DPM Teo’s statement about the changes in the mandatory death penalty

Source: TODAYonline

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to make this Statement.

The death penalty has been an important part of our criminal justice system for a very long time, similar to the position in a number of other countries. Singaporeans understand that the death penalty has been an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for very serious offences, and largely support it. As part of our penal framework, it has contributed to keeping crime and the drug situation under control.

The Government regularly reviews the efficacy of our criminal justice system, including our penal laws and the applicable sanctions. This is to ensure that our laws keep pace with the evolving operational landscape and societal changes. In December 2010, the Ministry of Home Affairs commenced studies relating to the application of the death penalty in our laws. In July 2011, based on the studies, we started a general review of the drug situation and the death penalty as it applied to all our laws. All executions that have come due since the review started have been deferred.

The review came to a number of conclusions. It reaffirmed the relevance of the death penalty for all the offences to which it currently applies. Today, drug traffickers make up the majority of offenders who face capital punishment. For drug traffickers, we concluded that the mandatory death penalty should continue to apply in most circumstances. However, where two specific, tightly-defined conditions are met, which I will explain later, the death penalty will still apply but it will now be at the discretion of the courts. The review also concluded that we should retain the death penalty in our penal laws today, except that for certain types of homicides, it should no longer be mandatory but be at the discretion of the courts. The Minister for Law will speak about that in his Statement later.

Strengthening our Zero-Tolerance Approach to Drugs

Let me start by providing an assessment of the illegal drug situation in Singapore. Illegal drugs are not a new problem in Singapore nor in our region. We have grappled with this problem for many years, and have long taken strict and tough measures to curb this menace. The drug abuse landscape has changed, from opium to heroin, and now to newer psychoactive substances such as “Ice” and “Ecstasy”. But the fundamental issues have not changed. Drug abuse affects not only the addicts, but also their families and loved ones. The human cost to individuals and society is very high. Those who trade in illegal drugs are still attracted by the huge financial gains to be made, and deterring them requires the strictest enforcement coupled with the severest of penalties.

We have long taken a “zero-tolerance” approach against drug abuse. We deal with the drug problem comprehensively by tackling both the demand and supply factors.

Curbing Demand

To curb demand, we start with educating the young about the deleterious and dangerous effects of drug abuse, and the penalties they face if they abuse drugs. This is to deter them from picking up the drug habit and being subsequently enslaved by it. We treat drug consumption as a serious offence. Young abusers are sent to the Drug Rehabilitation Centre, where they undergo programmes to overcome their addictions. The spartan environment also acts as a deterrent against re-offending. In 1998, we introduced the “Long-Term” imprisonment regime, under which repeat drug abusers receive longer prison sentences to break the cycle of addiction. This also prevents repeat drug abusers from influencing others in the community, especially the young, and stops them from contributing to the drug demand and supply eco-system in Singapore.

Because of our firm stand against drug use, we have seen an improvement in the drug situation in Singapore. At the height of the heroin problem in 1994, 208 drug abusers per 100,000 of our resident population were arrested. Last year, the number fell to 86. But this is still a high number. As at the end of last year, drug offenders made up almost two-thirds (66 per cent) of the locals in our prisons. About four out of five (79 per cent ) of the local prison population had drug antecedents.

While the Long-Term sentencing regime has proven effective in suppressing the drug problem in Singapore in the last 14 years, some 3,000 such repeat offenders are being released when they complete their Long-Term prison sentences between 2012 and 2014. We will work with them to help them stay off drugs, but some of them will be tempted to return to drugs.

We may thus see a worsening of the drug abuse situation in Singapore over the next few years. The potential problems from this development cannot be taken lightly.

We also face a new challenge in the changing mindsets of the younger generation. In other countries, especially certain Western countries, taking drugs is seen as a lifestyle choice. We are not immune to these influences.

Some amongst our young take synthetic psychoactive drugs to lose weight, as an escape from the stresses of daily life, or simply because their friends do so, not realising that they are gambling with their lives.

While the number of new abusers arrested in Singapore dropped by 17 per cent from 2010 to 2011, new youth abusers below the age of 20 arrested increased from 155 in 2010 to 225 in 2011 – a jump of 45 per cent. In particular, those aged 16 and below have shown the largest increase, with 64 arrested in 2011 compared to 15 in 2007.

Many countries have given up the fight to suppress demand. Instead, they advocate “harm reduction” measures. They try to reduce the collateral harmful effects of drug abuse by supplying free clean needles for addicts to inject themselves. This is meant to reduce transmission of dangerous diseases such as HIV or Hepatitis when addicts share contaminated needles.

However, this does not get to the root of the problem, and may actually facilitate drug consumption instead of stamping out drug use and reducing the intrinsic harm of drug abuse to individuals and society.

An inter-ministry Taskforce on Drugs, led by Minister of State for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Mr Masagos Zulkifli, was formed in October 2011 to review the drug abuse situation. The Taskforce completed its work in April this year, recommending a comprehensive approach to tackle the drug situation. The recommendations covered targeted prevention, strong deterrence and enforcement, upstream intervention for young abusers, rehabilitation and supervision to prevent relapse, and active engagement of families and the community to support the fight against drugs.

We must continue to reinforce the message that drugs are harmful and make every effort to deter drug taking. On this front, we will introduce more intervention measures for young abusers, and improve rehabilitation and supervision for inmates released from long-term imprisonment to help them stay away from drugs. In addition to the current urine supervision regime, there will also be compulsory aftercare and a supervision regime comprising electronic monitoring with curfew hours, counselling and casework.

Restricting Supply

To restrict supply, we have adopted a highly deterrent posture against drug trafficking. In 1975, we introduced the death penalty as a punishment for drug trafficking. Under our laws, anyone who traffics drugs is liable for the death penalty, from syndicate leaders, to distributors, to couriers who transport drugs, and pushers who sell drugs, as long as the quantity of drugs involved is above the stipulated thresholds.

The weight element is often misunderstood by the public and the media. For example, the mandatory death penalty threshold for heroin is 15g of pure diamorphine, which is often portrayed as the weight of a few 50-cent coins. In fact, in street form in Singapore, at a typical purity level of 2.3 per cent, 15g of pure diamorphine is equivalent to some 2,200 straws of heroin worth S$66,000, based on each straw having a gross weight of about 0.3g and street price of about S$30. This quantity is enough to feed the addiction of more than 300 abusers for a week. In such cases, the death penalty is imposed, given the harm caused by these drug traffickers, and the numbers of lives they destroy.

Rigorous and effective enforcement coupled with severe penalties have allowed us to stay on top of the situation. Within Singapore, our strategy of vigorous and swift enforcement efforts against local syndicates operating inland has suppressed them. Traffickers consciously traffic amounts below the capital thresholds, which means the syndicates need to make more frequent runs using more couriers. This has inhibited drug supply and pushed up the street price of illicit drugs in Singapore, deterring drug abuse. This is a significant achievement given our close proximity to source countries.

Singapore has also avoided being used as a drug transhipment point despite our excellent transport connectivity to the region, and the large number of people, about 500,000 travellers, who enter or pass through Singapore daily.

However, we have to adapt our strategy and approach as drug trafficking syndicates change the way they operate. In recent years, by making use of improvements in communications technology, syndicates supplying drugs to Singapore have responded to the increased risks of apprehension by moving off-shore, with their leaders controlling their operations remotely. The higher-ups in the syndicates try to avoid direct contact with the drugs. They employ others to transport the drugs into and within Singapore to minimise the risks to themselves.

They will consciously target and exploit vulnerable groups to do the high-risk work for them, while remaining behind the scenes. Our enforcement agencies, prosecutors and our courts have had to deal increasingly with this new situation. The Attorney-General’s Chambers has also used its constitutional discretion prudently when deciding on the charges to be framed; and a body of case law has also been built up through cases that have come before the courts. We need to be cognisant of all these developments and make the necessary adjustments both to our enforcement strategies and to our legal framework.

We will put more resources into border checks and enforcement to stop illicit drugs from entering Singapore. As recommended by the Taskforce on Drugs, we will increase penalties for repeat traffickers, and introduce new offences for those who sell to vulnerable groups and organise drug parties.

We will step up enforcement efforts against cross-border syndicates, investing more resources in technology and intelligence. We will also strengthen partnerships with regional counterparts. In this regard, I signed an MOU with the Malaysian Minister of Home Affairs Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Hussein on 26 June 2012 to increase intelligence sharing and operational coordination to intensify our co-operation in the fight against cross-border drug crimes.

Refining the Death Penalty Regime

This is the backdrop to the review of the death penalty in our laws. Since 1975, the death penalty has been the mandatory punishment for trafficking more than a specified amount of illegal drugs. This strict punishment was necessary because of the seriousness of the drug situation, and large financial rewards which traffickers hope to reap if they are not caught. Our approach has been effective in reducing the drug problem in Singapore, at a time when other Southeast Asian countries have seen their drug problems worsen significantly.

Today, while our drug situation has improved, it still remains a serious threat. Looking ahead, we therefore need to maintain severe penalties for drug trafficking, including the death penalty. However, our society’s norms and expectations are changing. While there is a broad acceptance that we should be tough on drugs and crime, there is also increased expectation that where appropriate, more sentencing discretion should be vested in the courts.

Therefore, we will maintain the mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers, in most circumstances. In particular, the mandatory death penalty will continue to apply to all those who manufacture or traffic in drugs – the kingpins, producers, distributors, retailers – and also those who fund, organize or abet these activities. By their actions in the drug trade, these offenders destroy many lives. They know they are dealing with drugs and the consequences of their actions if they are caught and convicted.

However, when two specific, tightly-defined conditions are both met, we propose to make the death penalty for trafficking no longer mandatory, but to be imposed at the discretion of the courts. First, the trafficker must have only played the role of courier, and must not have been involved in any other activity related to the supply or distribution of drugs. Second, discretion will only apply if having satisfied this first requirement, either the trafficker has cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau in a substantive way, or he has a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of the act.

We propose to change the law such that when these conditions are met, the courts will have the discretion either to sentence the trafficker to death, or alternatively to pass a sentence of life imprisonment with caning.

The reasons for making the changes are as follows:

(a) Co-operation

As I have earlier stated, the drug menace is growing internationally. We need to find more ways of targeting those who are higher up in the drug syndicates, compared with the couriers. If the couriers give us substantive co-operation leading to concrete outcomes, such as the dismantling of syndicates or the arrest or prosecution of syndicate members, that will help us in our broader enforcement effort.

(b) Mental Disability

We also propose to give the courts the discretion to spare a drug courier from the death penalty if he has a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of the act, and instead sentence him to life imprisonment with caning. Currently, the AGC exercises prosecutorial discretion in considering, amongst other things, the extent of mental disability of persons, before deciding on the charges to be brought. The AGC will still have prosecutorial discretion even after the law is changed. However, the courts will now be legislatively vested with the discretion to consider, if they find the accused guilty of trafficking, whether the accused has a mental disability which is sufficient for the courts to impose the lesser punishment of life imprisonment with caning, instead of the death penalty.

Taken together, these provisions retain the strong deterrent posture of our capital punishment regime, while providing for a more calibrated sentencing framework when specific conditions are met. At the same time, we are providing a framework for accused persons to assist our agencies to target those who play more significant roles in drug syndicates. We will discuss with stakeholders how the legal provisions can best be defined in order to meet the objectives that I have laid out.

We will monitor how these changes impact and influence the behaviour of the criminal organisations. If the situation worsens, we will consider tightening the provisions, or making other changes.

30. Mr Speaker, Sir, may I have your permission for copies of my speech to be distributed to Members, please?


The Government’s duty is first and foremost to provide a safe and secure living environment for Singaporeans to bring up their families. We must be constantly vigilant, adapt our law enforcement strategies and deterrence and punishment regime to remain ahead of criminals. We must do what works for us, to achieve our objective of a safe and secure Singapore.

The changes announced today will sharpen our tools and introduce more calibration into the legal framework against drug trafficking, and put our system on a stronger footing for the future.

The Minister for Law will now speak on the changes which we will making in respect of homicide offences, after which we will both address any matters that Members may wish to raise.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.