Singapore is pushing to execute a growing queue of drug offenders after carrying out three hangings in two weeks, experts have told VICE News.
The south-east Asian city-state, one of the richest countries in the world, has so far hanged 16 people since resuming state executions in March last year.
All of those executed are low- to mid-level drug offenders convicted of trafficking amounts of drugs that would get relatively small punishments in the UK and US. Most are from Singapore's minority Indian and Malay communities.
“It doesn't look like the Singapore government has any intention of halting executions,” said Kirsten Han, a journalist and member of criminal justice reform group the Transformative Justice Collective. “The sense that we've got from prisoners and families is that the authorities would like to clear their ‘backlog’ and make space on death row for new people who are being sentenced to death.”
Prisoners and families in Singapore, which sentenced people to death for drug crimes via Zoom calls over the pandemic, are only given seven days notice of an execution.
In one bizarre concession to the families of those scheduled to be hanged, the prison authorities allow death row inmates to be photographed in their favourite clothes days before being executed.
In a statement given to CNN last year, the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) said it provided prisoners with “the option to have photographs taken in clothes which are sent in by their families...this is done to allow family members to have recent photographs of their loved one.”
Han said there are around 50 people currently on death row in Singapore. Just three have been convicted of murder, the rest are there for non-violent drug offences.
Singapore’s laws permit the death penalty for trafficking anything above 15 grams (half an ounce) of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine, 250 grams of meth or 500 grams of cannabis.
Mohamed Shalleh, 39, a delivery driver caught with 54 grams (around 2 ounces) of heroin in 2019, was hanged last Thursday. The week before, Singapore executed a woman for the first time in 20 years. Saridewi Djamani, 45, was caught trafficking 30 grams (an ounce) of heroin in 2018. Two days before her execution, Mohd Aziz bin Hussain, 56, was hanged after being caught with 50 grams of heroin.
Despite Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau’s (CNB) declared aim to target drug kingpins, many of those being executed, according to Han, are low level, non-violent drug operators from disadvantaged communities in Singapore.
“In the 13 years I have been an anti-death penalty activist I have never come across a case where the guy was a kingpin,” said Han. “These aren't the big guys who are profiting very handsomely from the transnational illicit drug trade. Most of the death row prisoners whose cases I've encountered are on the lower rungs of drug syndicates. Most are ethnic minorities from working class backgrounds. Some are, or were, themselves long-time drug users, and did not receive adequate support to recover.”
In April Tangaraju Suppiah was hanged for smuggling 1kg of weed in 2018. Last year Nagaenthran Dharmalingam was executed after trafficking 42 grams (1.4 ounces) of heroin – despite being assessed to have “borderline intellectual functioning” with an IQ of 69.
Last year Singapore’s minister for law and home affairs admitted kingpins were not the ones getting caught because they were operating outside of Singapore.
According to a Singapore lawyer who spoke to VICE News, although the accused are given a fair trial the law is heavily skewed against them because those caught with drugs are presumed to be dealers.
“In our country there are so many presumptions in drug law. The accused person is presumed to possess drugs for trafficking. That’s not fair because the prosecutor does not have to prove that the person had any intention of trafficking,” said Luo Ling Ling, who has been defending death row inmates for 10 years and who has represented some of those recently hanged. “The prosecution has a very easy job, it gives them an unfair advantage and it makes it so easy to convict people.”
Around two thirds of those executed since last march are from Singapore’s minority Malay community and Luo said a large proportion of her clients are Malay.
The Malay community, considered to be the indigenous population of Singapore, of whom many are Muslim, have faced a history of discrimination and anti-Muslim hate from Singapore’s majority Chinese community.
Although the authorities are worried about a recent rise in the use of cannabis among young people in the city-state – blamed by the authorities on the “normalising” impact of weed liberalisation in countries such as Thailand and the US – levels of drug use and drug crime are far lower in Singapore than in the West.
The laws are harsh on every level. Last year Singapore’s only Olympic gold medalist in history, Joseph Schooling, 27, had his swimming career derailed by the authorities after he admitted smoking some weed four months previously. Also in 2022 a 24-year-old university student, Donovan Liew Wee Kiat, was sentenced to 5 strokes of the cane and 5 years in jail after being caught with 5 grams (0.17 ounces) of weed.
However, opinion polls in Singapore show widespread public support for the death penalty.
“The vast majority of the public supports the death penalty,” said Luo, who despite sympathising and grieving for her former clients, believes the policy is a “necessity” for keeping the drug trade under control in Singapore.
“While I find the convictions very sad, I actually support the death penalty as a method of policy because I think the situation would be much worse if the death penalty was not there. I feel depressed after a conviction, but I do think it’s a necessity. I don’t think our country can do without this. Without this it would be much worse.”
Even so, a steady flow of busts and newly addicted citizens means the country is far from being the “drug free” nation it wants to be.
“I’ve not seen any of these big guys being caught,” said Luo. “The people being convicted and put on death row are small fries. They are not the people the CNB wants to catch. Yes, the death penalty may send a message to deter people from doing this in the first place, but the problem is still there, maybe not on a very large scale, and maybe the problem might have been worse if there were no death penalty, but clearly people are still pushing drugs in Singapore. It is not drug-free.”
Singapore was one of six jurisdictions that executed people for drug offences in 2022, including Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Vietnam. Executing people for drug crimes is a policy opposed by the UN’s Office on Drug and Crime.
Ajeng Larasati, human rights lead at Harm Reduction International, an NGO which tracks the use of the death penalty for drug crimes, said the war on drugs is very much a discriminatory war.
“What we are witnessing in Singapore lays bare many of the long-standing issues with the imposition of the death penalty for drugs, including the disproportionate impact on marginalised people and communities who often experience intersecting vulnerabilities. Year by year, we continue to see more examples of how marginalised groups are cruelly impacted by the application of the death penalty.”
Larasati said many of them play insignificant, easily replaced roles in the drug trade, which runs “counter to governments’ over-simplistic narrative that the death penalty could effectively dissolve a drug trade”.
But she said on a more basic level of principle, “the use of the death penalty for drug offences is itself, regardless of the role, an abhorrent violation of international human rights law”.