I was sitting in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur when I received the message on Monday afternoon. It was from Jumai, a short but heart-breaking note, sent over WhatsApp: “My brother this Friday die.”
Jumai’s brother is a 31-year-old Malaysian man named Jabing. For the past week myself and and other anti-death penalty activists have been in constant contact with Jumai, booking her and her mother flights to Singapore, picking them up at the airport, meeting in the evenings for updates and thinking of ways to get her brother off death row. I was in the Malaysian capital in the hopes of lobbying local human rights groups and politicians to act for their fellow countryman; an endeavor that yielded limited success.
It had been a long and arduous seven years for Jumai and her mother. Her brother, Jabing, was arrested in 2008 when he was 24 years old for his involvement in a robbery that led to a man’s death. Jumai’s father died of a stroke a few months later, which she attributed to health problems triggered by anxiety and worry for his son. Two years later, Jabing was convicted of murder and sentenced to death under Singapore’s mandatory death penalty regime. Under the law, anyone convicted of murder must be sentenced to death, with no chance for mitigating factors to be taken into account.
But that wasn’t the end of the family’s emotional rollercoaster. The Singapore government amended the mandatory death penalty law in 2013, allowing judges the discretion to choose between death and life imprisonment with caning—a vicious punishment in which the inmate is strapped down and whipped with a long rattan cane—for all but the most serious category of murder, as well as certain cases of drug trafficking. Jabing was eligible for re-sentencing, and a High Court judge ruled that there was “no clear evidence” he had snuck up behind his victim and hit him over the head with a piece of wood. The death sentence was set aside, replaced with a life sentence and 24 strokes of the cane.
Kho Jabing has exhausted all his legal appeals.
Any relief was short-lived. The prosecution appealed the sentence, and in January 2015 the Court of Appeal—Singapore’s highest court—returned Jabing to death row in a in a 3-2 ruling. Although the two dissenting judges felt that there was insufficient evidence to determine how many times Jabing had struck his victim with the piece of wood or caused the skull fractures that led to the man’s death, the three judges in the majority believed that Jabing had showed a “blatant disregard for human life” in a way that “outraged the feelings of the community” and therefore deserved to die.
The rich Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore has long been committed to capital punishment. The death penalty was brought into law while Singapore was still a British colony, and has remained even though the United Kingdom itself abolished executions in all circumstances in 1998. Capital crimes aren’t limited to murder, but also include unlawful use of firearms and engaging in drug trafficking, with the latter making up the bulk of cases. Fifteen grams of heroin or 500 grams of cannabis can earn the offender a one-way trip to the gallows—the method of execution that Singapore has always used.
It’s a harsh position, deliberately adopted to signal Singapore’s uncompromising stance on crime. The lack of evidence that the death penalty works as a deterrent is no barrier to the government claiming that it is the threat of the noose that maintains the city’s safe, low-crime reputation.
Addressing a session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2014, Law Minister K Shanmugam vigorously defended the use of the death penalty for drugs. “Singapore is probably either the only country, or one of the few countries in the world, which has successfully fought this drug problem,” he declared. “For those who ask for whom the death penalty can be a deterrent, I say to them, come and see for yourself in Singapore, and compare the region and the rest of the world.”