Loretta Marie Perera is a Singaporean reporting from Moscow.
Long-drop hanging on Friday at dawn.
In the modern metropolis of Singapore, with its gleaming skyline, wealth, and a regional and international reputation for travel, accessibility, and thriving business opportunities, this is how inmates are killed under the sovereign state’s harsh laws: the death penalty.
Cited by authorities as a "deterrent" to keep the country low in crime and endlessly clean, the death penalty in Singapore is applied largely for three charges: drugs, murder, and firearm offences. Of the three, drug offences are by far the most significant.
For possession of certain amounts of drugs – 2g of heroin or 15g of cannabis, for example – intention of trafficking is presumed, for which the penalty is up to 20 years in jail, and 15 strokes of the cane. [Caning: a leftover legacy of British colonial rule in Singapore, and a cruel punishment imposed on male offenders between 18 and 50 for a variety of offences including murder and rape, drugs, and vandalism.]
Another threatening threshold looms: for a larger amount – for example, 15g of heroin or 500g of cannabis – the mandatory death penalty is invoked. If found guilty, the verdict is death, and this charge cannot be changed, appealed, or reconsidered, even by the judge.
While recent modifications of this law allow very specific circumstances to change a death sentence to a life sentence with caning, the amendments remain unclear and problematic.
In today’s society
As archaic as Singapore’s laws are – death by hanging and punishment by caning are both Colonial provisions long since abolished in the UK – their application in Singapore today is very much in effect. Prison reports show that for drug offences, 11 were hanged in 2018, and two in 2019.
In October 2020, around the time that a Singaporean man, Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin, was facing an imminent execution, the Transformative Justice Collective (TJC) was formed.
“As someone who has been involved in campaigning against the death penalty for some time, I was quite surprised by the amount of attention and support that Syed's case received,” said Singaporean journalist and anti-death penalty activist Kirsten Han. “It felt as if something had changed.”
Inspired by this, a group of activists began to talk about the wider context of the issue of the death penalty: incarceration, inequality, justice, and intersectionality. A recent campaign, for instance, was a letter-writing movement where people were encouraged to write to Syed, who now remains on death row in Singapore’s Changi Prison.
“We started to think of putting together a collective that would look at not just the death penalty, but also issues like prison conditions and prisoners' rights,” said Kirsten. “[This would also look at] reviewing punitive or retributive approaches and mindsets, transformative justice, and what it might look like in Singapore.”
Transforming the conversation
While anti-death penalty activists in Singapore have long been working to move the death penalty and specific capital punishment cases forward and into focus, TJC differs in its approach: it is a broader context that the organisation believes is essential.
And this is what is essentially different: to not just speak out and act for or against, but to first encourage deeper and more independent thought.
“We've set out with the intention to bring in this context and to prompt people to think differently not just about the single issue of capital punishment, but about criminal punishment in general, and the sort of society we want to live in,” Kirsten said.
In the tightly governed city-state, citizens have often been hesitant to take to the streets or to stand in protest. Public demonstrations held in unauthorised locations or without a permit – even if it’s just one man – are unlawful and may result in arrest.
Earlier this year, TJC member and social worker Jolovan Wham served a 22-day sentence for a silent protest he organised, as well as for “vandalism” – sticking two sheets of paper up in a metro carriage.
Above: This silent demonstration of eight Singaporeans was held on the 30th anniversary of Operation Spectrum, where 22 people were arrested and detained without trial in 1987 under suspicion of a “Marxist conspiracy”. Image: Jolovan Wham.
“We stand with you, Jolovan. We are proud of your moral clarity, your unwavering values, and your willingness to fight for a fairer, more democratic Singapore.” - Transformative Justice Collective statement on the incarceration of Jolovan Wham
Jolovan’s decision to serve time – a fine was the alternative – adds significantly to TJC’s dialogue, and draws attention to restrictive laws on free speech and civil and political rights in Singapore.
As TJC sets out to deepen public understanding of the death penalty in Singapore, and the drug control regime, the climate in which they work continues to shift, too. “I think the boundaries are being pushed bit by bit,” said Kirsten, “and dissent is getting a bit more normalised, albeit at a rather slow pace!”
Following his three weeks in prison, and the conversations he has had with inmates himself, Jolovan has spoken about the prison conditions in Singapore, and the ways in which they fail.
“What an inmate will first experience in our prisons is how cramped conditions are: four people can be put in a cell measuring 3m by 3m, including the toilet,” said Jolovan, who in 2020 served two sentences in jail. “You can't look outside because the windows and doors are sealed with very little natural light coming in. There are no beds, mattresses, fans, tables or chairs.”
When compared to international standards such as the Nelson Mandela Rules that set minimum standard conditions that prisons should adhere to, Singapore falls short. Inmates typically spend one hour outside their cells for yard time. Because of Covid-19, they are not allowed to leave their cells at all, and instead largely remain in solitary confinement.
“The psychological effects of solitary confinement are well documented,” said Jolovan, pointing to the use of corporal punishment (caning) and the frequently used punishment of solitary cells with the lights left on for 24 hours for inmates.
“Based on my conversations and personal experience, prison isn't just about the denial of a person's liberty: it is designed to be a degrading and torturous experience, and this is justified as a deterrent to crime.”
Meanwhile, the government continues to insist that incarceration and harsh drug laws act as a deterrent, socio-economic conditions which lead to committing offences are not considered. And similarly to the rest of the world, minorities and marginalised groups are overrepresented in both prison and drug-related offences.
“It is therefore not surprising that the majority of inmates in Singapore are ethnic minorities from impoverished backgrounds,” Jolovan said. “Singapore's punitive approach to addressing crime and wrongdoing does little to ensure that offenders are successfully rehabilitated.”
Who do we want to be?
As the activists continue to build a movement and continue the conversation, many battles ahead remain. Awareness, while growing, is limited, and the collective is well aware that anti-death penalty activism is often misunderstood, or viewed with suspicion.
And while the underlying theme to this activism is to push for abolishment and reform, it is a long journey ahead – and one start starts with conversation, education, and engagement.
“Ultimately, we want to achieve things like abolishing the death penalty and reforming the criminal punishment system to focus more on transformative justice rather than harsher and harsher punishments,” said Kirsten.
“But before we can get there, we need to first be able to engage Singaporeans on these topics and get people to think about the principles and values that we want to hold in our society.”