Death penalty support not clear-cut

13 December 2016 | Research
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Assoc Prof Chan (left) led the survey, based on a questionnaire by Prof Hood (right)

An NUS survey shows that seven in 10 Singaporeans favoured the death penalty in general, comparable to another recent study conducted by REACH, the government’s feedback unit. However, the number dropped drastically when more specific questions were asked in the NUS study, suggesting a more nuanced interpretation of the overall picture.

The face-to-face interviews conducted from April to May this year on 1,500 respondents aged 18 to 74 years were based on a random sample of addresses of Singaporeans. Associate Professor Chan Wing Cheong from NUS Law headed the project, together with Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser from NUS Sociology, Assistant Professor Jack Lee from Singapore Management University’s School of Law, and Ms Braema Mathi, founding President of human rights group MARUAH.

Using a questionnaire slightly modified from a similar study in Malaysia designed by Professor Roger Hood, Professor Emeritus of Criminology at the University of Oxford, the survey revealed that 70 per cent of respondents favoured the death penalty, with 8 per cent strongly in favour. Of the 27 per cent who were opposed, only 3 per cent were strongly opposed.

The percentages in favour of capital punishment for intentional murder, trafficking in illegal drugs and for discharging a firearm were 92, 86 and 88 per cent, respectively. But these figures went down to 47, 32 and 36 per cent respectively, for the mandatory death sentence. The proportions in favour of giving the judge discretion to impose a death sentence or life imprisonment were 45, 54 and 52 per cent, respectively.

Level of support for the death penalty

Crime committed Percentage generally in favour of death penalty (%) Percentage in favour of mandatory death penalty (%) Percentage in favour of giving judge discretion for death penalty (%)
Intentional murder 92 47 45
Drug trafficking 86 32 54
Firearms offences 88 36 52

In 2012, Singapore changed the mandatory death sentence for murder and drug trafficking to give a judge the discretion to impose the death penalty or not, in limited circumstances such as drug couriers who assist the police.

The interviewees were less willing to choose capital punishment when given details of 12 scenarios with information on the circumstances of the case and background of the offender. For example, even though 47 per cent of the sample supported the mandatory death penalty for murder, only 12 per cent actually applied this in all the cases they were asked to judge.

Just over 60 per cent of the interviewees who supported the mandatory death penalty believed that it would be a deterrent for possible offenders. About half of those supporting the discretionary sentencing felt that different circumstances called for different judgements. When the interviewees were asked if they would still support the death penalty if it was proven to their satisfaction that the death penalty was “no more effective as a deterrent to others than life imprisonment or a very long prison sentence” or that “innocent people have sometimes been executed”, the proportion in support decreased greatly. In the case of murder, for example, the support dropped from 92 per cent to as low as 35 per cent. This showed that support for the death penalty is conditional on these factors.

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Assoc Prof Tan (left) and Asst Prof Lee (right) were also team members of the study

After analysing the data collected, the researchers discovered that older people aged 66 and above are 1.8 times more supportive of the death penalty than the young from 18 to 33. Those with a degree are 1.7 times more likely to back capital punishment than those with primary or lower education. Chinese religionists (Taoists and Buddhists) are 2.3 times more likely to support execution than Protestants, while Catholics are twice less inclined than Protestants.

Assoc Prof Tan postulated that this observation could be attributed to the middle-class in Singapore subscribing to security and meritocracy. They believe in upholding law and order, as well as rewards and punishment for one’s actions.

Assoc Prof Chan noted a growing international trend towards abolishing the death penalty. In 2014, 106 countries abolished capital punishment, compared to only 52 countries in 1988. He felt it is important for Singapore to review the death penalty, since a life taken is irreversible.

A seminar on “The Death Penalty: a Matter of Yes or No?” was held on 9 December, attracting some 100 attendees consisting of academics, researchers, students and civil society activists. The panellists comprised Prof Hood, University of Hong Kong’s Law Dean Professor Michael Hor, Assoc Prof Chan, Assoc Prof Tan and Ms Mathi, with Asst Prof Lee as moderator. The lively discussion drew many questions which included whether such penalty really deters crime and what drives the abolitionist trend worldwide.