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The truth about Singapore’s war on drugs

Has the death penalty prevented the supply of illicit drugs in the city-state

An activist wears a T-shirt with a sign against the death penalty during a protest at Speakers' Corner in Singapore on April 3.

An activist wears a T-shirt with a sign against the death penalty during a protest at Speakers' Corner in Singapore on April 3. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 27, 2022 11:13 AM GMT

Updated: October 28, 2022 03:43 AM GMT

Singapore is a representation of humanity’s techno future. The city-state is one of the top Asian cities in terms of wealth, with a highly educated population and impressive infrastructure and public services.

But in the past seven months, Singapore has sent at least 11 people to the gallows. And, that should be a concern for rights groups and Christian Churches that campaign against capital punishment.

The figure is met with skepticism, as Singapore does not notify the public about every execution it carries out nor does it release information about inmates waiting for their turn to be executed.

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Prison officials and executioners are bound by the Official Secrets Act not to divulge details of their work.

The death penalty raises many questions as the state decides who lives and dies, and ultimately what message capital punishment conveys to society as a whole.

The Church in Singapore, part of the global Catholic Church, teaches against the death penalty.

The Catholic Church has been opposing the death penalty since the Second Vatican Council came out with documents such as Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope, 1965), which stressed the infinite dignity of the human person vis-à-vis the authority of the state.

It was during the pontificate of St. Pope John Paul II that the specifics of the Church’s opposition to the death penalty were crystallized forever.

Singapore hands down the death penalty to drug traffickers as the government believes that drugs can kill many people and destroy many lives. The government justifies the killing of those who bring drugs onto its soil on the ground that it saves a greater number of lives under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1973.

In Singapore, trafficking drugs in excess of a certain amount invites the mandatory death sentence. For heroin, that amount is half an ounce and for cannabis, just over 1 pound.

Campaigning against the death penalty becomes a sensitive issue in Singapore with the government and society perceiving campaigners as some sort of supporters of drug trafficking.

According to anti-death penalty activists, the country executed at least 10 persons this year and at least 60 persons are on death row. Their details are derived from the families, who are informed just one week before the final date.

During this short duration, the families have to make arrangements for a funeral and prepare a set of clothes for the customary final photo shoot in prison just before the execution.

When on April 27, Singapore executed Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, a Malaysian national for attempting to smuggle three tablespoons of heroin in 2009, repeated pleas by international figures like EU representatives and UN experts, and British oligarch Richard Branson fell on the deaf ears of Singapore.

However, the Singaporean government has always defended its death penalty as an essential deterrent to keep drugs at bay from the city-state.

Despite the economic progress, Singapore is considered a flawed democracy, and the Democracy Index rankings by the Economic Intelligence Units placed Singapore 66th out of 167 countries in 2021.

The government in Singapore claims that the death penalty is necessary since the majority of residents believe that capital punishment is more effective than life imprisonment in deterring heinous crimes. Besides, there has been a remarkable reduction in serious crimes due to the death penalty, according to the government.

In a press release on Oct 19, the government stated that two studies showed strong support among Singapore residents for capital punishment.

The study, conducted in two phases, in 2018 and 2021, found that 87 percent of respondents believed that the death penalty deterred people from trafficking substantial amounts of drugs into Singapore.

However, there are many in Singapore who are against the death penalty.

In April at Hong Lim Park, many people came together to oppose the execution of 68-year-old Malaysian Abdul Kahar Othman, the first person known to have been hanged this year. It was the largest protest against the death penalty in the country’s history.

Has the death penalty prevented the supply of illicit drugs in Singapore?

In its report on synthetic drugs in East and Southeast Asia,  the UN Office on Drugs and Crime noted that Singapore witnessed a 10 percent rise in the amount of methamphetamine seized from 2020–2021.

However, given the clandestine nature of the production and supply of drugs, the data cannot accurately portray the size of the drug market in the country.

The United Nations has been against using the death penalty to punish drug offenses as it violates international human rights law. Human rights groups like Amnesty International have also called for a moratorium on executions.

But Singapore is still continuing with the colonial-era practice of the death penalty, initiated by the former colonial master, Britain. Only 37 percent of Commonwealth nations have abolished the death penalty so far.

Despite its wealth and prosperity, Singapore still begs to be different when it comes to executing people, who are often from the lower strata of society, while big drug lords are reportedly roaming free.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.


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