Life and death decisions, made without legal advice

On 29 July, Abdul Rahim bin Shapiee’s family were informed by the Singapore Prison Service that they intend to carry out his death sentence on 5 August 2022. 

Rahim’s legal case is deeply concerning and highlights how incredibly stacked the capital punishment system is against accused persons. Essentially, Rahim was placed in a tricky position with the highest of stakes — his life — while also being denied access to legal assistance that could have helped him make more informed choices for his defence from the point of arrest and interrogation.

Fear and the voluntariness of police statements

In Singapore, suspects or accused persons under police investigation are not allowed to be accompanied by a lawyer when they are interrogated by the police. Someone like Rahim would therefore likely have been facing investigators alone, and required to give statements without any legal advice. For most people, this is an alien, stressful, and intimidating experience.

During the trial, Rahim challenged seven out of the ten statements that the prosecution had adduced.The issue of whether these seven statements had been given voluntarily was subject to a separate and additional hearing during the trial.

Rahim cited two instances that made him especially afraid: a police officer, frustrated with him for having provided an incorrect phone number for the man who would end up as the co-accused in the trial, had told him, “If that’s the case, I’ll bring your wife and… your family to the station.” Another police officer had also refused to let him call his wife until he had been interrogated and given all his statements. Rahim said that this had made him anxious and fearful for his wife, and that “fear operated on his mind and continued throughout the recording of the long statements.”

However, the trial judge, Justice Valerie Thean, took a narrow view of the matter. She ruled that “the words uttered by ASP Chor were not, objectively determined, a threat” and that “[Rahim’s] allegation was that ASP Chor had threatened to bring his family to the police station. There was no suggestion that ASP Chor had threatened to prosecute his family or to harm them in any way”. She also found that the threat was in relation to Rahim assisting in a drug operation, and not for the purpose of obtaining a confession from him.

This is not a realistic view of how someone might experience a high-stakes police investigation, especially after they have been arrested following a raid. An accused person might not be familiar with the law, or their rights when it comes to police investigations, and might be disoriented and intimidated simply by being in a police station and surrounded by investigators. In such situations, law enforcement officers have a lot more power than an accused person, and what they say may come across as more frightening and threatening. In some other jurisdictions outside of Singapore, it would also be considered unusual for an accused person to provide ten statements to the police within a short period of time.

A difficult choice, made without legal advice

Under Section 33B of the Misuse of Drugs Act, the court is able to impose life imprisonment and caning instead of the death penalty if the individual’s role is found to have been limited only to that of a “courier”, and if the prosecution certifies that the individual has “substantively assisted the Central Narcotics Bureau in disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore.” Following the Court of Appeal’s ruling in the case of Pannir Selvam Pranthaman — another prisoner currently on death row — we learnt that it is not enough for accused persons to have cooperated with the police. The authorities have to actually have used the information provided. There is no independent process to verify whether the CNB has really used the information or not.

A major problem with the Certificate of Substantive Assistance process is that it is fundamentally a legally sanctioned form of inducement, encouraging accused persons to self-incriminate, even though there is a statutory privilege against self-incrimination in Singapore. 

While in interrogation, facing police officers alone, Rahim had to make a difficult choice: 

  1. To share as much information as he could — likely handing the prosecution fodder to use against him in court and undermining his own defence in the process — in the hopes of receiving a Certificate of Substantive Assistance and being found by the court to be merely a courier (even though there would be no guarantee of either), so he could have to chance of being sentenced to life imprisonment with caning, OR
  2. To say as little as possible, so as not to incriminate himself, but then lose the opportunity to obtain a Certificate of Substantive Assistance, which would mean being condemned to death even if the court found that he’d merely been a drug mule.

He was not able to be advised by a lawyer, and to be informed of the implications of each option, before having to make his decision.

Rahim cooperated, and managed to get a Certificate of Substantive Assistance. However, the court found that his role had exceeded that of a “courier”. He therefore was unable to fulfil both requirements of Section 33B, and was given a mandatory death sentence.

An entire process stacked against accused persons

What we see from Rahim’s case is how accused persons are isolated and unable to properly make informed decisions while under investigation. Without a lawyer present, there is no third party witnessing the treatment of accused persons during their interrogation, or while they are in police custody. Accused persons are also unable to consult anyone on their rights, and the implications of the statements that they might give to the police. While this is an issue of concern in any sort of investigation, it is especially troubling when it comes to capital cases, which involve a penalty that, once carried out, is irreversible.

Beyond the reasons explained above, the Certificate of Substantive Assistance is also highly problematic because it also leaves the system vulnerable to sentencing low-level mules — or even individuals who turn out to be innocent — to death, since these are the people who are least likely to have information that the authorities can actually use to disrupt drug trafficking activities.


Research and expert evidence from drug policy researchers and healthcare practitioners who work with people with drug dependence indicate that a punitive “war on drugs” approach does not work. For example, a study in Malaysia found that evidence-based voluntary drug treatment centres that employed harm reduction strategies — such as using methadone in treatment — were more effective than compulsory drug detention centres that are common in the region (in Singapore, our compulsory drug detention centres are known as Drug Rehabilitation Centres, or DRC). Punishing people for their drug use, or executing people for involvement in the drug trade, has not been shown to be an effective way to deal with the problems that the Singapore government claims it wants to address.

On top of this, the death penalty regime for drug offences that currently exists in Singapore is replete with problems, including the lack of timely access to legal counsel, presumption clauses that place the burden of proof on the accused rather than the prosecution, and practices that prioritise law enforcement goals above human life and essentially induce people to incriminate themselves just for a chance to avoid the gallows. While such features of the system might make things easier for police officers and prosecutors, they also make the process more vulnerable to sentencing low-level drug mules or users — who should receive support, treatment and meaningful rehabilitation — to death, and for miscarriages of justice to occur.

A final note: TJC does not have contact with Rahim’s co-accused, but, based on the prison’s usual practice of hanging co-accused persons on the same day, it is likely that Rahim’s co-accused will also be hanged on the same day. Unless something happens to halt these executions, by 5 August Singapore would have hanged 10 men for drug offences since the end of March.

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