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Protest against death penalty in Singapore

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Ropes or Syringes: A Closer Look at the Death Penalty in Singapore

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Nichole Jin in Singapore

A loud buzzer beeps, its piercing cry echoing against the grey, concrete walls. A man, dressed in bright orange, is jerked out of his cell and tugged down a dimly-lit hallway.

This would be his last time trudging down this hallway. The guards lead him to a room with a thick glass film separating him and the audience, full of friends and family eager to witness his final moments.

Lying down on a cold, cushioned bench positioned in the middle of the room, the man is strapped into his restraints and hooked up to intertwining tubes. Once the signal is received, members of the audience begin cheering and craning their necks to get a better view, as the guards administer the final series of shots. Slowly, the guards watch as life seeps out of his eyes.

These are the shots that end the man’s life.

The morality of the death penalty has been a widely debated topic in the U.S. for years, with some states outlawing the punishment completely while others continue practicing it.

Despite its prevalence in the United States, this debate is often overlooked in one country, a little island located off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula coast and over 13,600 times smaller than America, a dot on a map of the world: Singapore.

It is especially alarming that there is a lack of discussion surrounding the death sentence in Singapore when it is enforced strictly and practiced so often. According to a 2023 article, 11 Singaporean civilians were executed for drug-related offenses in 2022, with 2 civilians executed within the span of just three weeks at the start of 2023.

Human Rights Watch also reported on a lawsuit signed by 24 inmates on death row who alleged that their legal counsel was obstructed by authorities. This was swiftly shut down by Singapore’s high court amid the ‘execution spree’.

While the death penalty is typically reserved for first-degree murder, in Singapore, the punishment is dished out to those who dabble in drug trafficking and, in some cases, even drug usage.

A crime that lands you a maximum sentence of three years of imprisonment in America could very well mark the end of your life in Singapore.

While the death sentence for a crime that is treated lightly or barely even considered an offense in many other countries may seem excessively harsh, it does not come as a shock in a country well-known for its restrictive and well-enforced laws.

In a city where spitting gum on the sidewalk and chucking an empty soda bottle into some bushes are considered major offenses, is it so surprising that smuggling and selling drugs is viewed as a crime so heinous that only death can do it justice?

Singaporean government officials argue that the city’s use of the death penalty has played a significant role in reducing crime rates, especially for more severe crimes such as kidnapping and drug trafficking.

According to a 2022 article by The Straits Times, Minister K. Shanmugam said in a 2022 budget speech that, “We prefer not to have to impose the death penalty on anyone, but we have to continue to do what is best for us as a matter of policy.”

GPI score

Iceland: 1.124

Denmark: 1.31

Ireland: 1.312

New Zealand: 1.313

Austria: 1.316

Singapore: 1.332

It is undeniable that Singapore has a shockingly low crime rate. The island’s 2021 crime rate was 0.85 for every 100,000 civilians and currently in 2024, The Global Peace Index places Singapore as the sixth safest country in the world.

Having lived here for many years, I can personally attest that it is nice to be able to walk home after nightfall sweeping my surroundings and worrying about stumbling into a potentially dangerous situation.

Singapore’s zero-tolerance policy towards crime is what makes it a bulletproof bubble, shielded from the dangers of the outside world.

Knowing this, it only makes sense that, according to a 2022 survey from the Ministry of Home Affairs, 73.7% of surveyed Singaporeans support the death penalty, with 66% of survey responders supporting the punishment for drug-related offenses.

Looking past just numbers and figures, I was curious to find out for myself why so many Singaporeans were in support of such a seemingly-inhumane punishment, and what your everyday Singaporean had to say on the topic.

For a week, I spent my afternoons after getting off work standing in the sweltering Singapore heat and catching people on their way home, asking them their opinion on the death penalty.

Out of the roughly 50 pedestrians I surveyed, 38 were in support of capital punishment, which equates to 76%, very close to what previous research had also concluded.

When I asked for their reasoning, most folks, in a rush to get home after a long day at the office, explained in a few quick words that the deterrence effect ultimately saved more lives than those lost as a result of the punishment.

On Thursday night, I planned on asking just one more person their thoughts before heading home for the day, and came across a man dressed in a simple blue button-up shirt and khaki pants, carrying a take-out container from a nearby Chinese restaurant. When I asked him his thoughts, he stopped walking and stood in silence for a few seconds, hands on his hips, clearly deep in thought.

He came to the conclusion that he was not in support of the death sentence, and when I pressed him to elaborate on his reasoning, he explained simply that “one life is not necessarily worth a thousand.”

Later that night, mulling over this mysterious man’s answer, I pondered a larger question that his words seeded in my mind: does the potential to save thousands of lives justify the loss of a few?

Singapore authorities defend the death penalty on the basis that the criminals sentenced to death save thousands of lives by deterring crimes such as homicide, abduction, and the use of harmful drugs.

Read also:

Singapore’s death row ‘main element of its drug policy’

‘Dozens of people face hanging for drug offences in Singapore and the city-state has shown no sign it will soften its approach’.

By Adam Hancock | Aljazeera

This justification only stands because most people, at least in Singapore, seem to agree with the utilitarian mindset that the best course of action for the majority outweighs the best course of action for the minority.

They believe that the two lives lost in a matter of weeks because of the death penalty were a reasonable and even morally-righteous sacrifice for the sake of crime prevention.

The ethical concept backing this justification has been debated for decades if not centuries. Most everyone has heard of the famous trolley problem, in which you are asked to decide between allowing a train to kill five people or pulling a lever to direct it onto a different track, where only one unsuspecting individual will be run over.

Is killing that one individual worth saving the five on the other track? Or, in other words, is one life worth five? Is ten worth a thousand? And at what point do we draw the line?

This is not the only ethical question at the heart of the death penalty debate: another factor to consider is the method of execution. One solution that proponents of the death penalty have advocated for is the use of a more humane method of execution to alleviate the moral qualms surrounding the punishment.

For example, lethal injection is viewed as a more humane method of execution compared to the now outlawed electric chair, leading to its adoption in the U.S. in 1977 despite the electric chair having been around since 1890.

Singapore, however, still puts inmates to death through hanging, which is viewed by many as a more inhumane method of execution. However, is there really any way to humanely put someone to death? Does replacing a rope with some syringes suddenly make the act of ending a life more ethical?

In discussing matters of life and of death, of punishment and of justice, there are no clear cut edges. While some consider the act of killing to be inherently immoral, others believe that it can be justified in certain situations, from deterrence to self-defence.

It is true that the death penalty has contributed to effective crime deterrence in Singapore; however, this is not the only factor contributing to the city’s low crime rates.

More important and far less morally-ambiguous than the death penalty, is the strict and effective enforcement of laws in Singapore that help build a safe environment.

It is the neighbourhood watches, the CCTV cameras installed on every building, the police cars every few blocks, and the crime-fighting attitude shared by many civilians that protect the city from crime.

When discussing matters of human rights, Singapore is often overlooked for its size and facade of utter perfection. Unpolluted skies, towering skyscrapers, streets void of candy wrappers and chewed gum. Singapore truly seems like the perfect place to live.

But however safe the city may seem, those two lives taken in the span of merely three weeks at the hands of the death penalty cannot be ignored. Only by discussing this issue more openly can steps be taken towards achieving a more equal and morally progressive Singapore.

Written by:

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Nichole Jin

Contributor

Singapore | New Jersey

Born in 2006 in Fremont, California, Nichole has moved from city to city, having lived in Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, Chicago, and London. She currently lives in Singapore while attending a boarding school in New Jersey.

Her interests are related to ethics, philosophy, policy, and sociology, and she hopes to continue pursuing her passions in some of these fields once moving on to college.

In her free time, Nichole enjoys playing tennis, writing for her school’s student newspaper, and spending time with friends and family. She has also dabbled in piano—her favourite piece is ‘Claire De Lune’ by Debussy.

Nichole speaks English and Mandarin.

Edited by:

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Sofiya Tkachenko

Editor-in-chief

Kyiv, Ukraine | Vienna, Austria

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