Opinion: Changes to Singapore’s mandatory death penalty a cause for hope
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Opinion: Changes to Singapore’s mandatory death penalty a cause for hope

Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Law Minister K Shanmugam announced in Parliament on Monday that the government intends to propose amendments to the mandatory death penalty with regard to drug and homicide cases.

The amendments would affect the cases where the drug trafficker is only a courier, and has cooperated substantively with the investigation, or has been proven to have a mental disability. If these criteria are met, judges will have the discretion to hand down a life sentence with caning instead of the death penalty. The same applies to murder cases where the intent to kill is not proven.

As the co-founder of anti-death penalty campaign We Believe in Second Chances, I find the changes encouraging. They are nowhere near the ultimate goal of anti-death penalty activists, of course – what we are aiming for is a death penalty-free Singapore, because we believe that the death penalty has no place in any developed society. But it is agreed amongst my colleagues and I that this is a good first step.

Of course, concerns remain – judges are only being allowed a tiny bit more discretion than before. And although the death penalty is definitely worse, is it really fair to sentence someone with a mental disability to life imprisonment with corporal punishment? How does the government define “substantive cooperation” when it comes to the cases of drug traffickers? What about the problematic presumption clauses of the Misuse of Drugs Act?

Concerns like these will hopefully be addressed when the draft legislation is put forward later this year. Discussion of the death penalty in Singapore has been gradually growing online through the persistence of campaigners, bloggers and other concerned Singaporeans. With any luck, we will soon be able to see a robust debate on the mandatory death penalty in Parliament as well.

Once the legislation is in place, inmates on death row will have the opportunity to apply for re-sentencing. This means that drug mules such as Yong Vui Kong and Cheong Chun Yin – whose stories have been shared widely both in Singapore and neighbouring Malaysia, as well as elsewhere around the world – may be shown mercy and receive new sentences. It’s a lot more hope than everyone had dared ask for; before this, both young men were just waiting for responses to their petitions for clemency from the President.

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Yong Vui Kong's family kneels before the Istana in Singapore, begging for clemency for him. Pic: We Believe in Second Chances

At the end of the day, the change is small and the journey continues to be a long and difficult one. But sometimes small victories like these are all that is needed to give everyone the boost they need to keep pressing on.