Unless death penalty becomes a hot ideological issue, it is unlikely this will change
WHAT ends warrant a hanging at dawn?
Five years ago, the execution of Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van, 25, sparked a debate over precisely that question. For a moment, at least, Singapore's mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking came up for discussion.
Today, the issue is back in the spotlight with the death sentence Yong Vui Kong, 22, a Malaysian convicted of the same offence, has received. Then, as now, a campaign has sprung up around the condemned, calling for clemency and second chances.
Yong's lawyer, Mr M. Ravi, has tried to save his client, for whom he is working free of charge. He has invoked Singapore's Constitution and involved the Malaysian government. The case is awaiting final appeal in the Court of Appeal.
It is easy to see why Nguyen and Yong have attracted such attention. Their stories are heavy with pathos: Both came from poor backgrounds, struggled with family problems and received the death sentence while still painfully young.
It could be said they were small fry, mere mules acting under the direction of shadier, more powerful drug lords who hovered out of reach of the law.
The campaign to save Yong has played up his poverty, youth and his family's desperate pleas for compassion.
But the Government has made it clear why Nguyen was hanged. It has weighed the matter and believes the death penalty deters traffickers and keeps the country relatively free of the drug scourge.
This is not to say that debates on the death penalty should not take into account the human factor.
I feel they should. But the more immediate issue is: Why is there a studied silence about the number of people executed each year, and a curious dearth in public studies on the death penalty's deterrent effects on drug trafficking?
This was precisely the question raised last year by then Law Society president Michael Hwang, who in the Law Gazette called for the Government to publish detailed statistics on crime and punishment, so that the effectiveness of the death penalty could be reviewed.
The Government's response was swift. In January last year, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said: 'The introduction of the death penalty for drug trafficking has, we believe, had the deterrent effect...As a result of our policies, thousands of young people have been saved from the drug menace.'
Mr Shanmugam also said that statistics were readily available from the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB). The Home Team also conducts research with independent researchers on crime, punishment and criminal behaviour, he said.
'It is not clear what statistics are said to be lacking,' he added.
Nevertheless, Mr Hwang's point is still a pertinent one. Although statistics on drug crime are indeed available from the CNB, the figures on executions are less readily available.
Also, unlike US studies on the death penalty and its effect on murder rates, there are no detailed, publicised analyses of its effects on drug trafficking here - even when such studies could vindicate the Government's position on deterrence.
Even raw numbers are hard to come by. The latest available statistics on the death penalty are from 2005, when eight people were hanged. Between 1998 and 2003, 138 people were executed, 110 of them for drug crimes.
When The Straits Times approached the Home Affairs Ministry for fresh data, its request was declined.
CNB numbers also seem to show that deterrence has some limits.
On the one hand, there has definitely been a general long-term downward trend in the number of addicts arrested. However, the number of syndicates detected and foiled has held fairly constant over the past eight years, hovering between 32 (in 2002) and 24 (in 2004). Last year, 28 syndicates were smashed.
While it could be argued that the number would have been higher in the absence of a death penalty, it can equally be said there is a recalcitrant core of syndicate activity that is undeterred.
Why, then, the reticence on data? An outcry seems unlikely, as the vast majority of Singaporeans - some 96 per cent, according to a 2005 Straits Times survey - supports the death penalty.
It is doubly puzzling because the Government seems to have good reason to think that deterrence works. When it first made the death penalty mandatory for drug trafficking in an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1975, there was a palpable sense that Singapore could be losing the war on drugs.
The number of heroin abusers arrested had increased by almost 112 times in 12 months, reaching 1,007 in the first half of 1975. The number of traffickers arrested for dealing in heroin had also increased from six in the first half of 1974 to 26 in the same period in 1975.
By the first half of this year, the number of heroin abusers arrested had halved, to 580. As United Nations data show, Singapore has a dramatically lower rate of drug abuse than other countries in the region.
Perhaps the biggest clue to the Government's reticence on the matter lies in two key sentences in Mr Shanmugam's reply to Mr Hwang's article last year.
'The debate on capital punishment is not going to be settled on the basis of statistics,' he said. 'The philosophical and ideological chasms that separate the proponents and opponents of capital punishment are quite unbridgeable.'
The Government may be keeping mum because it knows its numbers will not convince diehard opponents of the death penalty, who feel nothing can justify hanging another human being.
It may also be silent because it feels a debate on the death penalty is simply not a debate that is worth kindling in Singapore.
There are no fence-sitters to convince, no embattled supporters to arm. After all, those who support the death penalty are comfortably in the majority. The number of people on the other side of the ideological chasm is still small.
Unless public consensus shifts - unless the death penalty becomes an ideological issue that occupies the public consciousness - it is unlikely the Government's position on this issue will shift.