Recently, there’s much talk about the revision to Singapore’s laws on the mandatory death penalty.
Discerning readers would have read the details of the revision, and I wouldn’t elaborate, but in a nutshell, people who are found to smuggle drugs into Singapore can now avoid mandatory death penalty under two very narrow definition:
One, the person must have only played the role of a courier, and not have been involved in any other activity related to drug supply or distribution.
Two, the trafficker must also have co-operated with anti-narcotics authorities in a “substantive” way, or has a mental disability that “substantially impairs” his appreciation of the gravity of the act.
To liberal minded Singaporeans, they celebrate this very small step towards liberalizing our law system. To the conservatives however, this is like the beginning of a downward slide towards decaying social morality.
I’m a moderate. I view this as a liberalization but a very very calibrated one. It allows the judiciary discretion to consider the context of the crime, and allows a very small window of judgement.
Laws should reflect the society’s attitudes towards what we deem right and deem acceptable behaviours. It should also be relevant to the way crimes are today organized and carried out. The litmus test will be to ask the reasonable average man on the street. If you or your loved ones are harmed by drug consumption, I’m sure a large majority will pick up your sticks and stones and beat the perpetrators to death.
But what if you or your loved ones are found to be in possession of drugs in those 2 circumstances in what we may consider as moments of human folly? Or worse, if they are coerced into it?
You’re not so sure any more. And this doubt will form a reasonable basis for the law to then allow for a process to consider the merits of the case.
Diving into the issue a little further, the systems of punishment or rewards we have in society today will not just modify social behaviours that we want to target, but also give rise to other spillover effects.
Ask a kid, and you’ll know that if the parenting approach is “spare the rod, spoil the child”, the child will be horrified and in great fear when he makes a mistake which he knows will incur the wrath of his parents, and have to face the “rod”.
This can have two adverse results: (1) a child with low self-confidence always watching over his back or (2) fear of reprisal causing him to use lies to cover up his initial honest mistakes. So a system of harsh punishment, while useful in deterring wrongdoings, will have its drawbacks. People may become too afraid to make and admit mistakes.
Conversely, if the system is one of rewards, it can also be overdone and become over-indulgent, such that we lose the spirit of why we adopt that behaviour in the first place. The example of giving children chocolates or ice-cream for doing their homework is a good example why rewards should not be used in teaching of good behaviours, which should be founded on good values.
Which brings me to the issue of values. What makes up acceptable societal values? In the case of mandatory death sentence, the value is “value of life”, and deters people from taking away or ruining lives of ordinary citizens. There is the value of justice – if you do something that takes away or ruins people’s lives, you pay with your own life. But there is also the value of compassion. Where does that fit in?
So perhaps in allowing the judiciary to consider two very narrow circumstances where mandatory death penalty can be lifted, we demonstrate that besides being a society that values life and upholds justice, we have compassion too.
In deciding what we determine as something people should die for, perhaps we show what we really live for.
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