It’s been eight months since Singapore killed her brother, but the grief and anger have not faded for Nazira Lajim Hertslet.
“It’s not fair,” she said. “We appealed so many times. All along I had hope, and then they hanged him, a 64-year-old man. Why do they need to be so cruel?”
Nazeri Lajim was executed last July 22 after being found guilty of possessing a little more than 33 grams of heroin a decade earlier. He was one of at least 11 people hanged by the city state last year, including Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a 33-year-old with an intellectual disability.
After a two-year hiatus – though not an official moratorium – during the pandemic, the spate of executions has attracted widespread criticism overseas, including from the United Nations, the European Union and British tycoon Richard Branson, who has spoken out against Singapore’s “relentless machinery of death.”
Mr. Branson is hardly the first foreigner to criticize Singapore in this regard or find the state’s fondness for executions out of sync with its glitzy, ultramodern international image: Author William Gibson famously called it “Disneyland with the death penalty.”
Officials typically respond by citing public support for capital punishment and accusing their critics of Western chauvinism. In a statement addressing Mr. Branson, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs said a citizen of a country “that prosecuted two wars in China in the 19th century to force the Chinese to accept opium imports” had no moral right to lecture Asians about drugs.
Some Asian countries have abolished the death penalty, notably the Philippines and Cambodia. Hong Kong also doesn’t have capital punishment, though China does. This week, Singapore’s neighbour Malaysia moved to abolish the mandatory death penalty for offences such as drug trafficking and scrap capital punishment completely for most crimes. In parliament, deputy law minister Ramkarpal Singh said “the death penalty has not brought about the results it was intended to bring.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said this was “an important step forward for Malaysia, and hopefully will help break the logjam on forward movement towards abolition of the death penalty in the country as well as the wider Southeast Asia region.”
He added that Malaysia should encourage other governments in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations “to rethink their continued use of the death penalty, starting with Singapore,” where the recent spree of executions has harmed the city state’s efforts “to portray itself as a modern, developed and civilized country.”
Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
Canada, which along with Malaysia, Singapore and nine other Pacific Rim countries is a signatory to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, carried out its last hangings in 1962 and abolished the death penalty in 1976.
In the U.S., where 27 states, the federal government and the military still have the death penalty, it “can only be imposed on defendants convicted of capital offenses – such as murder, treason, genocide, or the killing or kidnapping of a Congressman, the President, or a Supreme Court justice,” according to the Department of Justice.
Kirsten Han, a Singaporean anti-death-penalty activist, was skeptical about the prospect of Malaysia having a major effect on the government’s thinking, but she hoped it would “encourage more Singaporeans to think about the use of capital punishment in our own country.”
Domestic support for capital punishment is already shifting, she said, shaken by the sudden return of hangings after the pandemic hiatus, along with greater awareness and scrutiny of executions.
“What’s really made a difference is the capacity and momentum of the anti-death-penalty movement,” she added. “There were more executions in 2018 than last year, but we didn’t know about them because at the time the anti-death-penalty campaign was very small, there wasn’t the capacity to track or find out about them.”
Singapore has tight limits on political organizing and protest, but groups such as the Transformative Justice Collective have been successful in organizing small rallies and petitions on this issue.
There’s still a lot of work to do: A government poll published last year found that 73.7 per cent of Singaporeans supported the death penalty in principle, and 65.6 per cent supported mandatory executions for those convicted of trafficking a “significant amount of drugs.” Independent research by the National University of Singapore previously found that less than half the country supported the mandatory death penalty for serious offences.
One development that has encouraged some activists is Singapore’s decriminalization of homosexuality last year, after decades of campaigning.
The lifting of the colonial-era ban on gay sex only came after it was essentially rendered unenforceable by the courts, which have so far been staunchly supportive of the death penalty, though a report by the Law Society of Singapore recommended scrapping mandatory capital punishment as far back as 2005.
Ms. Lajim Hertslet said she felt Singaporeans were “slowly starting to turn against the death penalty, but the government will not budge.” In her brother’s case, she was frustrated by officials’ defence of capital punishment, given that he was a heavy drug user from the age of 14, never struggling to find a supply.
“They say the death penalty will deter people from selling drugs. Where is the proof?”