Investigating the presence of structural biases in the criminal punishment system

Seventeen ethnic Malay individuals facing the death penalty in Singapore have brought a judicial review to the Singapore courts on the basis that the Attorney General’s Chambers has acted arbitrarily, and in a discriminatory manner, in imposing the death penalty on them, because of their race. Sixteen of those who have made the challenge are Singaporean Malays, and the remaining individual is an ethnic Malay of Malaysian nationality.    

This challenge filed by the 17 inmates, who are represented by human rights lawyer M Ravi, is particularly notable and important because of its emphasis on systemic discrimination, and its allegation of indirect bias and/or discrimination.

64.9% of offenders who received death sentences between 2010 and 2021 for drug offences were of Malay ethnicity, from different nationalities. There is a clear disparity between the numbers of Malays within Singapore’s population (13.5%), and the proportion of Malays who have been sentenced to death in the last decade. There is even considerable disparity between the percentage of Malays sentenced to death for drug offences, and the percentage of Malays in prison for all offences (about 55%) or the percentage of Malays arrested for drug consumption (49.3%).

While socio-economic factors such as household income, educational levels, and access to opportunities have an impact on minority and marginalised communities, which can push people towards drug use and participation in the drug trade, this legal challenge states that the disproportionate percentage of ethnic Malays on death row is worth further interrogation, so as not to fall into the trap of racialised assumptions. In other words, the inmates allege that this matter deserves close scrutiny by our Courts, to determine whether inherent racial biases exist within our criminal justice system, that fall afoul of the enshrined rights within our Constitution: to life (Article 9), and equality before the law (Article 12). 

Amongst other things, the legal challenge aims to determine whether disproportionately fewer Malays are offered reduced charges for drug-related offences (which do not carry the death penalty) as compared to other races, and whether investigative practices are targeted towards intercepting offenders from the Malay community. 

TJC believes that this challenge is extremely important in investigating the presence of any structural biases within our criminal punishment system towards ethnic minorities, particularly towards Malays. This is especially important when it comes to death penalty cases, where the stakes are stratospherically high.

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