Capital Punishment A Commentary

I was only about 9. My dad, a rehabilitation officer at Changi Prison, returned from work with a sad expression on his face. On my mum's query over his sad demeanour, he replied with a sigh, "Four were hung this morning." Thus was my pithy but significant awakening to the existence of capital punishment.That childhood incident took place more than 25 years ago yet I remember it vividly perhaps because even at such an early age, my conscience was questioning the justice of killing fellow human beings due to the crimes they committed.
But the legal system in Singapore was such and still is such, the death penalty being in existence since the days of British colonial rule. Most Singaporeans may not question the morality of killing in the name of justice nor see it as a violation of human rights. The view that our tough laws help keep the country safe and crimes low may still be held by the majority.
But is capital punishment in reality a true deterrent to crimes? A UN report from the Commission on Human Rights resolution states that "a wide range of experts in sciences such as criminology, sociology and psychology have expressed doubts concerning the deterrent effect of capital punishment."
In Singapore, where drug trafficking (from 15 grams of heroin), murder and firearms offences carry a mandatory death sentence, the Singapore Central Narcotics Bureau reported that 3,393 drug abusers were arrested in 2002, a 16% increase from the previous year.
Last Jan 15 2004, when Amnesty International (AI), an international human rights organization, reported that Singapore has the world's highest per capita execution rate, locals first got to hear about it from BBC News. The AI report stated that more than 400 executions have taken place in Singapore in the last 13 years, which is three times that of Saudi Arabia, the second country on the list.
The next day saw a press release from the Ministry of Home Affairs in the Straits Times, Singapore's main broadsheet. It said that in due course, the government will issue a rebuttal and concluded that "the proper way to change the law is through the constitutional route." However, "most Singaporeans know that our tough but fair system of criminal justice makes Singapore one of the safest places in the world."
Many internet forums were abuzz with the pros and cons of capital punishment following the report by Amnesty International. This is something to be grateful for because there has been a general lack of exposure and education about the death penalty and human rights among Singaporeans. A lack of public debate over the issue runs the risk of de-sensitizing the whole society on the fundamental rights of individuals (criminals or otherwise) to live, taking the death penalty as an indispensable punishment, and risk exploring alternative means of punishment .
Besides Amnesty International, the Think Centre, Singapore's only political non-governmental organisation, is also urging authorities to take steps towards the abolition of the death penalty. This is encouraging and should inspire other organisations, even religious ones, like the Inter-Religious Organisation, to begin serious discussions on capital punishment in relation to morality (and faith).
Let us not forget that Jesus himself was a victim of capital punishment. That was two thousand years ago. Fortunately today, there is a worldwide trend towards the abolition of the death penalty, advocated by the UN, and the European Union. The gradual unfolding of human consciousness to the sacredness of life is finally emerging. Hopefully the abolition of capital punishment will follow the same process that led to the abolition of slavery which was once legal and widely accepted. It is a process that is marked not with silent acceptance of what may be the common view, but through efforts of those who oppose it on moral grounds.
As Singapore grows to be a more liberalized society, which Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his speech on civic society to the Harvard Club, seems committed towards, there is hope. There is hope that Singapore too can move forward with other nations towards the abolition of the death penalty.
Meanwhile, we can apply and uphold the US Catholic bishops' statement in 1980 on capital punishment:
"Crime is both a manifestation of the great mysteries of evil and human freedom and an aspect of the very complex reality that is contemporary society. We should not expect simple or easy solutions to what is a profound evil, and even less should we rely on capital punishment to provide such a solution. Rather, we must look to the claims of justice......and to the example and teaching of Jesus, whom we acknowledge as the Justice of God. Punishment, since it involves the deliberate infliction of evil on another, is always in need of justification. The three justifications traditionally advanced for punishment in general are retribution, deterrence, and reform. (But these are not met in)…the imposition of the death penalty.
We must not remain unmindful of the example of Jesus who urges upon us a teaching of forbearance in the face of evil (Matthew 5:38-42) and forgiveness of injuries (Matthew 18:21-35). It is morally unsatisfactory and socially destructive for criminals to go unpunished, but the forms and limits of punishment must be determined by moral objectives which go beyond the mere inflicting of injury on the guilty. We believe that the forms of punishment must be determined with a view to the protection of society and its members and to the reformation of the criminal and his reintegration into society (which may not be possible in certain cases).
We urge our brother and sisters in Christ to remember the teaching of Jesus who called us to be reconciled with those who have injured us (Matthew 5:43-45) and to pray for forgiveness for our sins "as we forgive those who have sinned against us." (Matthew 6:12) We call on you to contemplate the crucified Christ who set us the supreme example of forgiveness and of the triumph of compassionate love.
And let us not forget the fifth commandment "Thou shall not kill." The CCC states that "the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety, authority will limit herself to such means…the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'" (CCC 2267)

I may have had the advantage of being exposed to the reality of capital punishment at an early age due to the fact that I was the daughter of a prison officer, and lived near the prison with "uncles" in the neighbourhood who were directly involved in the execution of criminals but most children do not live in such a setting. Greater awareness of the death penalty and other human rights issues through discussions starting from within the family, school, and church environment are necessary for Singapore to grow and develop into a more humane society. But the initiation must first come from oneself by honestly reflecting on one's own perspective of the issue. Perhaps the Christian view could best begin by stepping into the shoes of those in death row. A quote attributed to St. Teresa of Avila comes to my mind, "There but for the grace of God go I."

Films Related to Capital Punishment:
The Life of David Gale with Alan Parker, Kevin Spacey (director: Alan Parker)
The Last Call with Phil Morrison, Junior Williams (director: Sean Buckley)
Dead Man Walking with Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn (director: Tim Robbins) based on the book by Sr. Helen Prejean, csj
Web Links: Amnesty International's Report on Singapore
U.S. Catholic Bishops' Statement on Capital Punishment
Catholic Teachings on Capital Punishment
Other Sources and Links

(published in the CatholicNews January 2004)

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