Research by the National University of Singapore has revealed that the Singaporean public favours a discretionary, not a mandatory, approach to sentencing in capital cases. Face-to-face interviews were carried out with a representative sample of 1,500 Singaporean adults to ascertain their attitudes towards the death penalty, and the imposition of the mandatory death penalty in particular. The findings demonstrated that there was little public support for the mandatory death penalty when the respondents were presented with typical cases where this sentence would be legally required, calling into question the government’s lack of meaningful reform in this area.
The research was modelled upon a public opinion survey in Malaysia, commissioned and published by The Death Penalty Project in 2013 and carried out by Professor Roger Hood, who was also consultant to the Singapore study. The Malaysia study revealed that, while on the surface support for the death penalty was strong, when faced with the reality of judging different case scenarios few respondents thought that the death penalty should be applied in all cases. The findings inspired the authors of the Singapore study to replicate the research in their own country, to see if similar conclusions could be reached.
Parallels can be drawn between Malaysia and Singapore, who both continue to carry the mandatory death penalty for certain offences, including murder and drug trafficking. Both governments have expressed commitment to reforming the mandatory death penalty for drug offences. However, despite limited reforms made in Singapore in 2013, mandatory death sentences continue to be imposed on many drug offenders. The Malaysian government has similarly introduced legislative amendments which would give judges some discretion over whether to apply the death penalty in drug trafficking cases, but these have not yet been brought into force and mandatory death sentences continue to be imposed.
As in Malaysia, the research in Singapore revealed low public support for the mandatory death penalty. Less than half of respondents expressed support for the policy when posed with the simple question, but actual support for the mandatory death penalty was much lower when asked to say what the appropriate penalty should be when faced with three typical scenario cases of murder and two scenarios of drug trafficking where the mandatory death penalty would be enforced. Only 12% of the total sample thought that the death penalty should be imposed on every one of the three murder cases and only 10% of both drug trafficking cases.
The research therefore exposed a disconnect between support for the mandatory death penalty in theory and when confronted with the reality of the law requiring its use in Singapore. Support for the death penalty in general was not as strong as the government has suggested. Although 72% said they were generally in favour only 9% said they were ‘strongly in favour of it’. The research also revealed that that the Singaporean public is poorly informed about the death penalty. Six out of ten said they knew ‘nothing or little about it’ and 80% said they rarely talked about the subject to others. Moreover, only one-third of those interviewed could give an estimate of the number of people executed in the last 10 years which was “more or less” correct. Only about one in five said they were ‘very interested or concerned’ about the issue, which was consistent with the findings in Malaysia, where the public were similarly uninformed about the death penalty and only 8% said they were ‘very concerned’ about the issue.
The Death Penalty Project has been commissioning, supporting and publishing independent academic research on public attitudes towards the death penalty for almost a decade. This research has consistently shown that, contrary to depictions of widespread popular support for the death penalty, the situation is often much more nuanced. Much lower support when faced with the reality of making life and death decisions, and a general lack of great concern about the death penalty suggests that there would be little public opposition to abolition. We hope that this study will encourage the Singaporean government to commit to further reform of the mandatory death penalty, ensuring that judges are granted full discretion over all capital cases, and will inspire policymakers to take the moral leadership in moving the country closer to abolition.
Notes to Editors
The report, Public Opinion on the Death Penalty in Singapore: Survey Findings (NUS Law Working Paper No. 2018/002) was published by the National University of Singapore. The authors are Wing Cheong Chan, Ern Ser Tan, Jack Tsen-Ta Lee and Braema Mathi. Roger Hood, Professor Emeritus of Criminology at Oxford University, was a consultant on the research and The Death Penalty Project also provided guidance and support to the authors.