Singaporean attitudes towards the death penalty aren't as clear-cut as we think
NOTE: I am a founding member of We Believe in Second Chances, a campaign against the death penalty in Singapore.
In their defence of the death penalty, the establishment often refers to popular opinion, pointing out that most Singaporeans support capital punishment. For the legislators, this high level of public support is meant to legitimise the policy, even more than (currently non-existent) proof that the death penalty works as the deterrence they say it is.
In October this year, government feedback portal REACH published the results of a poll they’d conducted on attitudes towards the death penalty. "8 in 10 Singaporeans Support the Death Penalty," the website trumpeted, a headline echoed by Singapore's major broadsheet The Straits Times.
It’s a pretty high number, seen by some as a blow to Singapore’s tiny abolitionist movement (of which I am a member). And it’s certainly true that public opinion has a huge impact; much of the world has moved away from capital punishment in the past three decades, but Singapore has stood firm. Singaporean leaders are able to defend the death penalty with pride and confidence on both the national and international stages, because they feel safe in the electorate’s support.
But the Singaporean population’s position on capital punishment isn’t as clear-cut as a simple poll might suggest. In the first thorough survey on public opinion on the death penalty in Singapore presented on Friday, a far more nuanced picture was discovered.
Researchers used a modified version of a questionnaire designed by Roger Hood, Professor Emeritus of Criminology and Research Associate at Oxford University’s Centre for Criminology, for a similar survey conducted in neighbouring Malaysia. The questionnaire looked at respondents’ interest in and knowledge of the death penalty, their support for both the mandatory and discretionary death penalty, and compared their responses to court decisions in specific cases.
First off, 62 per cent of the 1,500 respondents (between the ages of 18 and 74) surveyed said they “knew little or nothing” about the use of the death penalty in Singapore. Although 70 per cent said they were in favour of the death penalty, only 8 per cent felt strongly about their stance.
Categorising the death penalty according to offence shifted the numbers: 92 per cent supported the death penalty for intentional murder, 88 per cent for the illegal discharge of a firearm and 86 per cent for the trafficking of controlled drugs.
The numbers are still overwhelming in favour of capital punishment, but the questionnaire then started to break things down, and it’s in these results that we start to see more complexity in Singaporeans’ attitudes towards the death penalty.
When asked about the mandatory death penalty – in which judges have no discretion in sentencing – support plummeted to 47 per cent for intentional murder, 36 per cent for firearms offences and 32 per cent for drug trafficking.
The researchers – led by Associate Professor Chan Wing Cheong of the National University of Singapore’s law faculty, with Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser from the NUS' Department of Sociology, Assistant Professor Jack Lee from Singapore Management University's School of Law and Braema Mathi from human rights NGO MARUAH – went one step further, presenting the respondents with scenarios of murder, firearms and drug offences, with a mix of mitigating and aggravating circumstances. They found that, when presented with specifics, support for the death penalty dropped. Despite 92 per cent of the respondents saying they were in favour of the death penalty for intentional murder, only 64 per cent chose the death penalty even in a case where a perpetrator with prior convictions intentionally shot a shopkeeper in the head while robbing his store. When presented with a case where a man was found with 25 kilograms of heroin – far, far above the threshold of 15 grams – only 47 per cent of the respondents opted for a death sentence.
Like our fellow retentionist countries in the region, deterrence is often named as a major reason for keeping the death penalty. Singapore has long insisted that the deterrent factor of the death penalty for drugs is what keeps the country safe. The rhetoric has been hammered into Singaporeans since they were schoolchildren. Yet, when asked to choose between a range of policies that they felt would reduce violent crimes leading to death and/or the trade in dangerous drugs, less than 10 per cent thought that an increase in the number of executions would help address these problems – many more preferred options like better moral education and improving the effectiveness of policing.
It’s still not a rosy picture, but surveys like this provide much-needed data and insight for anti-death penalty activists. We’ve never operated under the illusion that the majority of the population supports, or even welcomes, our advocacy, but the results of this study demonstrate that the public’s attitude towards capital punishment is not set in stone.
That support for the death penalty for drugs is lowest even when looking at the general numbers shows that there’s a gap between the public’s position and the reality, where drug offences form the majority of death penalty cases in Singapore. Our job as activists going forward will be to consistently highlight gaps like these, to demonstrate the ways in which the death penalty is not used in the way people think it should be. This is where the details of cases do matter, and people need to know about them.
This study shows that there’s a story behind the apparently high level of support for the death penalty in Singapore, just like how there’s a story behind every inmate with a death sentence. Our job, as Singaporeans, is to pay attention.