The Rethinking on the Mandatory Death Penalty
Law Minister K Shanmugam changed the law on mandatory death penalty on drug traffickers, after 32 years. The reasons for the change of the law that was enacted in 1975, was changing societal norms and acknowledging that drug couriers were the pawns, and should not get capital punishment. Much credit is due to the campaigners who fought to abolish the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking offences. Just as much credit is also due to the current government in their surprise move to listen, without public consultation seemingly.
The debate is still out on the death penalty as a just punishment and effective deterrence, the extent activists have succeeded in making the government change its mind, and whether the activists should stop at just campaigning for the end of the mandatory death penalty and go for the bigger prize of repealing the death penalty in all heinous crimes.
Is the death penalty a just punishment and does it deter people from committing certain crimes? It subjectively depends on what is “punishment”. In reframing the idea of punishment, solitary confinement and hard prison conditions for life imprisonment can be worse punishment than the death sentence for criminals involved in murder. If this is so, then hard life imprisonment is just punishment while capital punishment is going lightly on the condemned – in devil’s advocate way on the argument on crime and retribution. Is the death penalty a deterrence to crime? I think not. It just makes criminals smarter and more ruthless in avoiding getting caught as they know the stakes are higher.
Were the activists totally successful in pressuring the government to repeal the law on the mandatory death penalty? Obviously the tireless efforts of the activists cannot be ignored. However, some factions in the government were also responsible as change agents and the activists were successful because the government, or at least some persuaded and persuasive people in government, allowed them to. The government could have been obstinate and ignored the squeaks of the activists (like the government ignored the more important public cries to change CPF withdrawal policies or COE quote schemes), but they didn’t. It takes two to tango.
The difficult road ahead is whether activists should pat themselves on their backs and call it a day. There is always a chance someone can be accused wrongly as a criminal and mistakenly placed on death row. Hence, the death penalty should be scrapped and activists should plod thanklessly ahead although the path in front is much harder. There is significant public swell on keeping the death penalty e.g. for murder, and transcending the age old mindset of an eye for an eye is not an easy one. Especially since if one takes a life intentionally, he loses the right to keep his own life in the eyes of the state and many people. That kind of sound justice reasoning is hard to dispute.
Activists like The Online Citizen, Kirsten Han etc have carefully focused on mandatory death penalty and dared not venture full force into repealing the death penalty, as a smart selective activism tactic. They want incremental change to condition the public into rejecting the death penalty slowly and in parts – mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers abolished today, and death penalty for all crimes tomorrow. Nevertheless, if they thought it was hard to reach where they are today, the challenges ahead to end the death penalty in our justice system are infinitely more demanding. The people who supported the end to mandatory death penalty however might support the retention of the death penalty.