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The Next FrontierNational Development, Political Change, and the Death Penalty in Asia$

David T. Johnson and Franklin E. Zimring

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195337402

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195337402.001.0001

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(p.407) Appendix E: Singapore

(p.407) Appendix E: Singapore

The Next Frontier
Oxford University Press

The basic difference in our approach [to capital punishment] springs from our traditional Asian value system which places the interests of the community over and above that of the individual.

—Lee Kuan Yew (2002)

The Singapore Government makes no apology for its tough law and order system. Singapore is widely acknowledged to have a transparent and fair justice system and is one of the safest places in the world to live and work in.

—Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs (2004)

During the deliberations that preceded the UN General Assembly vote in December 2007 on the resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions—a resolution that passed by a 104 to 54 margin—Singapore's strong pro–death penalty stand left many people wondering why the city‐state of 4.5 million was “willing to risk international condemnation to pursue the death penalty so publicly as a solution to crime” (Kuppusamy 2007b). Singapore's UN envoy, Vanu Menon, who led the resistance to the resolution, insisted that capital punishment is not a human rights issue but rather “first and foremost” a criminal justice and law‐and‐order activity that is not prohibited under international law. “Every state,” he said, “has the sovereign right to choose its own political, economic, social and legal systems based on what is in their own best interests” (quoted in Deen 2007).

Singapore's leaders have long chosen to administer one of the most aggressive death penalty systems in the world, one in which judges must impose a sentence of death on every defendant convicted of murder or drug trafficking (Vijayan 2007). Compare the city of Houston, the most aggressive executing jurisdiction in the most aggressive executing state in the most aggressive executing democracy in the world. Houston's homicide rate of 12.0 per 100,000 population in 2000 was 58 percent lower than its average homicide rate in the 1980s (28.7) but was still nine times higher than the homicide rate in Singapore (1.3) in 1998 (Johnson 2006b:77; Zimring 2007:238). From 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, until July 2004, Harris County in Texas—the Houston metropolitan area—had 73 executions, (p.408) seven more than the entire nation of Japan had over the same period of time (Johnson 2006a:104). Singapore, by comparison, with a population only a little larger than Harris County, had at least 76 executions in 1994, 73 more in 1995, and at least 76 in 2000–2002. By many accounts, Singapore has been considered the “world execution capital” (“Singapore” 1999:25; see also Hood 2002:91; Amnesty International 2004b; Hood and Hoyle 2008:96).

Sngapore officials say that their “general policy” is “not to give any information on the death penalty” (Hands Off Cain 2002), and their secrecy policy helps explain why capital punishment tends to be a “nonissue” that “evokes little discussion or debate” (Oehlers and Tarulevicz 2005:292). But concern about the country's death penalty policy is sometimes voiced by Singapore's own citizens. During the UN deliberations on the moratorium resolution, one senior Singapore attorney (who declined to be named for fear that government officials would retaliate against his legal business) asked: “Why is Singapore so ham‐fisted in wanting the death penalty when the majority of nations are against it? We should go with the trend in the world which is to abolish—or at least place a moratorium on—state‐sanctioned killing. If we can be the first one to commercially fly the Airbus 380, why are we among the last in the world to defend and insist on carrying out state killings? After all we pride ourselves as world trend‐setters” (quoted in Kuppusamy 2007b).

In this appendix we explore why the nation with the third highest per capita income in Asia (after Japan and Australia) has been so strongly committed to capital punishment.1 First we describe the social, political, and economic contexts that have shaped Singapore's death penalty. Next we sketch the main contours of the country's death penalty policy and practice, focusing especially on two puzzles: why executions surged in the 1990s, and why they have declined in recent years. In the final section we discuss how Singapore's system of capital punishment could change in the years to come.


The story of modern Singapore is inextricably linked to the personality, power, and vision of Harry Lee Kuan Yew, a fourth‐generation Singaporean who was born in 1923 and educated in law at Cambridge University before becoming a translator for Japanese forces during World War II. After working as a legal advisor to student and trade unions, Lee and his friends established the People's (p.409) Action Party (PAP) in 1954. It was “a marriage of convenience with pro‐communist trades unions, “ and it has controlled Parliament continuously since Singapore established self‐government as part of the British Empire in 1959 (Studwell 2007:287).2 That was the same year Lee became Singapore's top executive, and he has remained its paramount leader for almost half a century since, first as prime minister (1959–1990), and then as “senior minister” and “minister mentor” (1990 to the present). What Mahathir was to Malaysia, Marcos to the Philippines, Suharto to Indonesia, Mao to China, and Chiang Kai‐shek to Taiwan, Lee has been to little Singapore—only more so.3 This brilliant, outspoken, controversial leader has been called “one of the seminal figures of Asia” and “a man who, almost single‐handedly, built a great nation from a small island.”4 He may have shaped his country more than any other leader in Asia.

Lee's core values—and his commitment to economic development especially—were well expressed in January 2008, when he visited the bedside of Indonesia's ailing former president Suharto, who stole an estimated 15 to 35 billion dollars in state assets during his 32 years in power and who directed and condoned the killing of at least 500,000 Indonesian citizens before an economic collapse and widespread rioting drove him from office in 1998. Lee described his dying friend as “a quiet man, courteous and punctilious on form and protocol,” who may have given “favors to his family and friends” but who presided over “real growth, real progress” while in power. “He educated the population. He built roads and infrastructure,” Lee stressed before noting that Suharto had seized power (in a coup) in 1965, just a few years after Ne Win took control in what is now called Myanmar. “Compare,” Lee urged. “Who's better off? Who deserves to be honored? What's a few billion dollars lost in bad excesses? [Suharto] built hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets” (quoted in Mydans 2008b).5


Table E.1 Executions in Singapore, 1981–2007



Execution rate per million
















































































Sources: Amnesty International 2004b; see also Hood 2001; Hood 2002; Lim and Yong 2006; Hood and Hoyle 2008.

Lee's emphasis on national development and his taste for capital punishment as a means of maintaining “law and order” were forged during the political turmoil of the 1960s (Lee Kuan Yew 2000). In 1963, Singapore declared independence from Britain (which had governed the island since 1858) and (p.411)

Table E.2 Thresholds for mandatory capital punishment in drug cases in Singapore, 2007




15 grams (0.5 ounces)


30 grams (1.1 ounces)


250 grams (8.8 ounces)


500 grams (17.6 ounces)

Sources: Hands Off Cain (various years); Lines 2007.

(*) The pharmaceutical name for prescription‐grade heroin. Singapore's government contends that 15 grams of pure diamorphine is equivalent to “a slab of approximately 750g of street heroin”(quoted in Lines 2007:22).

merged with Malaya, Sabah, and Sarawak to form the nation of Malaysia. Two years later, in August 1965, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia following a bloody period of terrorism and rioting.6 When Malaysia's prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, told Lee that Singapore had to leave the Malaysian federation, the former British colony became “a geopolitical freak—a tiny, overpopulated, predominantly Chinese island, surrounded by hostile giants, an amputated capital dangling from the Malay peninsula like the head of a guillotined noble” (Lydgate 2003:48).7 Lee believed separation would be a disaster, calling it “a political, economic, and geographical absurdity” (quoted in Lydgate 2003:48). But in subsequent decades, he and his lieutenants largely solved some of Singapore's most pressing problems—including survival and economic development—while consistently treating human rights as luxuries the nation could ill afford to protect or respect. The trauma of this separation engendered “a siege mentality” among Lee and his closest confidants “that would persist into the next millennium” and would motivate Singapore's aggressive death penalty policy (Lydgate 2003:49).

Today there is little room for critics, dissidents, or criminals in Singapore. They are, at best, “misguided losers, too stupid to understand the necessity for ‘strong leadership,' or, at worst, dangerous ‘Communists' who would plunge the land into chaos and darkness” (Buruma 2001a:128). The nomenclature may be different, but the fact that many deviants “are called Communists in Singapore and counterrevolutionaries in China is incidental; the underlying sentiments of the rulers are the same,” including the desire for “complete control over the public and, where possible, even the private lives” (p.412) of their subjects (128,144; see also Trocki 2006). In policy‐making more generally, “Singapore is blessed, or some might say cursed, with an overwhelming commitment to pragmatism. Nothing has value in itself; everything is valued in terms of functionality. It is perhaps as pure a utilitarianism as is humanly possible” (Hor 2002:512).

In the year 2000, Singapore's population of four million people would have made it the 10th most populous city in China, and its 2008 population of 4.6 million was about three times larger than the number of persons who lived in the city in 1959 when Lee first became prime minister. But Singapore's development has been more than demographic. Real economic growth averaged 8 percent between 1960 and 1990, one of the most rapid rates in the world, and between 1990 and 2007 the nation's GDP more than tripled. As of 2005, Singapore's GDP of $111 billion was nearly double the combined GDP of five other nations in Southeast Asia—Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Brunei—even though those five countries had 37 times more people. In recent years Singapore has regularly been rated the most “business friendly” economy in the world, and it is now the world's fourth largest foreign exchange trading center (after London, New York City, and Tokyo) and the 17th wealthiest country in the world in GDP per capita. Singapore also has one of the lowest infant mortality rates and one of the highest life expectancies in the world, and in 2002 it ranked 28th in the world in the World Bank's Quality of Governance ratings, with a ranking right at the top on the dimensions of “government effectiveness,” “regulatory quality,” and “control of corruption” (Peerenboom 2007:47). In 1996 and 2002, Singapore ranked first among all Asian nations in the World Bank's Rule of Law ratings, well ahead of Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan—and also ahead of the United States (Chan 1996; Peerenboom 2007:59).

Despite these remarkable achievements, justice in Singapore is Janus‐faced. When adjudicating commercial cases, Singapore courts can be relied on to administer law fairly, and judges have a high reputation for integrity in this sphere. But in “politically‐freighted cases,” the same judges have “repeatedly demonstrated a singular facility at bending over backwards to render decisions favorable to the Singapore government and its leaders,” and “their judicial contortions have acquired an international notoriety” that has long concerned human rights observers (Seow 2006:xv; see also Safire 1997; Safire 1999; “Democracy” 2008; Mydans 2008a). As one prominent critic of Singapore's compliant judiciary asks, even “with the best will in the world, is it really conceivable for any judge in Singapore to decide a case against Harry Lee Kuan Yew and his PAP cohorts?” (Seow 2006:xviii). Singapore does not use capital punishment to repress political opponents, but many observers believe that in ordinary capital cases, too, courts often tilt toward the government (Gibson 1993; Tan 2002; Amnesty International 2004b; Lines 2007).8

(p.413) The “Singapore model” of economic development has focused on promoting export‐oriented industries, much as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan did during their high‐growth years. The PAP has constructed a “culture of developmentalism,” with three key elements designed to foster the ultimate ends of national strength, status, and security: the subordination of individuals to the larger nation; the submission of individuals to the imperative of economic productivity; and the cultivation of a distinct sense of nationalism (Oehlers and Tarulevicz 2005:295). Singapore's system of capital punishment may be the logical culmination of the government's penchant for “crushing dissent” (Lydgate 2003) and micromanaging the social affairs and experiences of the residents of this nation's 63 islands (Buruma 2001a; Trocki 2006). On this view, Singapore is more than merely “the world's leading nanny state” (Studwell 2007:46), it is “Disneyland with the death penalty” in that judicial executions are employed to ensure “a relentlessly G‐rated experience” (Gibson 1993) and to obtain high levels of compliance with the dictates of the “developmental” state (Oehlers and Tarulevicz 2005:293).

Two Death Penalty Puzzles

Chapter 8 shows that the annual per capita rate of executions in Singapore from 2000 to 2005 was 62 times higher than in neighboring Malaysia, and attributes this huge gap to a taste for executions in Singapore's government—and in Lee Kuan Yew especially—that is no longer found among Malaysian political elites. Chapter 8 also notes that this gap has grown wider over time. There may be serious and asymmetric problems of undercounting, but Malaysia had at least 69 executions in 1983–1987, while Singapore recorded only six. By these measures, Malaysia's per capita execution rate was more than twice as high as Singapore's. A decade later, Singapore's annual rate over a similar five‐year period (1993–1997) had risen to 12.6 executions per million, while Malaysia went four consecutive years in the late 1990s without a single execution (Hood 2002:92).

Table E.1 presents Amnesty's execution estimates for Singapore from 1981 to 2007. It shows modest numbers for the first decade or so, followed by a huge jump in the 1990s and then a sustained drop after 1999, leading to rates for the most recent years that are more than 90 percent lower than the peaks in 1994 and 1995. The years 2003–2007 reflect an average annual execution rate (1.9) that is less than one‐sixth the corresponding rate (12.7) for 1993–1997, and the (p.414) most recent two years of 2006–2007 have an average annual rate (0.8) that is less than 4 percent of the peak two‐year average (21.6 in 1994–1995) and less than 9 percent of the two‐year average ten years earlier (9.0 in 1996–1997).

The numbers in table E.1 generate two puzzles: Why did executions in Singapore increase so substantially in the 1990s? And why have they declined in the most recent years?

The War on Drugs and the Rise in Executions

The apparent rise in Singapore's execution rate after the 1980s could be an artifact of reporting changes by the government. As Singapore prison officials have said on numerous occasions, the state's general policy is “not to give any information on the death penalty” (Tan 2002), which might mean there was “a hidden toll of executions” before the 1990s that studies could not capture (Hood 1989; Amnesty International 2004b). Here as in many other parts of Asia, it is impossible to know for sure whether there are undisclosed death penalty figures or how large they are.

But if the apparent surge in executions is not merely a statistical artifact—and we believe it is not—it is at least partly the result of Singapore's intensified attempts to deter drug offending through state killing. The homicide rate in Singapore is only slightly higher than in other industrialized Asian nations or in the countries of the European Union, and it is much lower than in the industrializing countries around the world (Johnson 2006b:77). Singapore's homicide rate also declined during the 1990s, from 1.8 deaths per 100,000 residents in 1991 to 1.3 in 1998 (LaFree 1999:130; Johnson 2006b:77). Thus, it is not the level of lethal violence or its trend over time that distinguishes Singapore's crime‐and‐punishment profile from those of its Asian neighbors, it is its response to drug and other offenses. Similarly, there was no surge in lethal violence that might explain the apparent rise in executions from the 1980s to the 1990s. The main proximate cause of that increase appears to be Singapore's drug policy.9 Another contributing cause could be the new chief justice of the Supreme Court who “set upon speeding up capital trials” in the 1990s in order to reduce a backlog of cases that had grown in previous years (Michael Hor, professor of law at National University of Singapore, e‐mail to Johnson, May 29, 2008).

Singapore introduced the death penalty for drug offenses in 1975 (Hands Off Cain 2002), and as its “culture of developmentalism” deepened in subsequent years, so did the salience of drug trafficking and possession in (p.415) the government's “construction of criminality” (Oehlers and Tarulevicz 2005:297). Punishment in independent Singapore has always been punitive and retributive.10 But as crime came to be construed as rebellion against the nation, as a perverse attempt to escape the effort and responsibility of work, and as characteristically committed by “outsiders” who have little stake in the system, drug offenders came to be regarded as more and more deserving of death as “saboteurs” of the Singapore system (303). As the Central Narcotics Bureau reported in 2003: “[D]rug abuse inflicts a high cost on society as a whole. The government has to expend much effort and money to treat and rehabilitate addicts. The number of productive man‐hours lost and the opportunity cost involved are enormous” (quoted in Oehlers and Tarulevicz 2005:302; emphasis added).

One centerpiece of Singapore's system of capital punishment is a statutory scheme that attaches a mandatory death penalty to convictions for possession of drugs with intent to traffic in extremely low quantities: 15 grams of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine, 250 grams of methamphetamines, or 500 grams of cannabis (Hands Off Cain 2007). And in Singapore as in Malaysia and some other nations, the usual burden of proof is reversed in capital cases, so an individual arrested in possession of a quantity of drugs greater than those just mentioned is presumed to be trafficking unless he or she can prove otherwise.11 Singapore is not alone in threatening execution for low quantities of drugs, but available data suggest it is singular in its willingness to carry out the threat. In Malaysia, for example, the threshold for a capital heroin offense is only 1/50th the quantity of drugs required to make a similar case capital in Singapore, but in recent years Singapore's per capita execution rate has been more than 50 times higher than Malaysia's. See table E.2.

(p.416) In January 2004, Amnesty International released a report on the death penalty in Singapore that said 72.6 percent of the executions that had occurred between 1991 and 2000 had been for drug trafficking (Amnesty International 2004b). Two weeks later, Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs released an angry response claiming that “AI has deliberately misrepresented or distorted the facts concerning the death penalty in Singapore,” yet the government acknowledged that 110 of the 138 persons executed in 1999–2003–80 percent of all executions—had been condemned for “drug‐related offenses” (Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs 2004).12 Over the same five‐year period there were 28 executions for murder and other non‐drug‐related offenses. If those had been Singapore's only executions—if the 110 drug executions had not occurred—then Singapore's execution rate of 1.4 per million per year would have been a little higher than that of Texas and a little lower than those of Virginia and Oklahoma at about the same period of time instead of being among the highest rates in the world, surpassed, perhaps, by only the PRC (Hood 2002:92; see chapter 7).

Singapore's strongly antidrug, pro–death penalty stand has long been visible in airport advertisements and other public places, and it also was evident in a book, David's Diary, that the government made part of the curriculum in 169 secondary schools in 2002. Commissioned by the National Council against Drug Abuse and supported by the Central Narcotics Bureau and the Prisons Department, the book tells the story of a 21‐year‐old drug addict whose encounter with heroin turns him into a trafficker and ultimately gets him sent to the gallows. The text focuses on the thoughts and fears of the condemned as he lives out his days on death row: his girlfriend's family returns all his letters; the prison chaplain is little help as the terror of execution approaches; and a hood is placed over his head, the reader learns, in order to prevent him from moving when the lever is pulled and in order to reduce rope marks and burns around his neck. If one message of the book is that drugs can ruin and end lives, another is that (as the little girl Wednesday says in the film Addams Family Values) drug users in Singapore should “be afraid, be very afraid.”

Singapore's enthusiasm for executing drug offenders may also help explain why foreigners make up a high proportion of those executed. About one‐quarter of the residents of Singapore are not Singapore citizens, but of the 174 executions recorded by Amnesty International (2004b) from press reports in 1993–2003, 53 percent (93) were of foreigners, primarily migrant workers. The Singapore government says the true figure for the same period is actually 36 (p.417) percent, and it claims the percentage dropped to 27 percent for the five years 1999–2003 (Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs 2004).13 Whatever the true figure, it was (until recently) significantly higher than the percentage of foreigners in the population, and it is substantially higher than the proportion of all prisoners in Singapore who are foreign—about 20 percent as of July 2005 (see www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/law/research/icps).14

Lee Kuan Yew and other Singapore officials have long argued that the country's aggressive death penalty policy has deterred drug and other crime and helped make Singapore one of the safest places in the world (Mahbubani 2002). As Professor Michael Hor has observed, “there is widespread belief amongst lawmakers and the public in Singapore that the death penalty has worked” (Michael Hor, quoted in Hands Off Cain 2002).15 But the evidence (p.418) supporting that verdict is neither clear nor convincing. For one thing, Singapore ceased regular publication of crime statistics in the 1980s, thereby making it impossible to test government claims about the death penalty's effectiveness. When the government did release totals for “drug abusers arrested” between 1993 and 2003 (in response to Amnesty International's critical 2004 report), the data showed a decline from a high of 6,165 arrests in 1994 to a low of 1,785 in 2003 even though reported executions over the same period fluctuated between a low of 7 in 1993 and a high of 76 in 1994, and with six reversals of slope in only 11 years. In the American context, where crime and execution data are plentiful, the bulk of the evidence suggests that executions are no more effective as a deterrent than long terms of imprisonment (Peterson and Bailey 2003; Fagan, Zimring, and Geller 2006). In Singapore, too, the available evidence strongly suggests that the deterrent effect of the death penalty on homicide is invisible (Zimring, Johnson, and Fagan 2008). More evidence would be welcome, of course, especially about drug crime, but the paucity of data provided by Singapore's government is itself interesting. As Professor Hor wondered on a separate occasion, “one might have expected that if the death penalty is being imposed on drug offences in order to deter or incapacitate, the government would be keenly interested in statistical and other studies to find out if, in fact, the increased penalties are working. But such studies, if they exist, are seldom revealed. Statistical data are not provided in any consistent or meaningful way by the government. One can only speculate why” (quoted in Lines 2007:14).

(Why) Are Executions Declining?

The execution decline in table E.1 is striking. The number of executions has fallen markedly since 2002, with the annual average of 5 executions for the most recent three years (2005–2007) just one‐seventh the annual average for the 1990s (35.4) and only one‐fourth the annual average for the first five years of the 21st century (20.6). How can this drop be explained?

There appear to be four possibilities. First, the execution decline could be just a temporary series of blips on the radar. Executions in the single digits were also recorded in 1991 and 1993, after which they jumped elevenfold in 1994. It is possible that executions in Singapore will rebound similarly in the (p.419) years to come. Second, Singapore's government and its compliant local press could be cooking the books by withholding execution information that it sometimes disclosed in the past. This explanation is plausible because Singapore is far from transparent about its death penalty policy and practice and because the highly critical death penalty report released by Amnesty International in 2004 focused considerable attention on Singapore's system of capital punishment and stimulated vehement defenses and denials from the Singapore government (Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs 2004). For all of their bluster in the international community—“We are Asian! We are sovereign! We will do what we want!”—Singapore's political elites are highly sensitive to foreign criticism. If either or both of these explanations are true, then Singapore's recent execution decline is more apparent than real.

But there are at least two reasons to believe Singapore's execution decline might not be a mirage. The first is that Lee Kuan Yew has been in some ways receding from the center of political power. His PAP still controls the vast majority of seats in the national parliament and continues to crush dissent (Lydgate 2003) and control the judiciary (Seow 2006), but Lee himself seems to be less involved in day‐to‐day governance and decision‐making than in previous years. One theme of this book and of many other works on capital punishment is the importance of “leadership from the front.” There is no other leader in recent Asian history who has led so long and so completely as Lee Kuan Yew, and as his power wanes it stands to reason that some policies will change. Capital punishment could be one of them.

The other reason to believe Singapore's death penalty decline is real has been suggested by Lee himself. The “minister mentor” continues to respond to critics who condemn Singapore for being too tightly controlled by stressing its “vulnerability” in a world and a region full of dangers (Mydans and Arnold 2007). Yet Lee increasingly stresses that Singapore is a country of “pragmatists” who must “go in whatever direction world conditions dictate if we are to survive and be part of the modern world” (Lee 2007). The death penalty is on the decline in many parts of the world, including Asia, and this “world condition” may be softening Singapore's enthusiasm for the death penalty even while its leaders continue to insist—loudly, publicly, and often—that executions are an integral part of “the Singapore model” and an important cause of its remarkable postwar achievements.

Regional Perspectives on the Future of Singapore's Death Penalty

The history of capital punishment in other Asian nations suggests one conclusion about Singapore's current death penalty policy and two possibilities for its future. The obvious but important finding about the origin of Singapore's high rates of execution is that they are not the result of historical or cultural features of the society that preceded the current regime but rather are an outgrowth of contemporary political choices. The great variability in Singapore's execution (p.420) rate is just one more sign that variations in Asian rates of execution reflect political choices, and nowhere is this truer than in this city‐state.

There also are signs in the politics of Asia that suggest Singapore will not remain a high‐rate outlier for long. One threat to its aggressive execution policy is the pronounced tendency for developed nations to democratize. Countries like South Korea and Taiwan remained authoritarian in governance through much of their rapid economic development, only to shift from one‐party control to highly competitive democratic systems in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These transitions to plural democracy have been associated with declining rates of execution and substantial steps toward ending executions in both of those nations, leaving only Japan as a model of democratic government in Asia with a continuing commitment to capital punishment. It is reasonable to wonder whether political evolutions in the manner of South Korea and Taiwan could have a similar influence on executions in Singapore (Mydans 2006).

But even if Singapore's authoritarian government survives the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, its high rates of execution could drop for two other reasons. First, one strategy for maintaining political power in authoritarian systems is the selective softening of controls and restraints. This is what happened in South Korea and Taiwan before they turned more fully toward democracy, and similar softenings can be seen in liberalizing Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia (Mydans 2008b). In recent years, Singapore's government has introduced casino gambling and allowed more gum chewing, gay rights activism, and bookstore selections than were permitted in earlier times. As controls weaken further—and we expect they will—it will become increasingly difficult to administer such a harsh and rigid death penalty system. Indeed, for the first time in memory there are signs of domestic ambivalence toward Singapore's severe system. In 2007, the Law Society, long cowed and co‐opted by the PAP (Buruma 2001a:148), issued a report to the Ministry of Home Affairs calling for the scrapping of mandatory death sentences and a switch to a system in which judges have discretion to decide between capital and lesser sentences. We do not know the details of the report (our request for a copy was denied), but news articles did hint at the recommendation's justifications: “This flexibility in sentencing humanizes the law and reflects the evolving standards of decency in Singapore society” (quoted in sgforums.com, April 5, 2007).16 We also do not know how seriously Singapore's government is considering this reform. It is worth noting, however, that executions in Taiwan declined dramatically after mandatory capital statutes were made discretionary (Liao 2008).

(p.421) Another sign of domestic discomfort with the death penalty in Singapore was evident in the government's difficulty finding a successor for 73‐year‐old chief executioner Darshan Singh, who as of 2005 had hanged 850 people in the preceding 46 years—an average of 18 hangings per year.17 By law, Singapore's executioners are forbidden to speak publicly about their job, but one of Singh's colleagues did tell a Reuters reporter that Singh tried to train two replacements. When it came time to pull the lever, “they both froze and could not do it.” One of the trainees “became so distraught he walked out immediately and resigned from the prison service altogether” (Hands Off Cain 2005). Concern about capital punishment may also be evident in Singapore's decision to conduct a death penalty survey early in 2006 following two executions that attracted extraordinary criticism and publicity in the previous year (of Shanmugam Murugesu, a former sports star, and of Van Tuong Nguyen, an Australian national). Although the poll of 425 residents showed that 96 percent supported capital punishment and that most wanted it to remain mandatory (Lim and Yong 2006), the most extraordinary aspect of the exercise may be that a government policy long “shrouded in silence” was subject to survey at all (Tan 2002). In our view, it is possible that governmental elites felt the need to buttress their own death penalty preferences with a social fact they could construct through a public opinion poll and could repress if the results turned out to be inconvenient.18

The second regional reason a PAP government might use execution less promiscuously in future years is the growing association of high rates of execution with communist political culture. As Asian studies expert Ian Buruma observes, “nothing is more Chinese about Singapore than its punishments” (2001a:127). A generation ago, Singapore's aggressive system of capital punishment was not isolated on Asia's political right wing, for Taiwan, Malaysia, and South Korea were not far removed. Now, the only Asian company Singapore keeps is China, Vietnam, and perhaps North Korea. From the PAP's point of view, this exclusively communist company might be considered a (p.422) form of guilt by association that is best avoided.19 Since Singapore's crime control problems are quite ordinary, and since the utilitarian benefits of hanging are hardly obvious, substantial drops in execution could occur quickly and cheaply.20 The information we have presented here suggests that the nation Lee Kuan Yew built may already be in the midst of such a drop.


(1.) In 2003, prime minister Goh Chok Tong told the BBC that Singapore had executed “about 70 to 80” people in the first nine months of the year, and when pressed about why he did not know the exact number said, “I have got more important things to worry about” (quoted in Hands Off Cain 2003). Amnesty International's execution count for the first nine months of 2003 was only 13, which Goh's pronouncement exceeded by a factor of five. Whatever the true number (see table E.1 and accompanying text), Goh's unambivalent approach to capital punishment characterizes many Singapore elites (Mahbubani 2002:78,112).

(2.) In the general election of 2006, the PAP won 67 percent of the vote and 98 percent of the seats in Parliament (82 of 84 seats). That was much the same outcome as in the previous two elections (1996 and 2001), when opposition candidates won only two seats.

(3.) According to some analysts, Southeast Asia's four major postwar autocrats of the right—Lee, Suharto, Mahathir, and Marcos—“all had a fundamentally racist view of life,” which was good news for the “godfathers” who dominated their national economies and who were, for the most part, ethnically Chinese (Studwell 2007:46).

(4.) Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state, and Kiichi Miyazawa, former minister of finance of Japan (quoted in Lee Kuan Yew 2000).

(5.) This is not to say Lee and Suharto behaved identically. For one thing, Lee was not extravagantly corrupt as Suharto was, though he and his family have been accused of various financial improprieties. For another, Lee did not order many (if any) extrajudicial killings (see appendix G). In the years after Suharto left office, Indonesia became “the standard bearer of democracy in Southeast Asia,” in part because coups and coup attempts largely discredited two other exemplars of democracy in the region—Thailand and the Philippines (Mydans 2008b). Singapore, by contrast, has continued to be ruled by the “vast political machinery” of Lee's PAP even after Lee stepped down from a formal position of leadership, and significant political change seems unlikely to happen before he passes from the scene altogether (Studwell 2007:185). Despite these differences, Lee and Suharto were alike in their pragmatic approaches to policy‐making and in their commitments to economic development as the first priority of nation‐building.

(6.) In an effort to destabilize the new Malaysian nation, Indonesian strongman Sukarno pursued a policy of terrorist confrontation in which saboteurs set off more than 40 bombs in Singapore between September 1963 and May 1965. Ethnic and religious riots in July 1964 killed 22 people and injured hundreds more (Lydgate 2003:48).

(7.) As of 2007, Singapore was 75 percent Chinese, 14 percent Malay, 9 percent Indian, and about 2 percent “Eurasian.”

(8.) In Malaysia as well, there is considerable evidence that the judiciary under former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad “was deeply corrupt and under the thumbs of well‐connected businessmen and politicians” (Kuppusamy 2008b). A video clip of a conversation between Mahathir's top lawyer and the chief justice of Malaysia that was shot in 2002 and surfaced five years later revealed that the principals focused on the promotion of judges “friendly” to Mahathir's government and on “how to end the careers of judges considered to be ‘unfriendly and difficult' to the interest of their cabal” (Ibrahim and Anbalagan 2008; Kuppusamy 2008b).

(9.) Aggressive drug enforcement also helps explain the rapid rise in Singapore's incarceration rate, which doubled in 12 years, from 196 inmates per 100,000 population in 1992 to 392 in 2004. By mid‐2006, the rate had declined about 20 percent, to 309 inmates per 100,000, but this still left Singapore with one of the highest imprisonment rates in the region (see http://www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/law/research/icps). As we explain later, Singapore's execution rate may have fallen even more rapidly than its incarceration rate in recent years.

(10.) Singapore not only has one of the world's highest rates of execution and one of the highest incarceration rates in Asia, it also practices judicial caning (up to 24 strokes), as do the neighboring nations (and former British colonies) of Malaysia and Brunei. Introduced to Singapore by the British, caning is mandatory for more than 40 offenses, including rape, robbery, drug trafficking, and vandalism (it is discretionary for many other crimes). Offenders are not caned if they have been sentenced to death. In 1993, a year in which there were seven recorded executions, 3,244 persons were caned, or about one resident in 1,000, while in 2004 there were 11,790 arrests for immigration violations, which in Singapore carry a mandatory sentence of at least three strokes. Lee Kuan Yew's statements about caning indicate that he intends it to be both painful and humiliating; Lee himself was caned as a schoolboy at Raffles College in the 1930s (Farrell 2006). For a video of an actual caning that probably took place in Malaysia's Seremban Prison around 2004, see www.corpun.com/vidju.htm. And for a commercially successful film that dramatizes some of the challenges ex‐offenders face reintegrating into Singapore society, see director Jack Neo's critically acclaimed One More Chance (2005).

(11.) This presumption has been criticized by many human rights monitors, including the UN Commission on Human Rights (Lines 2007:10).

(12.) In 2002, Hands Off Cain reported that 82 percent of the executions in Singapore in 1991–2000 (247 out of 300) were for drug trafficking, and in 2001 Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs told the UN that 76 percent of all executions in 1994–1999 were for drug‐related offenses (Hands Off Cain 2002; Lines 2007:9).

(13.) Singapore has not been reluctant to execute foreigners, even in the face of strong protests from abroad. Consider five high‐profile examples. (1) In 1994, Singapore's government stirred up a diplomatic storm when it hanged a Dutch engineer named Johannes van Damme for heroin trafficking. He was the first European executed in Singapore since its independence. (2) In 1999, the execution of a Filipina domestic worker named Flor Contemplacion (for murder) prompted Philippines president Fidel Ramos to recall his ambassador to Singapore and to cancel many bilateral exchanges between the two countries. (3) In 2005, the impending execution of Australian citizen Van Tuon Nguyen for trafficking in heroin prompted numerous vigils in Australia (and a few in Singapore too) in addition to several high‐level appeals for clemency. After Nguyen was hanged, there were widespread displays of protest and sympathy, including an official minute of silence in the Queensland Legislative Assembly. (4) In 2006, Took Leng How, a Chinese Malaysian, was hanged for murder after Singapore's government rejected a petition from Took's lawyers that had 34,000 signatures. (5) In 2007, Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, a Nigerian national, was hanged for heroin trafficking despite an appeal from the Nigerian president and pressure from several European nations and organizations.

(14.) The 20 percent of prisoners who are foreign gives Singapore one of the highest foreigner prisoner percentages in Asia, exceeded only by Malaysia (30 percent), Brunei Darussalam (28 percent), and the Chinese SARs of Macao (40 percent) and Hong Kong (34 percent). In Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland about 70 percent of prisoners are foreign, while in Saudi Arabia the proportion is almost one‐half (see http://www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/law/research/icps).

(15.) Singapore's government also claims that its system of capital punishment is fairly administered (Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2004). Although the death penalty does fall disproportionately on “the poorest, least educated and most vulnerable members of society” in Singapore as in most other nations (Amnesty International 2004b), the state has not been reluctant to execute the well‐to‐do. The most prominent person executed in recent years was Shanmugam Murugesu, a former jet ski champion, military veteran, and civil servant who was arrested in 2003 after six packets containing just over a kilogram of cannabis were found in his bags when he was returning from a trip to Malaysia. Murugesu's hanging in May 2005 sparked a rare show of public dissent and an even rarer display of anti–death penalty sentiment, through pamphlets, prayer vigils, petitions, and public rallies. Murugesu's twin sons (age 14) even handed out flyers in the busy Orchard Road shopping district saying that the execution of their father would make them orphans (Murugesu was divorced). One week before Murugesu was executed, a three‐hour vigil for him was held at the Furama Hotel. It was the first public gathering in Singapore organized solely by citizens demanding a change in the nation's death penalty policy. The mainstream local media ignored the event (they are required to report in the “public interest”), and the police shut down an open microphone session just as the first speaker was hitting stride, leading Sinapan Samydorai, president of the NGO Think Centre, to say, “we'll be lucky to get anywhere in 10 or even 20 years. But at least Singaporeans are finally speaking out” (quoted in Hands Off Cain 2005; see also Mydans 2006).

(16.) The Law Society simultaneously made several other reform proposals, including one that would decriminalize homosexual acts among consenting men (Vijayan 2007). As for government control of heterosexual activity, prostitution is legal in Singapore, and brothels are licensed and regulated by the state. Most sex workers are foreigners, and the minimum age for prostitution is 16, though there has been debate about whether the age should be raised to 18 (Bell 2008:59,205,208).

(17.) By comparison, Albert Pierrepoint, whose career as Britain's “most prolific executioner” was dramatized in the (2005) film The Last Hangman, executed some 608 persons between 1933 and the end of his career in 1955 (47 of them were Nazis executed at Nuremberg). Although Singh's execution total is 40 percent higher than Pierrepoint's, Pierrepoint averaged 26.4 executions per year, which is 43 percent higher than the Singapore septuagenarian's (Casciani 2006; Coslett 2006; Milmo 2006a; Milmo 2006b). In the state of New York, Edwin F. Davis, the electrician at Auburn Prison who built America's original electric chair in 1890, executed 240 people before he retired in 1914—an average of about ten per year (Banner 2002:195).

(18.) The death penalty poll was published by the local Straits Times newspaper but was permitted and perhaps even ordered by the PAP. In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, the news media must be subordinated to “the overriding needs of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of government,” an imperative that has long been realized in practice (quoted in Seow 2006:xix; see also Safire 1997; Safire 1999; Buruma 2001a; Lydgate 2003).

(19.) A similar “guilt by association” dynamic is already occurring in Malaysia. In 2007, after China imposed a death sentence for drug trafficking on a young Malaysian woman, “much national outrage” was focused on the possibility of the Chinese government taking Umi Azlim Mohamad Lazim's life, and some observers said Malaysia's stand on the death penalty was “wavering” as the country united in “sympathy and outrage” over her plight. The ruling United Malays National Organization and its rival, the Islamic fundamentalist Pan Malaysian Islamic Party, were even “vying in their efforts” to save Lazim from execution. More generally, the fate of young Malaysians caught ferrying drugs in foreign countries is a “major embarrassment” to the [Malaysian] government (Kuppusamy 2008a).

(20.) For a brief statement on the death penalty's limited deterrent value for drug crime in Singapore, see Amnesty International (2004b), and for similar statements about the death penalty's weak deterrent effect on drug offenses in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia, see Lines (2007), Fagan (2007), and Lynch (2008). On the death penalty's invisible influence on homicide rates in Singapore, see Zimring, Johnson, and Fagan (2008).