singapore and/or Southeast Asia – WBISC, SADPC, and the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) – as well as other NGOs that focus on human rights more generally. These groups provide support to the families of death row inmates, organise educational seminars, and formulate policy recommendations, some of which have been submitted in the 2015 Universal Periodic Review to the UN. But despite the fervent efforts of these groups to change people’s mindsets about the death penalty, my impression is that the vast majority of Singaporeans are either uninterested in engaging with the positions argued by these NGOs, or simply unaware of the existence of these groups.

The overall picture is one of a generally unengaged and uninterested population. I am slightly perturbed by the fact that foreign journalists like Alan Shadrake and international NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are discussing Singapore’s death penalty more than we are. We need to reclaim primary responsibility for this discussion.


What needs to be done

The situation as it stands is untenable. There are at least three changes that need to be implemented in order to facilitate greater public engagement with this issue.

Firstly and most importantly, we need more transparency and openness from the government. Public data on the use of the death penalty in Singapore is notoriously patchy. This data has been released in responses to parliamentary questions and in annual reports of the Singapore Prison Service. Without complete data, it is difficult to discuss the effectiveness and societal impact of the death penalty. Moreover, Singaporeans need to have the space to discuss this sensitive issue with greater openness if we are to have an effective and honest discussion. Actions like the censorship of Once a Jolly Hangman and the incarceration of Alan Shadrake stifle constructive debate and evaluation of the limitations and dangers of the MDP.

Secondly, we need to realise that capital punishment is a complex issue with far-reaching consequences. In other words, we need to acknowledge that there is much to discuss. It is not simply a matter of arguing that a person deserves to die because he took another person’s life – which is often the furthest point that many people reach in their argument. There are other important questions to be asked. Does the death penalty really act as a deterrent? Should it be mandatory for certain cases? What is the impact of the death penalty on the family of the executed prisoner? Since the death penalty is irreversible, is it right to impose such a harsh punishment on the innocent family of the perpetrator?

Finally, we need to focus on the substance of arguments for and against the death penalty. We should not allow ourselves to be swayed by personal labels. Unflattering characterisations of opponents of the death penalty as “political opportunists” and “bleeding-heart liberals” are not helpful. Harsh portrayals of proponents of capital punishment as “revenge-seeking barbarians” only inflame tensions that distract from the real debate. We also need to jettison the belief that challenging the death penalty is illegitimate because it is a callous rejection of the grief of the murder victim’s family or a careless dismissal of the destructiveness of drug addiction. I’m sure that both pro- and anti-death penalty camps have the same goal of minimising death, grief and pain in society – this common ground should be our point of departure.


Ultimately, the issue of capital punishment is not just about the life and death of inmates but about our fundamental societal values about justice, security and the sanctity of life. Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in a speech in 2002, “The basic difference in our approach springs from our traditional Asian value system which places the interests of the community over and above that of the individual.” But these values cannot be described or prescribed from above. They are moulded in a constant national conversation. It is imperative that we have a conversation about this matter of life and death.


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