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Singapore Executed Another Drug Offender: Why the Country Clings to the Death Penalty—and Why Advocates Say It’s Wrong

Amid protests and growing international attention, Singapore executed another man on Wednesday for a drug offense. Tangaraju Suppiah, a 46-year-old of Tamil descent who had been on death row since 2018, was hanged at dawn in Singapore’s Changi Prison after being convicted in 2018 of abetting the smuggling of 1.02 kilograms (2.2 pounds) of cannabis back in 2013.

Tangaraju’s execution is the first in the country this year, though it’s unlikely to be the last. Singapore executed 11 people in 2022, all for narcotics-related offenses. As is customary, Tangaraju’s family only received one week’s notice before his execution. Advocates estimate there to be at least 50 others awaiting their own turn at the gallows. (Singapore has not made public the exact number of its prisoners on death row).

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Activists in Singapore and around the world unsuccessfully appealed to the Singapore government to stay Tangaraju’s execution—highlighting specific issues with the case and generally appealing for mercy. “There are many ways to seek justice,” Tangaraju’s sister Leelavathy told reporters on Sunday. “Just don’t take someone’s life.”

But Singapore, a Southeast Asian city-state of 5.7 million people, takes pride in sentencing drug offenders to death—it’s one of just 35 countries that maintain the death penalty for drug offenses, according to a report by Harm Reduction International, and one of only eight in the world to regularly hand out such a sentence. Singapore’s Ministry for Home Affairs, which did not respond to specific questions from TIME but provided background documents and links to past statements, has called capital punishment “an essential component” of its justice system that has been “effective in keeping Singapore safe and secure.”

Increasingly, however, activists are questioning whether that’s true. “[The government says] ‘we are doing this to prevent harm, to protect people,’” says Kirsten Han, a member of the Singaporean anti-death penalty group Transformative Justice Collective. “But look at Tangaraju … The system was not protecting him. The system jailed him over and over again for his whole life. And then when he finally was charged for something high enough, this system has decided that he’s disposable enough that he can be executed. I don’t see who is being protected here.”

Singapore’s history with the death penalty

In 1993, Singapore was controversially dubbed “Disneyland with the Death Penalty.” But Singapore didn’t invent the death penalty. The former British colony, which became an independent nation in 1965 after separating from Malaysia, inherited its laws on capital punishment—as well as its method of execution (hanging)—from its colonizers’ penal code. Singaporean lawmakers did, however, extend the death penalty to drug-related offenses in 1973 with the Misuse of Drugs Act, which in its current form prescribes, for example, a death sentence for importing or possessing 500 or more grams (1.1 pounds) of cannabis.

(To compare, in the U.S.—where marijuana remains illegal though decriminalized by many states—trafficking less than 50 kilograms of marijuana is punishable for first-time offenders by no more than five years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.)

According to a 2020 study by Ariel Yap and Shih Joo Tan of Monash University in Australia, the Singaporean government has retained its harsh drug policy due to its proximity to the Golden Triangle—the area comprising parts of Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, historically known for the narcotics trade. “​​​​As a key commercial and transport hub, Singapore is vulnerable to the scourge of drugs, both as a transit point and as an import market for illicit drugs,” says the background document provided to TIME by the Singapore government. Though exact figures are unknown, Singapore is estimated to have executed more than 400 people between 1991 and 2003, including at least 247 for drug trafficking while government data show at least 65 people have been hanged, including Tangaraju, since 2008, including 49 for narcotics-related crimes.

While some Southeast Asian countries have doubled down in recent years on killing drug offenders, the latest Singapore execution comes as other countries in the region have moved in the opposite direction. Just earlier this month, the parliament of neighboring Malaysia passed sweeping reforms to abolish the mandatory death penalty (leaving sentencing there to judges’ discretion) and to reduce the number of offenses punishable by death. (Malaysia has already been maintaining a moratorium on carrying out executions since 2018.) When Indonesia revised its penal code in December, it introduced a 10-year probation period for those sentenced to the death penalty, after which the sentence may be reduced by a judge to 20 years or life imprisonment. And Thailand, last year, became the first country in Asia to decriminalize cannabis nationwide.

The government’s defense of executing drug offenders

Shanmugam, Singapore’s Minister for Law and Home Affairs, is the country’s most staunch defender of capital punishment for drug-related offenses. He argues that the government takes care to distinguish between drug abusers and drug traffickers. “Pure abusers are not treated as criminals,” Shanmugam said in a forum earlier this month. “We focus on them as people who need help, so they are put into centers.” Last year, 1,995 people were admitted to Singapore’s Drug Rehabilitation Center. “Traffickers, of course, we deal with very differently,” he says.

Shanmugam has said that anti-death penalty advocates discount the would-be victims of drug trafficking that Singapore’s severe laws are meant to safeguard. Statements from his ministry have pointed to the toll drugs have taken in other countries, like the U.S., to suggest what the alternative could look like. “Countries which have softened their stance against drugs are being overrun by drug-related violence and crimes,” the government says. “Singapore cannot afford such a high cost to our society and our people.”

The minister has praised the deterrent effect of Singapore’s capital punishment for drug offenses: in 2020, he wrote to Parliament that his ministry found “in the four-year period after the introduction of the mandatory death penalty for trafficking involving more than 500g of cannabis in 1990, there was a 15 to 19 percentage point reduction in the probability that traffickers would choose to traffic above the capital sentence threshold.”

Shanmugam also likes to note that there’s “extremely strong support” for the death penalty from the Singaporean public. From 2018 to 2021, the Ministry for Home Affairs conducted and commissioned several surveys to gauge public opinion on capital punishment. One survey from 2021 found that 73.4% percent of residents aged 15 and up agreed that the death penalty—whether imposed mandatorily or discretionarily—was an appropriate punishment for intentionally “trafficking a substantial amount of drugs.”

As for cannabis in particular, the government insists that it is harmful and addictive and that there is insufficient evidence to support any medical benefits.

Advocates’ arguments against capital punishment

While the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—adopted in 1966, though Singapore is not a signatory—does permit states to use the death penalty for adults convicted of serious crimes, organizations such as Amnesty International have argued that the death penalty “is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment” and breaches human rights “regardless of who is accused, the nature or circumstances of the crime, guilt or innocence or method of execution.”

In Singapore specifically, advocates against the death penalty decry that executions have disproportionately affected ethnic minorities, foreigners, and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Though Malays account for only about 15% of the country’s population, they made up 84% of executions for drug-trafficking, according to a 2021 report by the U.N. Moreover, advocates worry that the people on Singapore’s death row tend to be poor, may not speak English, and often aren’t able to receive adequate legal assistance. Despite fierce outcry domestically and internationally, Singapore last year executed a Malaysian man whose family said had an intellectual disability. (The Singapore government maintains that all accused are treated equally regardless of demographic characteristics and all are given full due process.)

Anti-death penalty advocates also say that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is overstated. “Thousands of grams of drugs are seized every week in Singapore,” says Kokila Annamalai, a cofounder of the Transformative Justice Collective. “There is no evidence that the supply has gone down.” Indeed, despite decades of having the supposed deterrence of a death sentence in place, authorities in Singapore have regularly reported major drug busts, including earlier this month when 35 suspected drug offenders were arrested over the alleged trafficking of more than 9 kilograms (19 pounds) of cannabis and an assortment of other drugs estimated to be worth about $418,000. The country’s largest cannabis seizure this century took place in 2021 and the largest heroin seizure since 2001 happened just last year.

Eugene Thuraisingam, a defense lawyer who has worked on Singaporean drug-related death penalty cases, tells TIME his clients usually fall into one of two groups: either “addicts who traffic in drugs to fund their drug addiction” or “extremely poor persons who are willing to take the risk of trafficking in drugs to make a small amount of money.” Either way, the deterrent does not work on them, he says. M Ravi, another attorney who has worked on drug-related death penalty cases, including Tangaraju’s, similarly tells TIME that Singapore’s justice system tends to capture the lowest members of the trafficking hierarchy, those who are forced into the trade by poverty: “Until you can crack down on the kingpin,” he says, “the mules and the vulnerable will be trapped.”

As for victims of the drug trade, the Transformative Justice Collective says on its website, “given that there’s no evidence the death penalty actually deters or reduces drug trafficking, it’s unclear how the death penalty actually helps people struggling with addiction, or those affected by their behavior,” and the group argues that the family and loved ones of convicts on death row and those who have been executed are made victims by the system. Another more recent post on the advocacy group’s site, said to be written by Tangaraju and other prisoners on death row for cannabis-related crimes, questions why trafficking in cannabis, which is arguably less dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes, merits such a severe punishment as the death penalty in Singapore.

Tough-on-crime politics

The ruling People’s Action Party, which has led Singapore’s government since even before the country’s founding, has long insisted that the death penalty is necessary, and maintaining capital punishment has become central to the party’s narrative of assuring stability and security to the tiny island city-state. It’s not likely, observers have noted, that the party will do an about face—and especially not on account of growing international protest or attention to the issue. The Ministry of Home Affairs has explicitly condemned “the West” for trying to “impose their values” when it comes to the death penalty.

Embracing a tough-on-crime posture is a well-worn political tool worldwide. Philippine former President Rodrigo Duterte earned high approval ratings for his deadly war on drugs. Former U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly, including during his 2024 presidential campaign launch, praised Singapore’s death penalty for drug offenders, suggesting the U.S. should emulate the practice to solve its drug problems.

But while it’s doubtful the People’s Action Party would ever abolish capital punishment, it has made reforms (albeit minor ones) to the penal code before. In 2012, the Misuse of Drugs Act was reviewed and amended such that should a convicted trafficker have only played the role of “courier” and not “supplier” or “distributor” of drugs, their sentence may be reduced from mandatory execution to life imprisonment or the death penalty at the judge’s discretion. But that amendment only applies if the convict “substantively” cooperates with authorities to disrupt drug trafficking activities, such as by providing information to assist in the arrest or prosecution of other suspects. The law was also amended to reduce mandatory death sentences for drug offenders with an established “mental disability” to life imprisonment. The Transformative Justice Collective points to these amendments—though it says their implementation has been “problematic”—as evidence that laws can and should be changed.

It’s also not clear that public opinion in Singapore is settled. In 2018, a group of academics at the National University of Singapore published an independent assessment of public opinion on the death penalty, which found that most people didn’t actually think about the death penalty too much—but when they did, sentiment appeared more nuanced than the government presents. While 7 in 10 Singaporeans the academics surveyed did say they support the death penalty “in general,” the study found that only about one-third of respondents favored mandatory capital punishment for drug trafficking. And when survey takers were presented with specific scenarios, the study found “little support for the death penalty in typical cases of drug trafficking brought before the courts.”

It’s this lack of dogmatism among the public that inspires Han and the Transformative Justice Collective team as they go door-to-door in Singapore to talk to people about the death penalty. “Nobody’s really so hardcore,” Han says. Most people, if they take the time to think about it she says, will believe that “if there are other alternatives that we can do to address the harm, then we don’t need the death penalty.’”

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