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Essay on MHA’s survey findings highlights need for rigorous debate on necessity of Singapore’s death penalty policy

Simone Galimberti highlights Professor Mai Sato’s critique of Singapore’s reliance on the death penalty, particularly questioning the validity of MHA-conducted surveys that allegedly show public support. He advocates for more thorough and unbiased research to inform policy, urging the MHA to openly address the shortcomings identified in Prof. Sato’s analysis.



by Simone Galimbert

There is one key way to press against the death penalty in Singapore, and this is about rationally and scientifically bringing forward evidence that supports alternative forms of punishment.

It is about critically analysing and dismantling the rationale that has been used by the People’s Power Party (PAP), the party in power in the city State, for decades, to justify capital punishment.

This is exactly what Professor Mai Sato, an expert on the death capital and an academician at Monash University, did with an essay published on Academia SG, an independent, academician-led platform for bold discussions on sensitive issues related to Singapore’s affairs.

At Monash, Prof Sato leads the Eleos Justicea research centre whose mission is “to restrict and abolish the death penalty in the Asian region”.

The essay, Singapore’s death penalty for drug trafficking: What the research says and doesn’t, is a comprehensive analysis of the two major ways the Singapore’s government justifies the death penalty: strong citizens’ support for it and its deterrent effect.

The essay does something that is long due: it analyzes all the major reports and researches that have beenå commissioned by Singaporean Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

In doing so, the paper at the same time rebuts some of the key positions that Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam had made in a public conversation with youths on the death penalty last October.

The fact that Mr Shanmugam felt the need to engage with representatives of the youths on the issue was itself unusual, a sort of milestone.

It was an indicator that the PAP was forecasting that something in public opinion could slowly and gradually shift in relation to people’s perceptions towards the death punishment.

Therefore, the issue had to be tackled head-on openly and transparently, something that should be commended even if Mr Shanmugam, as expected, used the platform to reiterate the official party policies.

What Prof Sato does was academically rigorous because she highlighted incongruences and weaknesses in the ways these official studies where conducted.

While she is unable to disprove the fact that a good majority of citizens of Singapore accept capital punishment as the best way to tackle illicit drugs, Prof Sato ably proves that the Government’s rationale is not unassailable.

I would invite the readers to go through the essay as it is relatively readable even for a lay person especially thanks to some summaries included and her closing remarks.

The essay also aims to be seen as unbiased and based on facts and analysis, and I might believe that even Mr Shanmugam would credit Prof Sato for that.

One of the major points made is to demonstrate, in a quite convincible manner, that Singaporeans are not clamouring for the death penalty.

For example, the surveys conducted by the Ministry, she explained, are unable to prove how important is the death penalty for the public, and she elaborates that there has never been a major discussion on the issue beyond the usual talking points presented by the government.

I can guarantee the readers that the time spent going through the report is well spent because Prof Sato manages to capture the flaws of the official policies that are at the foundation of the rationale pushed by the PAP to justify capital punishment.

The end of the essay could not be more powerful.

“Whom and what purpose the death penalty serves in Singapore remains unanswered”.

And, once again, it is not just an activist who admirably and emotionally put her case or an opinion writer stating this but someone who should be considered as the most renowned academician on the death penalty in Asia.

Let’s forget that the country Prof Sato is originally from, Japan, is like Singapore, a retentionist.

Not only as academician but also as civil society organizer, she has developed, along the years, not only tons of expertise but also a lot of complex nuances on how to deal with the issue there.

While the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has not directly responded to the essay by Prof Sato, it did issue a statement in response to a petition submitted to the Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K. Shanmugam, calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.

Just a couple of days after Prof Sato’s publication, MHA asserted that its stringent approach to drug trafficking has saved more lives.

The statement highlighted that individuals who engage in drug trafficking do so for profit, fully aware of the consequences. It emphasized that those caught trafficking drugs beyond the capital threshold and sentenced to death were afforded full and due process in court, where they could present their defences.

MHA further noted that capital punishment has been extensively discussed in Singapore, including in Parliament, where it has been upheld. Additionally, MHA mentioned studies indicating strong domestic support for the death penalty, including for drug trafficking—a point contested by Prof Sato.

As clearly explained in Prof Sato’s essay, Singapore needs a real conversation on the issue.

Hopefully, Mr Shanmugam’s public engagement on the issue was not just a one-off event, and, albeit reluctantly, the PAP will feel the need not to bury its head under the sand but instead proactively engage the public, especially the new generations.

The party knows that youths might develop different views on the death penalty, and one of the two pillars that justify the death penalty support in Singapore, the strong public opinion for it, might crack and crumble.

It would be very welcome if Mr Shanmugam would issue a directive for more comprehensive and stronger studies that would address the flaws identified by Prof Sato.

Can the Law School at the National University of Singapore become a centre of expertise on capital punishment?

I do understand that this question looks like a provocation, but if the death penalty is so important for the government of Singapore and if the Ministry of Home Affairs wants to back its policy through evidence, then what you need is more impartial research on the issue.

Prof Sato’s essay might have opened a new era in the fight against capital punishment in Singapore.

It is not that the day the city-state will get rid of it will become closer because of it, but at least, from now onwards, the PAP and the government will be forced to play a much better role in explaining why the death penalty is so indispensable for Singapore.

It is going to be a battle of evidence vs evidence.

All those activists on the ground who so boldly and audaciously are fighting capital punishment despite a hostile environment should continue their work, and hopefully, their propositions and work on the ground won’t be dismissed or downplayed so easily as it often happens now.

An editor’s note at the beginning of Prof Sato’s essay reminds us what the death penalty should be about.

“Like all policy tools, capital punishment is only a means to an end and not an end itself”.

Will Mr Shanmugam, his party and his officials at the Ministry agree on this statement?

Will they foster a genuine debate about the pros and cons of the death penalty?

Will they be able to garner the courage to admit that their positions and justifications might not be so rainproof?

Finally, will the parties in the opposition also rise to the occasion and contribute to a genuine, unbiased conversation on the death penalty?

Simone Galimberti writes on democracy, social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.

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The wise PAP Administration has nvr nvr NEED TO resort to much deadly physical harm to Kill Singaporeans we live to read about like Philipines drug war, ethnic cleansing via physical deaths in many parts of the world, political assassinations like the type of Kashoggi silencing. All the PAP do is CUT a MEANS to earn a living, POLITICAL REPRESSION, UNJUST laws to MUFFLE Souls and spirits – these actions are like KILLING the CORES of a person in SG EXISTENCE. Hanging of drugs traffickers is a LAZY WAY, STUPID WAY, and MOST a DRACONIAN way of life Of PAP… Read more »

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