Girish Mahajan (Editor)

Capital punishment in Singapore

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Capital punishment in Singapore

Capital punishment is a legal penalty in Singapore. The city-state had the second highest per-capita execution rate in the world between 1994 and 1998, estimated by the United Nations to be 13.83 executions annually per one million people during that period. The highest was Turkmenistan (now an abolitionist country) with 14.92. However, since the early 2010s, execution has become far less common, with some years having no executions at all. No one was executed in 2012 and 2013, and two persons were executed in 2014. Each execution in Singapore is carried out by long drop hanging in Changi Prison at dawn on Friday, except once on 20 May 2016 when the execution of Kho Jabing was carried out at 3:30 pm after his appeal for a stay of execution was dismissed that morning. In a survey done in 2005, reported in The Straits Times, 95% of Singaporeans believe that their country should retain the death penalty.


Singapore has had capital punishment since it was a British colony and became independent before the United Kingdom abolished capital punishment. The Singaporean procedure of hanging condemned individuals is heavily influenced by the methods formerly used in the United Kingdom.

In 2012, however, Singapore amended its laws to exempt some cases from the mandatory death sentence while boosting enforcement. Although the penalty will stay, discretionary measures are now given to judges.


The following table of executions was compiled by Amnesty International from several sources, including statistics supplied by the Ministry of Home Affairs in January 2001 and government figures reported to Agence France-Presse in September 2003. Numbers in brackets are the number of foreign citizens executed, according to information disclosed by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Detailed statistics are not released by the Singapore government from 2000 to 2006. Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told the BBC in September 2003 that he believed there were "in the region of about 70 to 80" hangings in 2003. Two days later he retracted his statement, saying the number was in fact ten.

The chief executioner, Darshan Singh, said that he has executed more than 850 people during his service from 1959 using the phrase: "I am going to send you to a better place than this. God bless you." This included 18 people on one day, using three ropes at a time. Singh also said that he has hanged seven people within 90 minutes.

Foreign nationals

The people on death row include foreign nationals, many of whom were convicted of drug-related offences. These inmates come from a diverse range of countries, including Australia, Bangladesh, China, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Portugal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. Figures released by the Singapore government show that between 1993 and 2003, 36% of those executed were foreigners, including some residents in Singapore (half of Singapore residents are foreigners).


Under Section 316 of the Criminal Procedure Code:

"When any person is sentenced to death, the sentence shall direct that he shall be hanged by the neck till he is dead but shall not state the place where nor the time when the sentence is to be carried out."

Hangings always take place at dawn on Friday and are by the long drop method developed in the United Kingdom by William Marwood. The executioner refers to the Official Table of Drops. The government have said that they:

"…had previously studied the different methods of execution and found no reason to change from the current method used, that is, by hanging."

Neither persons under the age of 18 at the time of their offence nor pregnant women can be sentenced to death.

Capital cases are heard by a single judge in the High Court. After conviction and sentencing, the sentenced has one appeal to the Court of Appeal. If the appeal fails, the final recourse rests with the President, who has the power to grant clemency on the advice of the Cabinet. The exact number of successful appeals is unknown. Poh Kay Keong had his conviction overturned after the court found his statement to a Central Narcotics Bureau officer was made under duress. Successful clemency applications are thought to be even rarer. Since 1965, the President's clemency has been granted six times. The last clemency was in May 1998 when Mathavakannan Kalimuthu received pardon from President Ong Teng Cheong with the sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

In November 2012, capital punishment laws in Singapore were revised such that the mandatory death penalty for those convicted of drug trafficking or murder was lifted under certain specific conditions. Judges were empowered with the discretion to sentence such offenders to life imprisonment, which suggests the prisoner lives his entire natural life in jail with the possibility of appeal after 20 years.

The condemned are given notice at least four days before execution. In the case of foreigners who have been sentenced to death, their families and diplomatic missions/embassies are given one to two weeks' notice.

Amnesty International reports that death row inmates are housed in cells of roughly three square metres (32 square feet). Walls make up three sides, while the fourth is vertical bars. They are equipped with a toilet, a sleeping mat, and a bucket for washing. Exercise is permitted twice a day for half an hour at a time. Four days before the execution, the condemned is allowed to watch television or listen to the radio. Special meals of their choice are also cooked, if within the prison budget. Visiting rights are increased from one 20 minute visit per week to a maximum of four hours each day, though no physical contact is allowed with any visitors.

Capital offences

In addition to the Penal Code, there are four Acts of Parliament that prescribe death as punishment for offences. According to a Singaporean civil rights group, the Think Centre, 70% of hangings are for drug-related offences.

Penal Code

Under the Penal Code, the commission of the following offences may result in the death penalty:

  • Waging or attempting to wage war or abetting the waging of war against the Government
  • Offences against the President's person (in other words, treason)
  • Piracy that endangers life
  • Perjury that results in the execution of an innocent person
  • Murder
  • Abetting the suicide of a person under the age of 18 or an "insane" person
  • Attempted murder by a prisoner serving a life sentence
  • Kidnapping
  • Robbery committed by five or more people that results in the death of a person
  • Taking Drugs into Singapore
  • Since the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 2007, Singapore no longer allows for the death penalty for several offences. Offences which may no longer lead to the death penalty are:

  • Rape
  • Mutiny
  • Arms Offences Act

    The Arms Offences Act under Singapore law regulates criminal offences dealing with firearms and weapons. Any person who uses or attempts to use arms (Section 4) can face execution, as well as any person who uses or attempts to use arms to commit scheduled offences (Section 4A). These scheduled offences are being a member of an unlawful assembly; rioting; certain offences against the person; abduction or kidnapping; extortion; burglary; robbery; preventing or resisting arrest; vandalism; mischief. Any person who is an accomplice (Section 5) to a person convicted of arms use during a scheduled offence can likewise be executed.

    Trafficking in arms (Section 6) is a capital offence in Singapore. Under the Arms Offences Act, trafficking is defined as being in unlawful possession of more than two firearms.

    Misuse of Drugs Act

    Under Schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, any person importing, exporting, or found in possession of more than the following quantities of drugs receives a mandatory death sentence:

  • 1200 grammes of opium and containing more than 30 grammes of morphine (§5 and §7, (2)(b));
  • 30 grammes of morphine (§5 and §7, (3)(b));
  • 15 grammes of diamorphine (heroin) (diamo (§5 and §7, (4)(b));
  • 30 grammes of cocaine (§5 and §7, (5)(b));
  • 500 grammes of cannabis (§5 and §7, (6)(b));
  • 1000 grammes of cannabis mixture (§5 and §7, (7)(b));
  • 200 grammes of cannabis resin (§5 and §7, (8)(b));
  • 250 grammes of methamphetamine (§5 and §7, (9)(b)).
  • Death sentences are also mandatory for any person caught manufacturing :

  • Morphine, or any salt of morphine, ester of morphine or salt of ester of morphine (§6, (2));
  • Diamorphine (heroin) or any salt of diamorphine (§6, (3));
  • Cocaine or any salt of cocaine (§6, (4));
  • Methamphetamine (§6, (5)).
  • Under the Act:

    "any person who is proved to have had in his possession or custody or under his control — shall, until the contrary is proved, be presumed to have had that drug in his possession."

    Furthermore, any person who has a controlled drug in his possession shall be presumed to have known the nature of that drug.

    Death penalty supporters, such as the blogger Benjamin Chang, claim that Singapore has one of the lowest prevalence of drug abuse worldwide: he claims, for instance, that over two decades, the number of drug abusers arrested each year has declined by two-thirds, from over 6,000 in the early 1990s to about 2,000 in 2011. The validity of these figures is disputed by other Singaporeans, such as the Singaporean drugs counsellor Tony Tan. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes that Singapore remains a transit destination for drug traffickers in Asia, drug seizures continue to increase and heroin drug use within Singapore is continuing to rise.

    Internal Security Act

    The preamble of the Internal Security Act states that it is an Act to "provide for the internal security of Singapore, preventive detention, the prevention of subversion, the suppression of organised violence against persons and property in specified areas of Singapore, and for matters incidental thereto." The President of Singapore has the power to designate certain security areas. Any person caught in the possession or with someone in possession of firearms, ammunition or explosives in a security area can be punished by death.

    Kidnapping Act

    The terms of the Kidnapping Act designate abduction, wrongful restraint or wrongful confinement for ransom as capital offences.

    Public debate

    Public debate in the Singaporean news media on the death penalty is almost non-existent, although the topic does occasionally get discussed in the midst of major, well-known criminal cases. Efforts to garner public opinion on the issue are rare, although it has been suggested that the population is influenced by a traditional Chinese view which held that harsh punishment deters crime and helps maintain social peace and harmony. In October 2007, Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee said in Parliament that "Certain of us may hold the view that the death penalty should be abolished. But in a survey done two years ago, reported in The Straits Times, 95% of Singaporeans feel that the death penalty should stay. This is something which has helped us to be safe and secure all these years and it is only reserved for a very few select offences."

    Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, a former opposition Member of Parliament, was reportedly only given a few minutes to speak in Parliament on the issue before his comments were rebutted by Ho Peng Kee.

    Few other opposition Members of Parliament would bring up the issue, which may be reflective of a population generally indifferent to the matter.

    Before the hanging of Shanmugam Murugesu, a three-hour vigil was held on 6 May 2005. The organisers of the event at the Furama Hotel said it was the first such public gathering organised solely by members of the public against the death penalty in Singapore. Murugesu had been arrested after being caught in possession of six packets containing just over 1 kilograms of cannabis after returning from Malaysia. He admitted knowledge of one of the packets, which contained 300 grams, but not the other five. The event went unreported on the partially state-owned media and the police shut down an open microphone session just as the first person began to speak.

    After the hanging of Van Tuong Nguyen, a Vietnamese-Australian from Melbourne, on 2 December 2005, Sister Susan Chia, province leader of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Singapore, declared that "The death penalty is cruel, inhumane and it violates the right to life." Chia and several other nuns comforted Nguyen's mother two weeks before his execution for heroin trafficking.

    Singapore's death penalty laws have drawn comments in the media. For example, science fiction author William Gibson, while a journalist, wrote a travel piece on Singapore that he sarcastically titled Disneyland with the Death Penalty.

    In 2010 British author Alan Shadrake published his book Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, which was critical of the Singapore judicial system. Shadrake was arrested whilst promoting the book in Singapore and later sentenced to six weeks in prison for contempt of court. He is also charged with criminal defamation. The case attracted worldwide attention, putting the Singapore legal system in the spotlight. Shadrake apologised to the court if he had offended the sensitivities of the judiciary and did not mean to undermine the judges or the judiciary, but stood by his book, apart from one small mistake.

    My so-called apology was to merely point out that my book was sub-titled Singapore Justice in the Dock - NOT Singapore Judiciary in the Dock. I did not 'apologise' at all and welcomed the prison sentence which drew even more attention to the real issues. The many cases I exposed where various judges sentenced some accused to death despite dubious, suspect evidence concocted by the police and their informers while others with powerful countries behind them had their charges inexplicably reduced to a non-hanging offence. But Judge Loh completely ignored the evidence I produced in Once a Jolly Hangman even though he claimed to have read it from cover to cover. This proved again that the judiciary is not independent from the executive - a fact which the International Bar Association ably pointed out in its 2008 report on Singapore - and that the judiciary has to do the government's bidding when it suits them.

    The judge, Quentin Loh, dismissed his apology as "nothing more than a tactical ploy in court to obtain a reduced sentence". Shadrake's conviction for scandalising the court was upheld by the Court of Appeal.

    Law Society review

    In December 2005, the Law Society revealed that it has set up a committee, named Review Committee on Capital Punishment, to examine capital punishment in the country. The President of the Society, Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam, said that the main focus of the review was on issues regarding administering the death penalty such as whether it should be mandatory. A report of the review would be submitted to the Ministry of Law. On 6 November 2006, they were invited to give its views on proposed amendments to the Penal Code to the Ministry of Home Affairs. In their report, issued on 30 March 2007, they argued against the mandatory death penalty:

    The death penalty should be discretionary for the offences where the death sentence is mandatory - murder, drug trafficking, firearms offences and sedition - a position similar to that for the offence of kidnapping. There are strong arguments for changing the mandatory nature of capital punishment in Singapore. Judges should be given the discretion to impose the death penalty only where deemed appropriate.

    Singapore government's response

    The Singapore government states that the death penalty is only used in the most serious of crimes, sending, they say, a strong message to potential offenders. They point out that in 1994 and 1999 the United Nations General Assembly failed to adopt resolutions calling for a moratorium on the death penalty worldwide, as a majority of countries opposed such a move.

    Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations wrote a letter to the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in 2001 which stated:

    "…the death penalty is primarily a criminal justice issue, and therefore is a question for the sovereign jurisdiction of each country […] the right to life is not the only right, and […] it is the duty of societies and governments to decide how to balance competing rights against each other."

    In January 2004, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a response to Amnesty International's report, "Singapore: The death penalty - A hidden toll of executions". It defended Singapore's policy to retain the death penalty, predicating its arguments on, amongst others, the following grounds:

  • There is no international consensus on whether the death penalty should be abolished.
  • Each country has the sovereign right to decide on its own judicial system, taking into account its own circumstances.
  • The death penalty has been effective in keeping Singapore one of the safest places in the world to work and live in.
  • The application of the death penalty is only reserved for "very serious crimes".
  • The Ministry of Home Affairs also refuted Amnesty International's claims of the majority of the executed being foreigners, and that it was "mostly the poor, least educated, and vulnerable people who are executed." The Ministry stated: "Singaporeans, and not foreigners, were the majority of those executed... Of those executed from 1993 to 2003, 95% were above 21 years of age, and 80% had received formal education. About 80% of those who had been sentenced to capital punishment had employment before their convictions".

    Following the hanging of Van Tuong Nguyen in 2005, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated the government's position, stating that "The evil inflicted on thousands of people with drug trafficking demands that we must tackle the source by punishing the traffickers rather than trying to pick up the pieces afterwards... It's a law which is approved of by Singapore's inhabitants and which allows us to reduce the drug problem."

    Prior to the United Nations General Assembly's voting on a moratorium on the death penalty in November 2007, Singapore's ambassador Vanu Gopala Menon said, "My delegation would like to remind this committee that capital punishment is not prohibited under international law. Yet it is clear that the sponsors of this draft resolution have decided that there can only be one view on capital punishment, and that only one set of choices should be respected... [the death penalty] is an important component of the administration of law and our justice system, and is imposed only for the most serious crimes and serves as a deterrent. We have proper legal safeguards in place to prevent any miscarriage of justice."

    Impact on official debate and discussion in the United States

    In 2012, a couple of American elected officials and office-seekers have suggested that Singapore's success in combating drug abuse should be examined as a model for the United States. Michael Bloomberg, a former Mayor of New York City, said that the United States could learn a thing or two from nations like Singapore when it came to drug trafficking, noting that "executing a handful of people saves thousands and thousands of lives." The last execution in New York took place in 1963. Several courts have ruled that the death penalty violates the New York Constitution (see People v. LaValle). In 2007, the state of New York abolished the death penalty, bringing the number of American states without the death penalty to 19, including Washington, D.C.. However, certain states, such as Texas, still have similar or even higher rates of execution than Singapore.

    Even when an American politician mentions capital punishment in Singapore, the application of the death penalty in the United States is limited by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution to only aggravated murders committed by mentally competent adults. For example, former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich repeated his longstanding advocacy for Singaporean methods in the United States's War on Drugs during campaign interviews and speeches.) Nevertheless, the use of the death penalty for drug offences in the United States constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment", which is why it is considered unconstitutional.

    Notable cases

  • Usman bin Haji Muhammad Ali and Harun Thahir, two Indonesian marines sentenced to death in 1968 for the MacDonald House bombing which killed three people.
  • Adrian Lim, Tan Mui Choo, and Hoe Kah Hong, sentenced to death for murdering a nine-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy in 1981. The three were hanged in 1988. See Toa Payoh ritual murders for details on the case.
  • Johannes van Damme, a Dutch engineer hanged in September 1994 for drug trafficking. He was the first European to be executed in Singapore since the country gained independence in 1965.
  • Flor Contemplacion, a Filipino domestic worker executed in 1995 for murdering another Filipino domestic worker and a four-year-old boy. Her execution severely strained relations between Singapore and the Philippines and caused many Filipinos to vent their frustration at their own government and the Singaporean government over the helplessness, abuse, and mental stresses that many Filipino overseas workers face around the world.
  • Tong Ching-man, Lam Cheuk-wang, and Poon Yuen-chung, three Hong Kong women hanged in April 1995 for drug trafficking. Tong and Poon were both 18 years old when they were caught with heroin in their possession at Changi Airport in 1988 and 1991 respectively.
  • Angel Mou Pui-peng, a Macau-born Hong Kong woman hanged in December 1995 for drug trafficking. A single mother, she was 25 at the time of her execution.
  • John Martin Scripps, a British spree killer hanged in April 1996 for murdering three tourists. He was the first Briton to be executed in Singapore since the country gained independence in 1965.
  • Shanmugam Murugesu, hanged in May 2005 for drug trafficking. Before his execution, around 120 people attended a three-hour vigil held for him in Furama Hotel. An earlier petition for clemency was rejected by President S. R. Nathan.
  • Van Tuong Nguyen, a Vietnamese-Australian hanged in December 2005 for drug trafficking. A plea for clemency from the Australian government was rejected by the Singapore authorities.
  • Took Leng How, a Malaysian-born vegetable packer hanged in 2006 for murdering Huang Na, an eight-year-old girl from China. Took's appeal to the Court of Appeal was dismissed, and a clemency petition submitted by his relatives to President S. R. Nathan was also rejected. See Murder of Huang Na for details on the case.
  • Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, a Nigerian hanged in January 2007 for drug trafficking. Pleas for clemency from Amnesty International, the United Nations, and Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo were rejected by President S. R. Nathan.
  • Leong Siew Chor, convicted in May 2006 for strangling a Chinese national Liu Hongmei, chopping up her body and dumping the body parts into the Kallang River. He was hanged in November 2007.
  • Tan Chor Jin, nicknamed "One Eyed Dragon" by the Singapore media, sentenced to death in May 2007 for the shooting and murder of a nightclub owner. Tan represented himself in court without a lawyer initially, but later tasked veteran criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan with his defence. In the end, he asked the judge to give him the death sentence and was hanged in January 2009.
  • References

    Capital punishment in Singapore Wikipedia