Capital Punishment in Singapore: How Experiences and Age Shape Perceptions

By August 16, 2022 August 22nd, 2022 Research Publications

A Spate of Executions

After two years without having carried out any executions during the Covid-19 pandemic, Singapore resumed hanging individuals convicted of capital offences in 2022. As of August this year, Singapore has conducted ten executions, with all being for drug-related offences, specifically that of drug trafficking as defined within Singapore law. As a result, the practice of capital punishment in Singapore has received vocal opposition among some domestic groups, and returned to the forefront of international scrutiny with bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Office calling for a moratorium on executions.

Singapore is among a minority of countries still applying the death penalty, with over 170 states either having already abolished it or introduced a moratorium either in law or in practice. The Singapore government continues to apply capital punishment as it holds that the practice has a significant deterrent effect on drug trafficking, as well as noting that the death penalty has widespread support among the public.

To follow up on these claims and further investigate the public sentiment, we conducted a survey on the level of support and perceptions of effectiveness of the death penalty, measuring these independently for murder and drug trafficking to ascertain the differences, if any. We also measured the impact of evidence on Singaporeans’ stances and asked respondents to rank factors for their importance in influencing the crime rate. Finally, we sought to investigate if one’s personal experience or the experience of someone close would influence perceptions of the death penalty.

Broad Support with Some Caveats

Singaporeans overwhelmingly found the death penalty to be moderately or highly effective in deterring both murder (84%) and drug trafficking (80%), confirming the findings relayed by the Ministry of Home Affairs survey. Roughly an even number found it to be of moderate effectiveness as those who found it to be of high effectiveness.

A majority of Singaporeans (68%) also supported the death penalty for murder. However, this notably differed from the level of support for the death penalty for drug trafficking, which was a plurality of 49% rather than a majority. In both cases, the number of respondents who supported the death penalty or found it to be highly effective heavily outweighed those who opposed it or found it to be of low effectiveness. Nevertheless, there is a noticeable increase in the number of respondents who oppose the death penalty for drug trafficking or find it to have low effectiveness in deterring the crime.

Deterrence Matters, but Less for Some

When asked if their current stance was influenced by the current evidence showing whether the death penalty was effective in deterring crime, a plurality of 45% agreed or strongly agreed. A similar number said they would consider changing their stance based on future evidence (41%). When including the number of those who slightly agree, this indicates that evidence showing whether the death penalty is effective in deterring crime is fairly important in helping determine public attitudes.

Even so, a significant number of respondents either disagreed, strongly disagreed or neither agreed nor disagreed, suggesting that for a substantial section of the population other considerations may play a larger part in determining attitudes. For those that oppose the death penalty, this may include human rights considerations, while those who support the death penalty may find the death penalty to be a natural part of the criminal justice system and a fair punishment for capital offences.

A similar proportion of respondents found deterrence through criminal punishment to be the most important factor in determining the crime rate. While this was considered by far to be the biggest factor, it is notable that the factors considered second- and third-most important related to an individual’s socioeconomic environment. This suggests a large proportion of Singaporeans believe the crime rate can be managed by ensuring individuals have meaningful access to social mobility, which would affect both their livelihoods and their social environments.

Personal Experience Can Shape Perception of Drug Policy

Diving deeper into what shapes perceptions of the death penalty for drugs, we investigated whether personal knowledge of someone who had been involved in the criminal justice system, whether as a perpetrator of a crime or as a victim, affected the level of support and perception of effectiveness of the death penalty.

Respondents who knew someone who had been in prison were 40% less likely to be unsure about whether they supported the death penalty, suggesting that their brush with the criminal justice system had accelerated the strengthening of opinions either in support of the penal system or against it.

In contrast, those who knew someone who had been a victim of crime were 70% more likely to find the death penalty to have low effectiveness in deterring drug trafficking. It is uncertain what lies at the root of this effect, but one explanation may be that those who know victims are witnesses to the fact that the threat of punishment through the criminal justice system had proven insufficient.

Focusing more specifically on the issue of drugs, those who know someone who had been addicted to drugs were 30% more likely to support the death penalty for drug trafficking, likely having harder stances on the matter having seen the toll that drugs can exact on someone who has been addicted.

At the same time, those who knew someone who had used drugs recreationally were 28% more likely to oppose the death penalty for drug trafficking. This may indicate more liberal attitudes towards drugs among this group as a result of familiarity with their use, or it may reflect the opinion that the death penalty is too harsh a punishment for someone in possession of a large amount of drugs.

A Difference in Age Makes All the Difference

When investigating the effect of age in the perception of the death penalty, we found that Singaporeans of different age groups had vastly differing views. We chose to divide between those 35 and above and those under the age of 35. The latter group, whose members are commonly known as millennials or Generation Z, is notable for having grown up in the age of the internet – which may explain the stark differences in views.

Those below the age of 35 were far more likely to find the death penalty to have low effectiveness (36%) in deterring drug trafficking as compared to those 35 and above (13%). The opposite was true for the proportion that found the death penalty to have high effectiveness (23% and 49%).

One possible factor at play here could be a broader reach of information on the internet pertaining to the nature of drug consumption and trafficking, and the alternative paths being taken to address these issues elsewhere around the world. It could also signify a broader shift in societal attitudes in general towards the crime of drug trafficking and the death penalty.

A similar trend could be observed when measuring support for the death penalty for drug trafficking. While 57% of those 35 and above support the application of the death penalty, roughly a similar number of those under 35 support (33%) or oppose it (31%). Compared to those 35 and above (21%), a larger proportion of those under 35 (36%) also found themselves unsure of whether they supported the death penalty for drug trafficking.

Those under the age of 35 made up approximately a third of our sample. However, in the years to come, it is likely that the proportion of the population who hold similar views will increase in size. Should the Singapore government seek to continue its practice of capital punishment with support from the public, it may need to find new ways to convince the youth of today and tomorrow, as it appears the argument that it serves as an effective deterrent is waning in its resonance.

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