Singapore’s death trap

Globe and Mail
19 January 2004

The tiny island nation of Singapore has taken the chilling phrase “zero tolerance” to a new level. It considers anyone found with more than half an ounce (14 grams) of heroin or more than 17 ounces of marijuana to be trafficking in drugs, a capital offence. Judges have no discretion in sentencing. They must apply the death penalty.

As a result, Singapore has earned itself a dubious distinction. According to a report just released by Amnesty International, it is thought to have the highest execution rate in the world. The United Nations calculates that Singapore had about 13.6 executions for every million people between 1994 and 1999. That’s four times the rate of Sierra Leone, three times the rate of Saudi Arabia and six times the rate of China, the nation that executes the greatest number of people overall. Since 1991, more than 400 people have been hanged in Singapore, which has a population of four million. By contrast, the United States has executed 747 people in a population of 290 million. Most executions in Singapore were for drug trafficking, though some were for firearms offences or murder.

Singapore is quite unapologetic about its world-beating record. It says its liberal use of the death penalty discouragesdrug use and violent crime. “By protecting Singaporeans from drugs, we are pro-tecting their human rights,” MP Inderjit Singh said in response to the Amnesty report. “The rule-breakers have to be dealt with. It’s the same in any part of the world.”

But as Amnesty points out, the death penalty is a blunt instrument. It tends to fall most heavily on the poor and the marginal. Many of those executed in Singapore have been drug addicts, migrant labourers or poorly educated workers. Because the law considers possession of more than a minimal quantity of drugs to be proof of trafficking, defendants are in effect presumed guilty, a gross violation of their rights. Amnesty also accuses Singapore of veiling its use of the death penalty by failing to publish regular statistics on the number of executions it performs. Even now, the number of people on death row is unknown.

This suggests that despite its boasts about the efficacy of the death penalty, Singapore feels at least a little ashamed of its status as the world’s leading hangman – as it should.

This is the Canadian newspaper that Mr Lee Kuan Yew is suing together with former president Deavn Nair for defamation. Since a Canadian judge dismissed Mr Lee’s application to strike out Mr Nair’s countersuit, there has been no further news about the development of Mr Lee’s lawsuit.