American journalist Peter Krouse posted on his Facebook page:
“My last day in Singapore, another journalist and I met with Kasiviswanathan “K” Shanmugam, the country’s foreign minister and minster of law, in a coffee shop near the parliament building to ask follow-up questions to a previous meeting. I wanted to know more about the country’s harsh drug laws, which call for the death penalty in cases where specific amounts of drugs are found. I asked if Singapore ever executed an innocent person for drug crimes, and he said while he hasn’t done a case-by-case study, he didn’t think so. One of his assistants followed up a short time later with an email to me that read, ‘I haven’t gone through the facts of each case, but I have complete faith in our judiciary.'”
The Law Minister, from what is observed, has surprised some people. When he was elevated from the backbench to the front bench and given 2 portfolios (Law and Foreign Affairs), some were skeptical. Indeed, they still are. Word was that Shanmugam is a pretty “shrewed” politician. And one whom you do not want to “fool around with”. I guess if you’re going to deal with the Law Minister, you really don’t want to fool around with him anyway.
Since assuming office, however, Shanmugam has indeed surprised some people with his openness in engaging various people and groups. I think two examples stand out – his support for the work of animal welfare group, Acres; and women’s rights group, Aware. And these are to be applauded. I can’t remember a time in Singapore when a minister actually lent his support to animal welfare advocates, for example.
So, here’s the thing. Peter Krouse’s note on what Shanmugam reportedly said to him has anti-death penalty advocates puzzled. Shanmugam’s support of the judiciary – that he has “complete faith” in it – is not surprising. One would not expect a minister to say anything to cast doubts on the judiciary, whether this is deserved or not.
What perhaps the minister should recognise is that having “complete faith” in a system is one thing; recognising that despite such “complete faith”, the system is prone to human error is another – one would say a wiser position to take.
In the matter of the death penalty, such recognition is necessary and vital, because the ultimate punishment of death is irreversible. And as such, a healthy dose of scepticism is needed. Having “complete faith” can indeed be blinding, leading to ignorance or even avoidance of seeing the flaws which are there.
We Believe In 2nd Chances, a small group of activists who are against the death penalty, puts it succinctly:
“[We] believe that it is likely that there may be other cases with cause for concern – not because of a crooked or untrustworthy judiciary undeserving of our faith, but because human error is, at the end of the day, inevitable.”
And the key phrase here is this: “… human error is… inevitable.”
While one may profess “complete faith” in the judiciary or judicial system, one should also be mindful that the system is made up of fallible humans who themselves do not claim infallibility.
I am indeed glad the Law Minister has shown openness and support for various causes, and also – in particular – for the call by Aware to abolish Section 157(D) of the Evidence Act. (See here and here.)
This is because the minister himself said he had “not been aware of the issues relating to this field”, referring to the issues relating to sexual assault, and he looked into it and decided that S157(D) should have no place in our law books.
In the same way, I – as WBSC has also urged – would urge the minister to relook the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), and the process by which the death penalty is meted out. For example, there have been calls for judges in such cases involving capital punishment to be given powers to administer alternative sentences.
There could also be changes to how the trial of an accused is carried out, as suggested by the Workers’ Party in its manifesto.
The government, and the Law Minister in this case, has shown a greater willingness to engage and discuss various issues which Singaporeans, including activists, are concerned about. I therefore hope that a discussion (whether in public or in private) can be started on the matter of the death penalty, with an aim to improving the current situation.
While we may have “complete faith” in the judiciary, let us also not forget that such complete faith must be founded on sound legal processes.