The Singapore government has received much negative press from the Western media for its stance on the death penalty. The mandatory death sentence it imposes upon anyone found with a specified amount of drugs is considered overly harsh and unjust by many. Yong Vui Kong, a 22-year old Malaysian, is just the latest (impending) recipient of this punishment. In light of all the recent furore that his sentence has generated at least in the Singaporean blogosphere, many may wonder what the basis of the government’s stance on the death penalty for drug trafficking is. Let me therefore chart out the potential argument that the government may make in defence of its stance, and the problems I think it faces at each stage of it. For brevity’s sake, let’s merely focus on the death penalty for drug trafficking alone. Let’s also leave out talk about whether the government is justified in making the death penalty mandatory for all drug traffickers.
It is well known that the government “has not published detailed statistics of crime and punishment” (Michael Hwang, former president of the Singapore Law Society). This is a concern because the government’s main reason for imposing the death penalty is its deterrent effect. As mentioned in its response to Amnesty International’s report in 2007 (The Singapore Government’s Response To Amnesty International’s Report “Singapore – The Death Penalty: A Hidden Toll Of Executions”), the death penalty “sends a strong signal to would-be offenders, to deter them from committing crimes…in the case of drug trafficking, the death penalty has deterred major drug syndicates from establishing themselves in Singapore”. For government’s claim here to be true, it has to possess empirical data which shows that the death penalty does indeed deter drug traffickers. While intuitively it may seem certain that the death penalty would deter, the government surely cannot uphold a policy of executing people merely on the intuition that doing so produces good consequences.
But how would it show that the death penalty does indeed deter drug traffickers? There are some complications here for the gathering of statistics. First, note that when the government says that the death penalty deters drug traffickers, it is essentially saying that executing convicted drug traffickers under this law helps save its citizens and residents from the harms that drug trafficking brings. But how do we show this? If we were dealing with the death penalty for murder, we might say that “executing one convicted murderer saves X number of future lives from being lost”. But what about drug trafficking? If we say that “executing one convicted drug trafficker saves X number of future lives from being lost due to illegal drug intake”, then statistically identifying what that X number is might be very difficult, and even if we could identify it, this number might be very small or even negligible. This is because drug trafficking in Singapore need not lead to any drug-related deaths at all. And since deaths caused by drug intake would require at least either high usage of weaker drugs or low usage of stronger (lethal) drugs, a large amount of drug trafficking activity may have to be existing in Singapore before any significant correlation between no of executions and deaths-due-to-drugs is obtainable.
Now we might use an alternate measure; we might instead attempt to show that “executing each convicted drug trafficker saves X number of future individuals from the harmful effects of drugs”. This measure appears to make data collection easier, for now we merely have to obtain statistics about the damage to people’s health caused by drug intake that results from drug trafficking. But even this is not easy, as the amount of illegal drug intake may be so low that any strong correlation may be unobtainable. Identifying that such and such an effect is caused by the illegal drug intake rather than by other causes is also going to be difficult (although I do not consider this to be as significant a worry as the prior ones).
In effect, these are the kinds of problems facing the successful gathering of statistical data to show that executing drug traffickers does indeed have a deterrent effect. Note here that in the measures I have used to express the deterrent effect, I have merely attempted to comparatively assess the amount of the society’s pain and suffering (caused either by death or the non-terminal ill effects of illegal drug intake) that is avoided by the pain and suffering experienced by the drug trafficker through his execution. The government’s deterrent argument is essentially trying to show that by inflicting pain and terminating a single individual (the drug trafficker), it will be preventing the future suffering of people in Singapore from drug trafficking. I have pointed out the problems it faces in obtaining data to support this empirical claim.
Now for the purposes of argument, let us suppose that the government is able to obtain data to support its empirical claim here. What then? Well if this is so, then the government will still have to establish one more thing: that the death penalty is a superior deterrent than other forms of punishment. For if the death penalty is no better a deterrent than say, life imprisonment, then it is not clear why the government should impose the death penalty rather than life imprisonment. The government therefore has to show this. I have however never seen the government even claim this. In that same reply to Amnesty International, it contended that the death penalty “has worked for us, making Singapore one of the safest places in the world to live and work in”. But just because the death penalty has worked, does not mean that it is the right form of punishment. For life imprisonment (perhaps with corporal punishment) could work just as well. The government has not shown that the death penalty works better than alternative forms of punishment. So why should it choose to impose the death penalty over the alternatives?
The debate could very well end here if it can be shown that the death penalty for drug trafficking is no better a deterrent than some other kind of punishment. It will certainly end if the death penalty proves to be an inferior deterrent to other kinds of punishment. But facts may turn out otherwise. And what if they do? Let us once again assume, for the purposes of argument, that the death penalty proves to be just as good or only marginally better a deterrent than other forms of punishment. In this case, the government or a proponent of the death penalty might say, “we should adopt the death penalty because it is much more cost-effective than other forms of punishment like life imprisonment”. Since it costs the government less to convict and hang someone for drug trafficking than to keep him in prison all his life, the argument goes, we should go for the former.
This seems a pretty strong contention to me, but I think two points can be made here. First a minor one: the amount of money and resources incurred in trying, convicting and then hanging the guilty party may be more than is initially apparent. Crimes punishable by death are handled more delicately than others, even in Singapore. A case involving capital crime may be prolonged by numerous appeals and other procedural considerations. Now that said, I do not think that even considering all of this, the cost of trying and executing someone in Singapore is going to come close (or be equal) to that of keeping him in prison for life. So (speculatively), I do not think this first point succeeds.
Here’s my second point: if we should implement the death penalty because it is more cost-effective than its equally effective alternative deterrent (life imprisonment, let’s say), then to be consistent, we should also implement the death penalty for smaller crimes like burglary and assault if it is as effective a deterrent as the current punishments for them (which may be say, jail and caning). Since hanging someone convicted of a crime like assault would potentially cost less than feeding and housing him in a prison for years or decades, we should do so. This conclusion logically follows from the conjectured government’s stand that ‘if two forms of punishment are equally good deterrents for a particular crime, then we should adopt the more cost-effective punishment’. This extrapolated conclusion I have drawn might struck many people and the government itself as being highly counter-intuitive and abhorrent, but this is what the government is committed to if it wishes to maintain this position.
There is however a way that the government can respond to my contention here, and maintain that it is wrong to execute convicts of smaller crimes even if it is more cost-effective to do so. It could say that executing those convicted of smaller crimes like burglary or assault would violate a general proportionality requirement which underscores all punishment laws. The proportionality requirement would essentially state that “the punishment for a crime must (in some meaningful sense) fit the crime”. Using this, the government might retort that executing people convicted of smaller crimes would be unduly harsh and violate the proportionality requirement. I think the government might be right in saying this.
But this too is not an invulnerable contention. Here’s why: the government still needs to show that the death penalty is a proportionate punishment for drug trafficking, or at least that it is a more proportionate punishment for drug trafficking than for assault or burglary. If it succeeds in showing only the latter, then it must also show that the death penalty is a more proportionate punishment for drug trafficking than any alternate form of punishment. It needs to show this because otherwise, one can retort that even though the death penalty may be a more cost-effective deterrent for drug trafficking than any alternate form of punishment, it fails to satisfy the proportionality requirement (which is exactly the contention that I said the government could make against the idea of imposing the death penalty for smaller crimes like assault). Hence, the government still has this to prove before it can consider its defense resolute.
In this article I have not examined how the government could go about showing that the death penalty satisfies the proportionality requirement. For brevity’s sake, I will not. It could employ the lex talionis (law of retaliation) rule which has been historically used as a proportionality requirement. This rule requires that the act of the punishment (e.g taking away of life) must match the action of the crime (the taking away of the victim’s life). I leave it to you to decide if lex talionis can be used to justify the death penalty for drug trafficking (hint: it can’t, simply because the acts involved are distinct). Some other proportionality requirement could instead be used.
Ultimately though, what is crucial is that we understand these numerous difficulties facing the government in its defense of the death penalty for drug trafficking. Since the government uses the deterrence argument to support its case, it has to face up to these challenges (which I do not claim are insurmountable). And if it can’t, then it does not have a good reason for imposing this punishment. As things stand though, it should at least seek to explain why it continues to take away lives, of which Vui Kong’s could be next. If it can’t, then it should have the honesty and courage to abandon this law.