Singapore’s Drug Offender Executions Raise Concerns About Fairness

Singapore’s recent execution of another drug offender has reignited discussions about the city-state’s unwavering zero-tolerance stance on drugs, sparking concerns over the clarity of convictions in some cases.

The 39-year-old man, a former delivery driver, met a grim fate, facing the mandatory death penalty in 2019 for his involvement in trafficking 50 grams of heroin. Throughout his trial and afterward, he and his advocates maintained that he had believed he was transporting contraband cigarettes for a friend. However, the court rejected his claim.

This latest execution, the third within a week, has faced criticism from lawyers and anti-death penalty activists, who view it as a fresh instance of questionable convictions leading to a death sentence.

Amid mounting international pressure to reconsider its position, Singapore’s authorities have continued to defend the use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses, emphasizing its significance as a deterrent against trafficking. However, critics have raised concerns about the fairness of the death penalty’s application, highlighting perceived disparities in charges and sentencing exceptions, along with legal presumptions—such as the assumption about the delivery driver’s awareness of the transported contents—that place the burden of proving innocence on the accused.

Efforts to address these concerns have been made in the past. Legislative changes enacted in 2012 allowed for death sentences to be commuted to life imprisonment under specific circumstances. These circumstances include if the accused were primarily drug couriers, exhibited diminished responsibility due to mental conditions, or cooperated significantly with authorities to disrupt trafficking activities.

Initially, these changes sparked optimism that the death penalty would better target high-level traffickers and spare low-level couriers, often individuals from marginalized communities. A lawyer, commenting on the legal amendments in 2015 after his client’s sentence was commuted, highlighted the likelihood of fewer drug traffickers facing death penalties due to their willingness to cooperate and provide information.

However, a decade later and following numerous drug-related executions, legal experts and activists contend that many of those executed are still low-level offenders—contrary to the intended purpose of the amendments.

Luo Ling Ling, a pro bono lawyer who has dedicated the past decade to defending death row inmates, raises pertinent questions about the efficacy of the system. “Are you catching the kingpins?” she asks. “Because I’m still representing individuals at the bottom of the hierarchy, and they continue to be convicted and sentenced to death.”

As Singapore grapples with these ongoing concerns, the debate surrounding the death penalty’s fairness and its alignment with the nation’s justice system persists.