SINGAPORE - Statistics and studies over the years show that the death penalty has had a deterrent effect on some serious crimes here, said Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam on Monday (Oct 5).
He cited a study by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which found that drug traffickers who were aware of the death penalty had brought in lower amounts of drugs to avoid triggering the ultimate punishment.
Instances of firearms being used in robberies as well as kidnapping also dropped dramatically following the introduction of the death penalty for these crimes.
Disclosing these findings in a written reply to Workers' Party MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC), Mr Shanmugam said that in considering what punishments to mete out, it was important to consider the rights of offenders vis-a-vis the rights of victims and the rights of Singaporeans to live in safety and security.
"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 MHA has done any systemic studies comparing the deterrent effect of the life sentence and the death penalty, and whether any of these studies looked at offenders with mental illnesses or addictions.
The death penalty is imposed in Singapore for offences such as intentional murder, gang robbery with murder, trafficking of significant quantities of drugs, terrorist bombing, and the use of firearms.
'Strong deterrent effect'
Mr Shanmugam said the Government had collected figures on the trafficking of opium and cannabis before and after the death penalty was imposed on these offences, and there was some evidence to show that drug traffickers who had been arrested had known about the penalty and the amounts that would trigger a capital sentence.
In the four-year period after the mandatory death penalty was introduced in 1990 for trafficking more than 1,200g of opium and more than 500g of cannabis, the average net weight of opium trafficked fell by 66 per cent.
In the same time period, there was also a lower probability - 15 to 19 percentage points lower - that traffickers would choose to bring in more than 500g of cannabis.
The MHA had also conducted a study of convicted drug offenders, which found that traffickers who said they were aware and mindful of the severe legal consequences had limited their trafficking behaviour.
Some 85.1 per cent of the offenders who were non-traffickers also said they felt the death penalty has a deterrent effect.
Citing these studies, Mr Shanmugam said: "This points to restrictive deterrence, as trafficking activities were intentionally limited when there was greater awareness of sanctions."
He also gave figures on cases of firearms being used in robberies and kidnappings to assess the effect of the death penalty on such offences.
The number of cases of firearms robbery 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.
"This is an indicator of the strong deterrent effect of the death penalty," said Mr Shanmugam.
As for kidnapping, there were an average of 29 kidnapping cases a year in the three years before the death penalty was introduced in 1961 under the Punishment of Kidnapping Ordinance.
This fell to one case in 1961 and, except for six cases in 1964 and three cases in 2003, kidnapping cases have not exceeded two cases per year since 1961.
Mr Shanmugam said surveys conducted also indicate that Singaporeans as well as foreigners who may travel to Singapore believe the death penalty is more effective in discouraging people from committing such crimes, compared to life imprisonment.
In a survey by the MHA of 2,000 residents on attitudes towards capital punishment, a majority of respondents said the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment as a deterrent against offences.
Some 70.8 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the death penalty had discouraged the use of firearms, 70.6 per cent felt it had discouraged murder, while 68 per cent felt it had discouraged drug trafficking.
Another study conducted in 2018, also commissioned by the MHA, had similar findings.
A sample of non-Singaporeans who are likely to visit Singapore, and hence might potentially encounter Singapore laws and penalties, was asked about their opinions on the effectiveness of the death penalty compared to life imprisonment.
Among respondents, some 84 per cent of respondents believed that the death penalty is more effective in discouraging people from trafficking drugs into Singapore.
Mr Shanmugam noted that while some tentative conclusions can be drawn from the studies, they had to be taken in context and more work has to be done to look into the issue over periods of time.
Majority public support
He added that various surveys have shown that there is majority public support for the death penalty.
On the issue of offenders whose reasoning capacity may have been compromised by mental illness, he said that those of unsound mind can cite this as a defence under section 84 of the Penal Code and that it applies to all offences including those outside the Penal Code.
If an offender is found to have been of unsound mind when they committed the offence, they will be acquitted, he added.
Offenders with addictions, meanwhile, can cite intoxication as a defence under section 85 of the Penal Code, said Mr Shanmugam.
He noted that while the amount of drugs that trigger the death penalty for drug trafficking may not seem high, they actually involve significant quantities that is capable of "bringing death, or at least a life of ruin, to a large number of abusers and their families".
For instance, the capital offence threshold of 15g of pure heroin, is equivalent to 1,250 straws of heroin, which feeds the drug habit of 180 drug abusers for a week.
Explaining what goes into deciding whether to apply the death penalty to a particular offence, Mr Shanmugam said the Government takes into account three key considerations, among other factors.
They are: the seriousness of the offence, in terms of the harm that the offence will cause to the victim and to society; how frequent or widespread the offence is; and the need for deterrence.
He added that the three considerations are considered in totality, and the fact that an offence is not widespread now, for instance, may not by itself be a decisive factor.
In his response, Mr Shanmugam also said to Assoc Prof Lim: "We invite the Member to share with MHA whether he is supportive of the death penalty, for what offences and why. And if he is against the death penalty, then it will also be useful to hear from him on his reasons for his position. The Member's views will be given careful and respectful consideration."