Some call it “Disneyland with the death penalty.” Proud of its title as one of the safest places in the world, Singapore exercises a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to illegal drug trafficking and murder. But there are signs the law may now become more flexible, following the deputy prime minister’s announcement to relax the mandatory death penalty for murder and drugs offences.
“While there is broad acceptance that we should be tough on drugs and crime, there is also increased expectation that where appropriate, more sentencing discretion should be vested in the courts,” said Deputy Prime Minister, Teo Chee Hean.
To reflect changes in the Singaporean society’s “norms and expectations,” the government has decided to put forward a draft law by the end of 2012 that will give judges more leeway in dealing with certain drug and murder cases. This is by no means, however, the end of capital punishment.
Amnesty International and other human rights groups have long condemned Singapore’s strict death penalty, calling it “barbaric.” Illegal drug traffickers and users have been convicted to life sentences in prison and hundreds, including dozens of foreigners, have even been sentenced to death.
But as this wealthy Asian country’s night scene continues to boom, it’s blamed for fuelling the demand for heroin and methamphetamine – the so called “party drugs.”
Almost two-thirds of Singaporeans in prison are drug offenders and the number of young abusers has been on a rise since last year. However, the draft law to ease the death penalty may just give the convicted a second chance. That’s because court judges will now have some options to consider, a change from the traditional and mandatory death penalty.
Those accused of drug trafficking can now escape execution provided they solely acted as couriers or are suffering from mental disability that substantially impairs their appreciation of the seriousness of their act. If any of these two conditions are met, the accused would be sentenced to life time imprisonment instead. As for cases of murder, the death penalty can only be avoided if the accused can prove he or she did not have the intention to kill.
The draft law proposal, however, has had a mixed reception. For Alan Shadrake, a British author who was jailed last year for criticism of Singapore’s judiciary system, this is a step in the right direction. “It’s not the end of the death penalty. But it’s a move in the right direction that no one really expected,” he said.
On the other hand, not all Singaporeans were in the mood for compassion. Several comments circulating on social media websites argued that lighter punishments would encourage crime in the country. “This government is selling our future,” said one such comment.
The city-state still has time to reflect; the government says it will put forward the draft law by the end of the year.