SINGAPORE: The death penalty is seen as more effective than life imprisonment as a deterrent against certain capital offences, according to recent surveys, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Monday (Oct 5).
Mr Shanmugam was responding to a parliamentary question by Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Jamus Lim on whether there has been any systematic study by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on the deterrent effect of a life sentence relative to the death penalty.
The Sengkang GRC MP also asked if the study has been conducted in cases where a perpetrator's reasoning capacity may have been compromised by factors like mental illness or addiction.
In his written reply, Mr Shanmugam said MHA had commissioned a survey last year involving 2,000 residents.
The majority of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment as a deterrent against using firearms in Singapore (70.8 per cent), committing murder (70.6 per cent) and drug trafficking (68 per cent).
MHA also commissioned a study of a sample of non-Singaporeans who are likely to visit Singapore and therefore might potentially encounter the country's laws and penalties.
The study, conducted in 2018, found that 76 per cent of respondents believed that the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment in discouraging people from committing serious crimes in Singapore, such as murder, smuggling of firearms and drug trafficking.
Eighty-four per cent believed that compared to life imprisonment, the death penalty is more effective in discouraging people from trafficking drugs into Singapore.
READ: Court of Appeal orders further arguments in case of drug trafficker on death row, execution on hold
“We want to emphasise that the studies need to be taken in context. Some tentative conclusions can be drawn, but the very nature of these studies is such that more work will have to be done over periods of time,” said Mr Shanmugam.
In deciding whether to apply the death penalty to a particular offence, Mr Shanmugam said the Government takes into account several factors including three key considerations: The serious of the offence in terms of the harm caused to the victim and society, the frequency of the offence or how widespread it is, as well as the need for deterrence.
These factors are considered in totality, and the fact that an offence is not currently widespread may not in itself be a decisive factor, said Mr Shanmugam.
ON DRUGS AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
For drug trafficking offences, Mr Shanmugam said that while the capital sentence thresholds “may not seem high” to the layperson, they "actually involve significant quantities of drugs".
"For example, the capital sentence threshold amount of 15g of pure heroin (diamorphine) is equivalent to 1,250 straws of heroin, and feeds 180 drug abusers for a week. This is bringing death, or at least a life of ruin, to a large number of abusers and their families," he said.
The minister also pointed to some evidence that knowledge of the death penalty led to a reduction in the amount of drugs trafficked, and gave statistics on how the number of certain crimes dropped after capital punishment was introduced for them.
For example, MHA found that there was a 66 per cent reduction in the average net weight trafficked for opium in the four-year window after the mandatory death penalty was introduced in 1990 for trafficking more than 1,200g of opium.
In the four years after the death penalty for trafficking more than 500g of cannabis was introduced in 1990, there was "a 15 to 19 percentage point reduction in the probability that traffickers would choose to traffic above the capital sentence threshold", said Mr Shanmugam.
READ: Man acquitted again in drug trafficking case, escapes death penalty in new twist 9 years after the incident
Another study MHA conducted showed that convicted drug traffickers who stated they had a higher awareness of the severe legal consequences had limited their trafficking behaviour.
Robbery involving firearms as well as the offence of kidnapping dropped after the death penalty was imposed, and such crimes are now at “a very low level”, said Mr Shanmugam. There were no cases of firearms robbery reported in the last 13 years.
"There is majority public support for the death penalty. Various surveys have been conducted which show this," Mr Shanmugam added.
OFFENDERS AFFECTED BY MENTAL ILLNESS OR ADDICTION
Responding to Assoc Prof Lim's question about perpetrators with mental illnesses or addiction, Mr Shanmugam said that if an offender is of unsound mind at the time of the offence, he or she will be acquitted under the defence of unsoundness of mind under the Penal Code.
This defence can be applied to all offences. If an offender is intoxicated at the time of the crime, he can use intoxication as a defence, but he has to show that he did not know what he was doing, that he did not know his conduct was wrong, and that the intoxication was caused without his knowledge or against his will.
"The Government has the responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Singaporeans, while maintaining a fair and just criminal justice system," said Mr Shanmugam.
"The rights of offenders need to be considered, in the context of the rights of victims and the right of Singaporeans to live in safety and security. The approach we have taken has resulted in Singapore being one of the safest places in the world to live. This is something deeply valued by Singaporeans."
He asked Assoc Prof Lim to share his views with MHA on whether he is supportive of the death penalty, and if so, for which offences and why.
“And if he is against the death penalty, then it will also be useful to hear from him on his reasons for his position. The member’s views will be given careful and respectful consideration,” said Mr Shanmugam.