A human rights lawyer today slammed Singapore’s Law Minister K Shanmugam over his defence of the death penalty which he claimed was an effective deterrent against drug offences.
Shanmugam had also claimed that the republic’s citizens were supportive of the death sentence following news that the execution of a Malaysian drug mule had been put on hold.
In a series of tweets, Lawyers for Liberty adviser N Surendran said Shanmugam’s claim that the death penalty deterred drug trafficking was not only without basis but the minister had failed to provide any evidence to back his claim.
Studies on the death penalty, Surendran said, revealed otherwise.
“He then childishly suggests that Malaysia ‘arrest the traffickers’ before they enter Singapore. This is silly talk for a Cabinet minister.”
The former Padang Serai MP also wondered how Shanmugam knew that Singaporeans were in favour of the death penalty as there’s “barely any freedom of expression in Singapore”.
“Faced with repressive laws, the timid Singaporeans daren’t criticise their government. Malaysia is a beacon of freedom in comparison.”
Shanmugam had said it is not possible for Singapore to stop executions of Malaysians as it would undermine the rule of law in the republic.
“Let me be quite clear, it’s not possible for us to do so, regardless of how many requests we receive.
“It is not tenable to give a special moratorium to Malaysians and impose it on everyone else, including Singaporeans, who commit offences which carry the death penalty,” he added.
Shanmugam also said some members in the Pakatan Harapan coalition were “ideologically opposed” to the death penalty.
Surendran took offence with Shanmugam’s “ideologically opposed” remark, which he claimed was aimed at Malaysia’s de-facto law minister Liew Vui Keong, who had written to the Singapore government over Pannir Selvam Pranthaman’s case, a drug mule on death row in Singapore.
“Shanmugam’s attack on Liew, dismissing him as ideological etc, is arrogant and unbecoming. As a senior minister, he shouldn’t take such a tone on a minister of a friendly country. Liew wrote a letter to the Singapore government appealing for the life of a Malaysian drug mule. What’s wrong with that?” he asked.
Petaling Jaya MP and human rights activist Maria Chin Abdullah said sparing Pannir’s life was not going against the Singaporean rule of law.
“The death penalty is an unusual and cruel form of punishment and hence runs contrary to justice, rights and freedom,” she said.
“It is also a fact that the death penalty is not a deterrent against trafficking and heinous crimes.”
She said if the death penalty, as claimed by Shanmugam, was an effective deterrent, then there should not be a need to discuss Pannir’s case or other drug trafficking cases today as they would not exist.
“Clearly, the death penalty does not work and more substantive and preventive measures are required to eliminate drug-related crimes,” she said.
Maria also told FMT it was disconcerting that Shanmugam appeared to ridicule what she said was a “compassionate appeal” from Liew and label it as “ideological”.
“This is discourteous and ungracious of minister Shanmugam to treat another fellow diplomat in such a dismissive manner,” she said.
“Our law minister is not asking for special treatment for Malaysian detainees on death row. This compassionate appeal is not a green light for drug trafficking.
“Pannir’s offence can still and should be dealt with under different existing laws, especially for drug mules.”
She said she had always been against corporal and capital punishment and believed in the right to life and to live.
Commenting on Liew’s appeal, criminal lawyer Rosal Azimin Ahmad, however, said: “Such an act can be considered as an attempt to interfere with the process of law of another country. I disagree with (Liew’s) action.”
However, he told FMT news portal an appeal on humanitarian grounds could still be made.
“Perhaps the minister can attach a written appeal from the family, which means the minister is acting on behalf of the family members for the consideration of the Singaporean government,” Rosal said.
But he noted it was not appropriate to ask another country to spare the death penalty imposed by its court as other people might use it as a precedent.
Lawyer Christina Teng, a staunch supporter of the death penalty, said Singapore was drug-free because the republic’s authorities were strict in upholding the rule of law and protecting the interest of the public.
“That should actually take priority for them, before anything else,” she said, adding that Putrajaya “had the freedom to ask” but there was a need to “look at the bigger picture”.
Pannir, 31, was caught trafficking in more than 51g of heroin at the Woodlands Checkpoint in 2014. He was supposed to be executed at dawn yesterday (May 24), but the Court of Appeal in Singapore granted a stay of execution on Thursday (May 23).
“You bring in 51, 52 grams of pure heroin, it is equal to over 4,000 straws of heroin, and feeds hundreds for a week. A person like that is a dealer in death, no two ways about it,” Shanmugam said.
The Singapore Court of Appeal granted the stay to Pannir on the grounds that he be given time to file a judicial review to challenge the clemency process.
The challenge must be filed within two weeks.
Unlike Malaysia, Shanmugam said Singapore does not take an ideological stance on the death penalty.
“The penalty is imposed because evidence has shown that it is an effective deterrent, not for any other reason,” he said.
The fact is that having capital penalties for drugs end up saving more lives, he said, as far more lives are lost in countries with freer drug laws due to violent crime arising from drug consumption and trade.
According to the Straits Times report, Shanmugam said Malaysia made three requests to stop executions of Malaysians in Singapore, two of whom are drug traffickers since the Pakatan Harapan government came to power in May last year.
The minister revealed that last year, about 30 per cent of drug traffickers arrested in Singapore were Malaysians and nearly 30 per cent of heroin seized was brought in by Malaysians.
“How do we go easy on Malaysians in the face of these statistics? And if we did, what will it mean for the rule of law? It will become a joke if there is a request made and we go easy. That is not the way Singapore works,” he said.
Shanmugam said he intends to write back to his counterpart Liew to discuss ways to address this issue of cross-border drug offences and to “get to the root of the problem”.
One of the things he wants to bring up is to find out how many drug offenders are picked up by Malaysian authorities on their side of the Causeway.
He said it would be good for both sides if drug traffickers were caught by Malaysian authorities, as the offenders can be dealt with according to Malaysia’s laws and not have to worry about Singapore’s capital punishment.
He will also ask about efforts to catch drug kingpins operating from Malaysia who are “too scared” to come into Singapore.
“We have good cooperation with Malaysian agencies; they do a good job, we cooperate effectively. And I hope they can be given every support, and we can get more evidence on the other kingpins operating in Malaysia to be picked up,” Shanmugam said.
Another thing he wants to suggest is to publicise Singapore’s laws regarding drug offences to communities in Malaysia that may be more susceptible to being lured to bring drugs into Singapore.
They happen predominantly to be poor, less-educated, and Indian, and are willing to commit drug crimes in Singapore for a few hundred Malaysian ringgit, he said.
“The trafficking situation could be dealt with and improved, for the benefit of both countries, if these people can be spoken with, their situation dealt with…and they can be told ‘don’t traffick into Singapore. And if you do, these are the consequences’.”
This would be a practical way of dealing with the issues, said Shanmugam, adding: “I hope to be able to talk to my counterparts to see how much of this can be done.”
“If we worry about lives, both Governments, and we do, then I would suggest that these are concrete, practical steps that can be taken. It is simply not doable to keep asking Singapore not to carry out the penalties imposed by the Courts.”