It felt like nothing short of a miracle: on 23 May, Singapore’s Court of Appeal granted Pannir Selvam a stay of execution. If the lawyers who’d stepped forward to represent him at the last minute had shown up just a day later, it would have been too late for Pannir.
Three years ago, Kho Jabing, a 32-year-old Sarawakian, was hanged for murder on 20 May 2016, shortly after his final application had been dismissed by the Court of Appeal. That was the last capital case I’d seriously campaigned for, speaking alongside his sister Jumai and mother Lenduk at press conferences, drafting petitions, calling embassy officials and lobbying politicians. Our efforts bought Jabing some time… but ultimately weren’t enough.
Since Jabing’s hanging [in 2016], anti-death penalty activism has only got more difficult
Since Jabing’s hanging, anti-death penalty activism has only got more difficult. Jabing’s family had received notification of the rejection of his clemency plea weeks before the prison set his execution date—this lead time gave us an opportunity to scramble to find a lawyer who could file an application on Jabing’s behalf. This gave us more time to raise awareness of his case and build as much momentum as we could in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Kuching.
After Jabing, the avenues for such campaigning vanished. The time that we had between the rejection of clemency and the scheduling of execution shrank—families that approached Singapore’s few anti-death penalty activists reported receiving the news of clemency rejection and execution in quick succession. Sometimes, they were even dealt this double blow on the same day. The Ministry of Home Affairs has since confirmed that this has been the procedure since 2016, although they also say that they are now reviewing this process.
Whereas we had a few weeks to mobilise to help Jabing, we were now facing a “new normal” that gave us a week, or perhaps even just three or four days. With so little time, there was often not much that we could actually do beyond documenting the case, and offering moral support. In the three years following Jabing’s death, I attended more funerals than I care to recall. For some inmates and their families, it was all I could do for them.
Singapore’s death penalty for drugs
Singapore is known for its tough, uncompromising stance on drugs. Announcements are made to passengers as flights land at Changi Airport—a recorded message is played over the aircraft’s sound system warning visitors that trafficking drugs can result in the death penalty. Not far away in Changi Prison, people convicted of drug offences are by far the largest segment of the inmate population; according to the 2018 Singapore Prison Service report, there were 6,030 drug offenders behind bars as of 31 December 2018. (For comparison, the next largest segment of the convicted penal population were those found guilty of property crimes, at 970.)
This position is unlikely to change substantially anytime soon. The city-state has stood firm even as other countries moved towards decriminalisation or even the legalisation of specific drugs (like cannabis). Even with neighbouring Malaysia discussing the possibility of abolishing capital punishment or decriminalising drugs for personal consumption, Singapore is not expected to budge.
K Shanmugam, the country’s law and home affairs minister, is perhaps the staunchest supporter of the death penalty for drugs in Singapore. He’s repeatedly asserted that the death penalty is an effective deterrence against drug trafficking, and saves lives by protecting people from drug-related crimes. “Every trafficker is a dealer in death,” he’s declared.
But although Shanmugam has defended Singapore’s position as one grounded in evidence rather than ideology, analysts from groups like Harm Reduction International have called him out for “making poorly informed and inflammatory claims on drug policy”, and pointing out the lack of independently verifiable data on rates of drug use.
From childhood to adulthood, Singaporeans are repeatedly told that drugs are harmful and that the death penalty keeps us safe from the scourge of addiction, abuse and crime
Where Shanmugam wins, though, is in the arena of public opinion. A comprehensive public opinion survey carried out by the National University of Singapore found that 86.9% of Singaporeans polled were in favour of the death penalty for drug offences. 32.7% supported the mandatory death penalty for drugs—where, once an accused person is found guilty, judges have no option but to sentence the individual to death—where 54.2% preferred to leave sentencing to the judges’ discretion.
From childhood to adulthood, Singaporeans are repeatedly told that drugs are harmful and that the death penalty keeps us safe from the scourge of addiction, abuse and crime. The regional context also adds to these anxieties. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has described the production and trafficking of methamphetamines as having reached “unprecedented and dangerous levels in the past few years”, alongside the long-standing problem of heroin trafficking. Advocates for drug policy reform argue that Southeast Asia’s massive illicit drug industry points to the failure of the“War on Drugs”—if this policy was such an effective deterrence, they say, then why is drug trafficking still such a huge problem in the region? Yet the existence of this booming drug trade can, and has, been used to argue that we need to double down on such a “zero tolerance” stance.
The utilitarianism of Certificates of Cooperation
Pannir was granted a stay of execution by the Court of Appeal so he could have the time to challenge the rejection of his clemency petition on procedural grounds. It’s given him and his family a glimmer of hope for a second chance at life. But Pannir’s case also highlights the issues that death penalty abolitionists have had with Singapore’s death penalty for drug offences for a long time.
Pannir landed on death row after being denied a Certificate of Cooperation, which would have allowed a judge to sentence him to life imprisonment with caning, instead of handing down the death penalty. This certificate system was introduced in 2012 when the People’s Action Party government amended the Misuse of Drugs Act. Previously, anyone found guilty of drug trafficking was sentenced to hang—under the law, judges were only able to hand down this one sentence, and mitigating factors did not apply. Section 33B of the Act changed this, tweaking the mandatory death penalty regime and allowing offenders a chance to escape the noose if they fit certain strict criteria.
First, the accused must only be a courier, doing nothing more than transporting drugs. Secondly, the Public Prosecutor (i.e. the Attorney General’s Chambers) must have issued a Certificate of Cooperation, granted to those who have “substantively assisted the Central Narcotics Bureau in disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore”. Apart from these two conditions, the only other lifeline would be if the accused person was suffering from such an “abnormality of mind” that it “substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts”.
Although these changes have saved the lives of some convicted of drug trafficking, they’re also extremely problematic. At the most basic level, the two conditions can be contradictory: if someone was merely a courier—that is, on the lowest rung of a drug syndicate—how likely are they to have enough information to disrupt complex trafficking rings?
The Certificate of Cooperation system reduces human life to little more than a means to serve utilitarian purposes… the system is essentially saying that a person lives or dies according to how useful they are to the authorities
Behind this practical question lies an even more fundamental issue: the Certificate of Cooperation system reduces human life to little more than a means to serve utilitarian purposes. If such a certificate is the key to whether judges are able to exercise limited discretion, the system is essentially saying that a person lives or dies according to how useful they are to the authorities. One might think it a “pragmatic” way to fight criminal networks, but it’s important to question the morality behind such a cold-blooded calculation.
Then there’s the question of due process to consider: the decision to issue a certificate (or not) is at the sole discretion of the prosecution. It isn’t clear how this decision is made, and the threshold for challenging this decision in the courts is extremely high. In this context, the public prosecutor can wield an enormous amount of power over someone’s life, without enough transparency or oversight.
The fight is far from over…
Pannir’s stay of execution is a precious sign of hope for his family and legal team. But Pannir isn’t the only person on death row in Singapore, and the figures are bleak.
Over the past couple of years, executions have increased in the city. In 2016, four people were executed in Changi Prison. In 2017, that number doubled to eight—all for drug offences. The number jumped again in 2018 to 13 (11 hangings for drug offences, two for murder). It was the first time, in the 10 years that I’ve worked on the capital punishment issue in Singapore, that I’d seen the figure hit double digits.
This upward trend could continue. According to information from the death row inmates themselves—usually told to visiting family members, who then relay the information—other clemency petitions have been rejected since the granting of Pannir’s stay.
Lawyers for Liberty, a Malaysian human rights organisation, claimed in a 12 July 2019 statement that up to 10 death row inmates had had their pleas for mercy refused by the President of Singapore (who acts on the advice of the Cabinet). Although the Ministry of Home Affairs’ rebuttal to the statement was reported in the media, there was silence when it came to the number of clemency rejections. I wrote to the Singapore Prison Service on 14 July 2019 seeking clarification, and followed up once more on 19 July. As of the time of writing this piece, I haven’t received a response.
This opacity is typical of the capital punishment regime in Singapore. Prison officers, counsellors, and executioners who interact with the death row inmates are bound, under the Official Secrets Act, not to talk about their experiences. There is no law, such as a Freedom of Information Act, that would compel government agencies to reply truthfully to citizens’ inquiries. Ministries and government agencies can simply ignore inquiries or issue terse and meaningless statements. Consequently, harsh acts like the death penalty can be carried out by the state on behalf of all Singaporeans and touted as key to Singapore’s safety and security, but without accountability or transparency.
When we call out this lack of transparency and point to problems with the death penalty, abolitionists like myself are often accused of siding with criminals, or ignoring the plight of victims of drug abuse and crime. We’re accused of wanting to increase the amount of death and destruction caused by illicit drugs in our society, as if we campaign for abolition with the purpose of destroying lives.
But the argument has never been about whether we should decrease drug-related crimes or deaths. In fact, the reduction of these tragedies has always been the uncontroversial, accepted goal.
It’s how we go about it that is really at the heart of the debate here.
Kirsten Han is Editor-in-Chief of New Naratif, and a Singaporean journalist whose work often revolves around the themes of social justice, human rights, politics and democracy. Her bylines have appeared in publications like The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Asia Times and Waging Nonviolence. As an activist, Kirsten has advocated for an end to the death penalty in Singapore, and is a founding member of abolitionist group We Believe in Second Chances. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.