All but one of the death sentences was related to heroin trafficking, with one person executed for trafficking cannabis. At a time when an increasing number of jurisdictions around the world are revising their drug laws, such as Thailand regulating the sale and use of cannabis, executing a person for carrying cannabis highlights the extreme nature of death penalty sentences.
Singapore’s concurrent Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam justifies his insistence on retaining the death penalty by arguing that if he ‘removed the death penalty, the flow of drugs into Singapore would be much higher’. But that is difficult to prove.
The available data on the supply of illicit drugs in Singapore only shows the quantities of drugs seized by law enforcement agencies. Data on the quantities of seized drugs cannot accurately portray the size of drug markets given the clandestine nature of production and distribution.
The best available data on drugs in the region is published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. In its most recent report on synthetic drugs in East and Southeast Asia, the Office recorded a 10 per cent increase in the amount of methamphetamine seized in Singapore from 2020–2021. Every single Southeast Asian country identified methamphetamine as their primary drug of concern.
In two neighbouring countries that do not impose the death penalty, Cambodia and the Philippines, the amount of methamphetamine seized by officials increased by 9.9 per cent and 5.2 per cent, respectively, between 2020–2021 — about the same or less than Singapore.
There are other factors that need to be studied to understand the impact of the death penalty on the supply of drugs. Such factors include the awareness of the death penalty as a possible sentence and the motivations of people who decided to engage in drug trafficking. The capacity of law enforcement agencies to intercept the supply of drugs is also relevant and arguably a greater determining factor, in the efforts to reduce the supply of drugs. Still, imposing the death penalty does not reduce the flow of drugs based on the available data.
It is not evident that more Singaporeans would die from drug-related causes if the death penalty was removed. Shanmugam has argued in favour of this correlation by referring to a large number of drug overdose deaths in the United States and Canada, where there is no death penalty imposed for drug-related offences.
Most of the drug overdose deaths in the United States and Canada have been due to the use of opioid substances containing synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. To date, there is no evidence confirming the presence of fentanyl in the supply of opioid substances in Southeast Asia, though overdose deaths can still occur with the consumption of opioid substances not containing fentanyl.
Many countries in Asia do not publish data on drug overdose-related deaths, making it questionable whether Singapore and indeed other countries in the region are tracking the number of drug-related deaths internally. UN Office on Drugs and Crime data on drug-related deaths shows scarce data reported across the region, and none for Singapore.
Following a death, autopsies are generally carried out only upon request. Requests for an autopsy are rarely made for people whose death is believed to be related to their drug use. This is likely due to the stigma associated with drug use and to avoid an official report of death resulting from a drug overdose. The most recent Drug Situation report by Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau on the drug situation in the city-state does not mention drug-related deaths.
As with the consumption of psychoactive substances such as alcohol and tobacco, the government should adopt effective education and harm reduction measures to mitigate the risks associated with overdose deaths and other health consequences. There is a strong evidence base showing that implementing harm reduction measures will save lives.
There is no such evidence for imposing the death penalty on people convicted of a drug offence.
Gloria Lai is Regional Director, Asia at International Drug Policy Consortium.