For a better quality of justice
The Straits Times
17 July 2012
A pending law change to grant judges discretion in sentencing for prescribed capital offences has cheered social activists here, who welcomed the move as progressive. Their stand is that taking a life is ethically and morally wrong, whatever the circumstances of a crime and in whichever society it is codified for good reason. But more conservative Singaporeans who trust the power of deterrence will wonder if the reform is the thin end of the abolition wedge. They see no need to disturb the status quo, as fear of judicial executions has arguably played a part in moulding Singapore into an orderly society, with little violent crime and drugs infestation.
Debates on capital punishment tend to provoke visceral reactions, so it is helpful to be clear about what the variation in sentencing philosophy is not. It is not meant to chip away at the death penalty as a fulcrum of the criminal justice system, and it will not reduce the deterrent force of punishments that fit crimes against society. The change will only confer discretion between a sentence of death and life imprisonment in murder and drug offences where there are defined extenuating circumstances. The tests for drug couriers are tightly drawn to eliminate scope for any debasement in the fight against the scourge. For murder, an intent to kill is the clincher.
The nuanced approach will enhance the quality of justice by introducing an element of mercy and rehabilitation. This is progress of an intrinsic nature. However, most categories of drug offences will still attract a mandatory death sentence.
The message to drug lords is unchanged: They pay the ultimate price, if convicted. They should worry that low-level couriers manipulated into doing their bidding can escape the gallows if they provide investigators with adequate information that will flush them out or disrupt operations.
Ministerial statements by Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean and Law Minister K. Shanmugam explaining the rationale for the juridical reform emphasised that these moves take note of evolving societal values. If this is to be taken as acknowledgement that a liberalisation of public policy usually goes hand in hand with a nation's maturing, it need also be noted that in fighting crime, Singaporeans have indicated they favour an uncompromising stance. Public security remains an imperative despite the stable climate that has been established.
The day may yet arrive when Singapore will decide on philosophic and normative grounds that capital punishment no longer serves society's interests. But only Singaporeans shall determine that, on their terms. Till then, the preference is to keep up the guard against possible threats.