Explainer: What do Singaporeans really think about the death penalty?


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Image 1: What do Singaporeans really think about the death penalty?

Image 2: The Singaporean government repeatedly justifies the retention of the death penalty by claiming that most Singaporeans are in favour of capital punishment. How true is this?
In 2016, 57% of 1,160 respondents supported the death penalty outright. 23% said “it depends”. In 2018, 69.6% of 2,000 respondents agreed that “Death penalty is an appropriate punishment for drug traffickers who traffic a large amount of drugs.”

Image 3: The most comprehensive (and independent) study was conducted by the National University of Singapore in 2016, their findings published in February 2018.
Although 71.9% of 1,500 Singaporeans (aged 18-74) were in favour of the death penalty “in general”, only 8.7% indicated strong support.

Image 4: Is that all there is to it?
Less than half of the respondents supported the mandatory death penalty. Only 32.7% supported the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking.
But this is generally the system that exists in Singapore right now. In most cases, anyone found guilty of trafficking above a certain threshold of drugs (e.g. 15g of heroin, or 500g of cannabis) will receive the mandatory death penalty.
Official state narratives oversimplify the picture when they justify retaining the death penalty based on ‘public support’. In fact, public support for the ‘death penalty’ in the abstract is entirely different from public support for the mandatory death penalty as applied to drug-related offences.

Image 5: Given specific scenarios
Respondents were given a hypothetical case. In it, the offender robbed a store and intentionally shot the shopkeeper, causing his death. This offender had already been imprisoned twice for robbery.
64% of respondents chose a death sentence as an appropriate punishment.
This is a big difference from the earlier statistic of 92.2% who said they were in favour of capital punishment for murder!
Again proving people who claim to support the death sentence might change their minds when presented with a specific scenario.

Image 6: So what?
“… the support for the death penalty in Singapore is not as strong as it appears. There was a much lower support for the death penalty when respondents were faced with scenarios of cases—all of which would have merited the mandatory sentence under the current Singapore law—than the proportion who said they favoured it in the abstract. This was particularly so for drug trafficking and firearm offences.”
— Chan Wing-Cheong, Tan Ern Ser, Jack Tsen-Ta Lee, Braema Mathi, “How strong is public support for the death penalty in Singapore?”

Image 7: Public support for the death penalty in Singapore is really not as strong as we think it is.
Often, these ‘public opinion’ surveys are, ironically, weaponised to crowd out debate over the use of the death penalty. But others’ lives are at stake here. Shouldn’t we have a more democratic process?
Understanding public opinion helps those of us who want to advocate for change to think about how best to engage and communicate. For groups like TJC which seek the eventual abolition of the death penalty, this is a good first step for collective reflection.

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