The Straits Times reports on his latest comments
The death penalty is not something that any government would start off wanting to have, but rather, a government must be sure that it is essential to saving more lives, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.
If it cannot be sure that the death penalty is essential to saving more lives, then a government should not have the death penalty, the minister said to 80 youth leaders during a dialogue on drugs and the death penalty that was held at the Asian Civilisations Museum on Wednesday night.
Mr Shanmugam kicked off the dialogue with that observation, before going into the evidence supporting the need for the death penalty. This included looking at how other countries and states were adversely affected by decriminalising drugs, and at a survey which showed that 66 per cent of Singaporeans polled said the mandatory death penalty is appropriate for drug trafficking.
Another Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) survey – which was conducted among people from places where most of the drug traffickers arrested in Singapore in recent years had originated from – showed that 87 per cent of respondents believed capital punishment deterred people from trafficking large amounts of drugs into Singapore.
“For public policymaking, you need compassion, a soft heart, but you need a hard head,” said Mr Shanmugam, explaining that one needed a hard head to analyse, understand and try to explain policy decisions, but one also needed a soft heart for compassion. “Then the question is how you marry the two.”
Mr Shanmugam said he believed that an overwhelming majority of people in Singapore today support the current drug policies.
Mr Shammugam said to the young people at the session organised by MHA and the National Youth Council that if a majority of Singaporeans were to feel that the policy on the death penalty ought to be changed, and if they also feel strongly enough about the fact that the Government is not changing the policy, they will change the Government.
He added: “A meeting like this is for me to explain to you what goes (on) in my mind as a policymaker, and hopefully persuade you that there are some good reasons why we are doing this – so that even if you are not completely convinced when you leave the room, at least you’re convinced that we are not irrational.”
Responding to a participant who asked how Singapore can address the moral and ethical implications of capital punishment, when it involves the irreversible decision of taking a human life by the state, Mr Shanmugam reiterated that he respects the ideological differences of those who say that is it immoral for the state to take away lives.
“I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it’s a position based on ideology. It’s based on values,” he said.
“I have slightly different values, which are (that) a state’s obligation is to ensure safety and security within Singapore and to save lives. And my policies save more lives than they take away,” he said, emphasising that the lives saved by his policies were “lives which actually would be lost”.
Mr Shanmugam added: “Once we discuss it along the lines of ideology, then you just have to agree to disagree.”
When asked if he had met inmates on death row, Mr Shanmugam said that when he was a practising lawyer, he had worked pro bono on a criminal case involving a trafficker.
He and a criminal lawyer he worked with got the trafficker’s charge reduced, and the man avoided the gallows.
He added that his ministry has spent a lot of effort on crime prevention and the rehabilitation of offenders in prison, as well as after they are released.
When asked why the president rarely granted clemency, Mr Shanmugam said that those on death row had gone through the entire legal process and been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“On what basis does the Cabinet then recommend clemency? You will be subverting the judgment of the court and the law,” he said, adding that clemency could be granted only in exceptional circumstances occurring after the sentencing.
When asked why the death penalty is mandatory instead of leaving the decision up to the courts to decide if a drug trafficker should be hanged, Mr Shanmugam said he could not put the judges in such an impossible position.
“The judges themselves told us they don’t want that,” he said, adding that the judges preferred to just impose the law. “No judge wants that responsibility. On what basis would he decide?”
Mr Shanmugam said that the drug laws would be unworkable otherwise.
“(The drug laws) are harsh,” he acknowledged, but added that it was necessary to be clear about the consequences in order for these laws to effectively act as a deterrent. “Once there are question marks around it, then more people (will) take a chance.”