Drugs & the death penalty: both sides are talking past each other


Singapore’s stance on drugs is uncompromising. Not only is death by hanging the penalty for drug trafficking, it is a mandatory penalty if the quantity of drugs trafficked exceeds a certain threshold (subject to special circumstances). Furthermore, a person carrying a certain amount of drugs is presumed to be trafficking unless he/she can prove otherwise.

The recent hanging of 32-year old Muhammad Ridzuan bin Md Al for drug trafficking has led to a heated debate in the country over whether the law should be reformed. This article does not intend to take a stand on the matter, but will instead point out how both sides of the debate often talk past each other.

The anti-death penalty camp’s arguments in favour of abolishing, or at least amending the law, include the following:

First, the punishment is not proportionate to the crime, and drug traffickers deserve second chances; they are not in the same moral position as drug kingpins (or murderers) and usually turn to trafficking out of desperation. Justice must be tempered with mercy. Second, the death penalty is inhumane; human life is sacred and the state has no business in killing people, no matter how great their wrong, for two wrongs do not make a right. Third, the death penalty is irreversible; if new evidence emerges that demonstrates the innocence of the convicted person, it will be too late to do justice. Fourth, our existing drug laws disproportionately disadvantage those who are poor, and/or those who are ethnic minorities; punishing them by death further exacerbates this ‘moral’ divide.

The pro-death penalty camp’s arguments, on the other hand, can be summarized as follows:

First, Singapore has a no-tolerance policy towards drugs; altering the death penalty sends the wrong signal that we are getting ‘soft’, or tolerant on drugs. Second, the trafficker is not the victim – the real victims are the many drug addicts who have suffered due to the trafficker’s crimes, and, their suffering considered, death is a proportionate punishment. Third, the death penalty is a powerful deterrent that reduces the spread of drug use.

While these on their own are valid points, they are not sufficiently responsive to the development of the debate on the issue, and do not successfully engage the other side. These points merely repeat arguments that have been thrown out countless times, and which have been, or (I argue) can be addressed in the following ways.

First, just because we have a no-tolerance policy towards something, it does not mean that we must punish perpetrators in the most severe way possible (by death); and neither does awarding a punishment less than death indicate that we are being ‘soft’ on something.

I am sure that Singaporeans have a no-tolerance policy towards rape and corruption. Yet, most people will agree that rapists and corrupt officials should not be hanged to death; and neither will anyone suggest that we are being ‘soft’ on rape, or that we tolerate rape by not castrating rapists, or sentencing them to death by hanging.

Second, just because a lot of people suffer as a result of a crime does not mean that the criminal should be punished in the harshest way possible. TT Durai, the former CEO of the National Kidney Foundation was charged with corruption in 2005. His acts affected thousands of people. But surely sentencing him to death would have been too harsh? Many crimes cause harms to many people, but the number of people affected cannot be the only consideration – the nature of the act, and how it affects others should matter as well. In fact, some crimes harm only one person, and yet we may find good reason to mete out very harsh criminal punishments. Indeed, the murder of a person with no friends or family will attract the same punishment as the murder of a very popular person.

One might argue that drug traffickers do cause a severe and unforgivable harm, since they cause some people to die when they overdose on drugs. Hence, drug traffickers should be responsible for their deaths in a similar way as murderers.

This argument is not necessarily convincing. This is because, if we accept that people who create the conditions necessary for the victim to do something to themselves that cause their death should be punished in the same or in a similar way as those who cause death directly (i.e. people who shoot, stab and strangle other people to death), we will need an overhaul of our entire legal system. For example, car manufacturers who negligently manufacture defective cars that cause deaths should be treated as murderers, and so should a person who teaches another person to commit suicide. These are crimes no doubt, but they are lesser crimes than the crime of murder.

Third, it is unclear whether the death penalty will actually deter people who are poor, desperate and illiterate from entering the drug trade. Note that most drug traffickers fall under these categories. But even if the death penalty was an effective deterrent, just because something is an effective deterrent does not mean that it is necessarily an appropriate measure. For example, if we were to cut off the hands of people who steal, we will most likely stop theft altogether, since the punishment of having one’s hands cut off will certainly pose a very strong deterrent to those who think of stealing. However, most of us would consider such a punishment rather barbaric and disproportionate to the crime.

On the other hand, it appears that the anti-death penalty camp has not always managed to successfully point out the errors in the reasoning of the other side, nor provide any evidence to allay the fears of their opponents that Singapore’s drug problem will get worse if we reformed the death penalty. I believe the human rights argument and the “second chances” argument are both important ones. However they do not directly confront the issues that pragmatic-minded conservative Singaporeans are concerned about – that is, that Singapore will remain safe and relatively drug free.

The debate surrounding the death penalty is an evolving one. If we were to make progress on the matter, both sides need to engage on another on the issues at stake. Hence, both sides need to stop asserting and start engaging. At the same time, while the emotive argument is important, both sides need to start looking at the substantive issues at stake, and resolve this debate though reason, and not rhetoric.

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