Death penalty is a deterrent: Shanmugam

He points to fall in robberies with firearms, kidnappings, volumes of drugs trafficked

Statistics and studies over the years show the death penalty has had a deterrent effect on some serious crimes here, said Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam yesterday.

Incidents of robbery with firearms and kidnapping, and volumes of drugs trafficked fell after the death penalty was introduced for these offences, he added.

Disclosing these findings in a written reply to Workers' Party MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC), Mr Shanmugam said in considering what punishments to mete out, it was important to consider the rights of offenders, victims and Singaporeans.

"The Government has the responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Singaporeans, while maintaining a fair and just criminal justice system," he added.

"The approach we have taken has resulted in Singapore being one of the safest places in the world to live. This is something deeply valued by Singaporeans."

Associate Professor Lim had asked if the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had done any studies comparing the deterrent effect of a life sentence relative to the death penalty, and if such studies looked at offenders with mental illnesses or addictions.

The death penalty is imposed here for intentional murder, drug trafficking, terrorist bombing and firearms use, among other crimes.


Mr Shanmugam said there was some evidence that traffickers brought in smaller amounts of opium and cannabis after the mandatory death penalty was introduced in 1990, to avoid triggering the capital sentence.

In the four-year period after 1990, the average net weight of opium trafficked fell by 66 per cent.

The probability of traffickers choosing to bring in more than 500g of cannabis - the death penalty threshold - also fell by 15 to 19 percentage points.

An MHA study of convicted drug offenders also found that traffickers who were aware and mindful of the severe legal consequences had limited their trafficking behaviour.

Among offenders who were not traffickers, 85.1 per cent felt the death penalty had a deterrent effect.

Mr Shanmugam said: "This points to restrictive deterrence, as trafficking activities were intentionally limited when there was greater awareness of sanctions."

He also cited figures on robberies with firearms and kidnappings as an indication of the "strong deterrent effect" of the death penalty.

Robberies with firearms fell from a peak of 174 in 1973, when the death penalty was introduced, to 106 the next year - a drop of 39 per cent. Since then, such cases have become rare in Singapore, with no cases reported in the last 13 years.

Kidnapping cases also fell from an average of 29 a year for the three years before the death penalty was introduced in 1961 to one case in 1961. Since then, such crimes have not exceeded two cases per year, except for six cases in 1964 and three cases in 2003.

Mr Shanmugam said surveys also indicate that Singaporeans and foreigners believe the death penalty is more effective in discouraging people from committing serious crimes, compared with life imprisonment.

An MHA survey of 2,000 residents on attitudes towards capital punishment found that 70.8 per cent of respondents believed the death penalty had discouraged the use of firearms. For murder, this figure was 70.6 per cent, and for drug trafficking, 68 per cent.

Another 2018 study, focused on foreigners who are likely to visit Singapore and thus encounter the laws here, had similar findings. Among those polled, 84 per cent believed the death penalty to be more effective in discouraging trafficking of drugs into Singapore.

Mr Shanmugam noted that some tentative conclusions can be drawn, though the studies had to be taken in context and more work has to be done over periods of time.


He also cited sections 84 and 85 of the Penal Code as providing defences for offenders whose reasoning capacity may be affected by mental illness or addiction.

He added that various surveys have shown there is majority public support for the death penalty.

He said that while the quantities of drugs that attract the death penalty for trafficking may not seem high, they are significant enough to be capable of "bringing death, or at least a life of ruin, to a large number of abusers and their families".

For instance, 15g of pure heroin makes up 1,250 straws and can feed the habit of 180 abusers for a week.

In deciding whether to apply the death penalty to offences, Mr Shanmugam said the Government takes into account three key considerations, among others. They are: the seriousness of the offence, in terms of how much harm it will cause to the victim and to society; how frequent or widespread the offence is; and the need for deterrence.

These are considered in totality, and the fact that an offence is not widespread now, for instance, may not by itself be a decisive factor.

Mr Shanmugam also invited Prof Lim "to share with MHA whether he is supportive of the death penalty, for what offences and why", adding it would be useful to hear his reasons if he does not support it. "The Member's views will be given careful and respectful consideration."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2020, with the headline Death penalty is a deterrent: Shanmugam. Subscribe