Note: The author is a co-founder of We Believe In Second Chances, and was involved in the organisation of the forum ‘Rethinking the Death Penalty’.
As international human rights organisation Amnesty International marks a growing trend of countries moving away from capital punishment, Singapore remains one of the diminishing number of countries still holding on to the death penalty. On top of that, Singapore also has the mandatory death penalty for crimes such as drug trafficking, firearms smuggling and murder. This means that judges are unable to exercise their own discretion when it comes to sentencing – if a person is found guilty, death is the only sentence.
The death penalty is still not a hot-button issue in Singapore, but following high-profile cases such as that of Yong Vui Kong (sentenced to death at age 19 and currently still campaigning for his life) and Ismil bin Kadar (acquitted after 6 years in prison, 2 of those on death row), more and more Singaporeans are beginning to sit up and pay attention. Anti-death penalty groups such as We Believe In Second Chances and the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC) have also been working hard to raise awareness of issues surrounding the death penalty in Singapore.
On Sunday 11 September 2011, We Believe In Second Chances organised a forum entitled ‘Rethinking the Death Penalty’, with M Ravi (lawyer of Yong Vui Kong) and Thiru (lawyer of Ismil Kadar) as speakers. The forum, attended by over 100 people, aimed to foster more debate and discussion of capital punishment and its applications in Singapore. In this context, we made a point to try to invite newcomers, especially those with pro-death penalty stances.
It was incredibly encouraging to see such a good turn-out at the forum, and also to see people with different views willing to make the time to listen and engage with each other, sharing their opinions and answering each other’s questions. In Singapore, where people (especially the young) are often accused of being inward-looking and apathetic, such discussions – especially for such a topic – are uncommon.
Issues raised included the deterrent effect (or lack thereof) of the death penalty, suitable alternatives to capital punishment and lapses in the investigation process, including the lack of access to legal counsel during interrogation.
Although the death penalty is not yet a big issue in Singapore (especially relative to bread-and-butter issues), public awareness is still crucial as it is an issue that is quite literally life and death. It affects not just the inmates currently sitting on death row, but their families as well. Everyone at the forum was reminded of this fact when the father of death row inmate Cheong Chun Yin stood up to speak on behalf of his son, breaking down in tears halfway through his speech.
It is still going to be a long, hard road before change will come to Singapore and its archaic use of capital punishment. But if the growing attendance figures at forums such as ‘Rethinking the Death Penalty’ are any indication, there is more than a little glimmer of hope in the future. And at the end of the day, it is this that keeps activists and campaigners going.