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Baying for a pound of flesh – and more

By Andrew Loh

Can you take the life of someone, anyone, based on dubious arguments alone? It seems you can, from what our ministers said in Parliament recently on the changes to the mandatory death penalty.

The amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), which Parliament approved, mean that drug traffickers can now be given the alternative sentence of life imprisonment and a minimum 15 strokes of the cane, instead of the death penalty.

This sentence, however, is subject to two stringent conditions, as DPM Teo Chee Hean explained in Parliament in July:

“First, the trafficker must have only played the role of courier, and must not have been involved in any other activity related to the supply or distribution of drugs. Second, discretion will only apply if having satisfied this first requirement, either the trafficker has cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau in a substantive way, or he has a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of the act.”

These stipulations by themselves raise many questions, some of which have been asked by MPs and which are left unanswered. For example, NMP Lawrence Lien raised an important point about punishment:

“This ‘substantive assistance’ standard is too high, which was also mentioned by Mr Edwin Tong, and has a worryingly strong utilitarian element of collecting better intelligence, and using the threat of death as a bargaining chip. Simply put, whether a person gets a chance to live or not hinges on how useful the offender is to the state in achieving certain ends. I believe the life and death of an offender should not be decided based solely on their utility to the state. Hence, I urge that this subsection be removed.”

One could say that Mr Lien’s point can be taken further to mean that one could be put to death not because of the actual crime one has committed, but because one is unable to provide “substantive assistance” to the authorities.

In other words, you will die not because you trafficked drugs. You will die because you are useless to the State.

The Workers’ Party MP, Sylvia Lim, said:

“The Explanatory Note to the Bill expressly clarifies that information which does not enhance the effective enforcement of the Act ‘will not suffice’. According to this wording, a low-level courier who knows nothing about the drug network will go to the gallows, while another courier who has more information (and is presumably closer to the higher echelons) can escape death. This would be a perverse outcome…

These are unanswered questions which we must deal with. Unfortunately, we seem to have glossed over such problematic issues conveniently by offering the deterrent argument once again. And this is the main argument the Government has presented many times – that the mandatory death penalty is a deterrent to drug traffickers.

“The mandatory death penalty strengthens this deterrent message,” DPM Teo said in Parliament. He then cited the decrease in the number of kidnappings and firearms offences to substantiate his deterrent argument. Strangely, though, the DPM did not provide statistics on the number of drug trafficking activities over the years since the introduction of the mandatory death penalty in 1975. Instead, DPM Teo said “the war is ongoing.”

Even so, it is highly dubious to cite numbers so simplistically to argue in favour of putting someone to death. And especially so when such statistics seem to be used selectively – why cite them for some crimes (kidnappings, firearms offences) and not others (drug trafficking)?

At the end of the day, the fact remains that the deterrent argument is a dubious one. At best, it is speculative. And it being speculative is not a good enough justification for taking someone’s life. Period.

The ministers and several MPs too seemed to have placed much weight on the role of the traffickers. Indeed, their arguments seem to be so entirely weighted against the drug mules that they may have lost sight of an important point – that drug addicts and drug abusers too share the blame and responsibility for the consequences of drug abuse.

In short, no one can force powder up your nose or shoot them into your veins.

As former NMP Calvin Cheng wrote in his letter to the Straits Times forum page:

“The victims in drug offences are unique in the sense that, unlike in many other crimes, the ‘victim’ is responsible for some degree of culpability and consent. As such, trafficking does not warrant capital punishment.”

He also wrote:

“In drug offences, however, the victim makes a decision to abuse drugs – if this were not the case, there would not be efforts to counsel or rehabilitate the victim of drug abuse.

“The families wrecked by drug abusers should as much blame the abuser as the stranger who sold the victim the drug.”

Lastly, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said, referring to victims of drug use:

“We hardly ever hear tears shed in public for these 200,000 who die. But we shed a lot of tears for everyone on death row. Compassion is important, but context is also important.”

Minister Tan Chuan Jin said, on his Facebook page:

“No one cheers for the death penalty nor the mandatory nature of it. I don’t. Nor any of my colleagues.”

“We often shed tears for the trafficker. And debate passionately the humanity of our laws. We often do not shed tears for those who lose their lives to drugs. We often forget the families destroyed by drugs.”

“The crime is trafficking. Let us not forget who the victims are.”

First, contrary to what Mr Shanmugam said – that “we shed a lot of tears for everyone on death row” – in fact the lives and stories of those on death row in Singapore are shunned by the mainstream media here. So, how is it possible for the public to “shed a lot of tears for everyone on death row” when no one knows about them, their families, their stories? Even their executions are not announced. The truth is that those on death row die quiet deaths, away from the knowledge of the public.

Second, Minister Tan is right in saying that we should not forget who the victims are. However, he seemed to suggest that the victims here are only the abusers and their families.

The truth, again, is that the victims are on both sides – the abusers and the mules.

Perhaps if our mainstream media – and our ministers and MPs – delve more into the lives of the drug mules, and help the wider public understand the problem better, we will have a more balanced view of the issue.

What is disturbing is that our parliamentarians seem to have a very skewed perspective at the moment, even stereotypical ones – and at the same time signing off on legislations which empower them to snuff out lives, based on flimsy and unsubstantiated arguments.

And I would like to ask too: why do we require those sentenced to life in prison to also be caned? Why are we so bloodthirsty for our pound of flesh? Are we looking for justice, or for revenge?

“Society should move towards more humane ways of restorative justice,” Mr Lien said, “especially where there is possibility of reforming and rehabilitating the offender.”

Sadly, his seemed to be the lone voice which spoke some sense.