The death penalty has always intrigued me. The notion that a man’s life can be taken away because he committed an offence is something that needs constant discussion and review. The reason for my statement is that the finality of this punishment means that if a wrong judgement is reached and the death penalty is the punishment, there is nothing we can do to reverse such a punishment once it is administered. I thought about this way back in my 20s when I happened to chance across an incident where someone close to me was involved in drugs. My cousin was caught with drugs and I was her bailor. Intrigued as to what the punishment for drug offences were, I went to read up on the various laws pertaining to drug related offences. Inevitably, it led me to the Misuse of Drugs Act. That is where I learned that there were different punishments for possession, consumption and trafficking.

Fast forward approximately 15 years and here I am in my 40s. Undergoing a law degree course as my second degree. One of the first few cases that I had to read was the Court of Appeal decision in Beh Chew Boo v Public Prosecutor [2020] 2 SLR 1375. The High Court had earlier convicted the accused, Beh Chew Boo (“Beh”), of the charge (i.e., section 7 of the Misuse of Drugs Act (Cap 185, 2008 Rev Ed) (MDA). As the court found that he had knowledge of, and hence would be deemed to be in possession of the drugs in the motorcycle he used to enter Singapore, the punishments under section 33(1) or 33B of the MDA would apply. As the drugs he was carrying was found to contain not less than 499.97 grams of methamphetamine, the punishment was death. Beh appealed and on appeal, the court found that Beh’s account was not inherently incredible and the prosecution had failed to discharge its evidential burden in proving that Beh knew of the drugs in the motorcycle. Hence Beh was found to have rebutted the presumption of possession and was acquitted.

The difference in the decisions cannot be more contrasting in terms of the impact on Beh. In the High Court, the result of the decision meant that Beh had a death sentence hanging over him. The Court of Appeal’s decision acquitted him and hence saved him from the gallows. This is not a successful tortious claim where the result of a variance of the courts decision would be a larger or smaller monetary award. This is essentially the worst form of punishment, the taking away of a life to the best result an accused can receive, an acquittal. The difference is as stark as night and day. While we might make the argument that a person who is accused in the High Court has the right of appeal to the Court of Appeal, there is always a possibility, as Beh himself faced, that the Court of Appeal would uphold the High Court’s decision. So then this begs the question of what if the courts get something wrong. This must be a possibility because the judges in both the High Court as well as the Court of Appeal in Beh’s case would be one of the brightest legal minds and yet they differed in their decisions. If so, one of them must be wrong. Hence it would not be too far a stretch to conclude that there is a possibility that the courts may not reach the right decision.

This does happen.

In December 2023 alone, I found two instances of US courts exonerating parties of murders which they did not commit.

A Minnesota court exonerated Marvin Hayes of his conviction of murder in 2004. He had spent 20 years in prison. (Source:

An Oklahoma court exonerated Glyn Simmons of his conviction of murder in 1975. He had spent almost 50 years in prison. (Source:

The best thing that the courts can do once an individual is found to be wrongly convicted is to exonerate the individual immediately. However, if these two individuals were given the death penalty, there is nothing that can bring the individual back to life. The finality of the death penalty demands that there should be constant debate and discussion of whether it should still apply to an imperfect system where courts can make wrong convictions. The UK, from which Singapore adopted the common law, has abolished the death penalty. Malaysia, which Singapore has shared large chunks of its legal history with, has also recently abolished the death penalty. It would be indulgent on Singapore’s part if we were to think that such moves by both the UK and Malaysia should not form the basis for a discussion on whether the death penalty should apply in Singapore.

The death penalty predates the formation of the United Kingdom. It most likely emanated from biblical sources, namely the book of Exodus 21:23-25 which states “[b]ut if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise”. This provides biblical justification that if someone takes a life, you are then allowed to take his life in return. The issue is that the book of Exodus lies in the Old Testament which portions of Christians deem no longer apply. Moreover, this is inconsistent with Luke 6:29 of the New Testament which states “[I]f someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone takes your cloak, do not withhold your tunic as well”. While this may seem a stretch to mean that if someone commits the tortious act of battery on you, you allow him to continually allow you to do so, it does put shade to the concept that you reciprocate an action in the exact same manner. Whatever the case, the death penalty exists and a justification for its existence is that if a person takes a life, we accept that we reciprocate the same taking of his life. 

The justification seems to be consistent with the concept of but for causation. But for this person’s actions, that individual would not be dead (for this, let us restrain our discussion purely to the physical element or actus reus of the offence and omit the mental element). That person’s actions caused the death of a certain individual. This is clear when the actus reus is say stabbing a certain individual multiple times in the chest. However, it is less clear when the actus reus is transporting bundles of drugs in a motorcycle. The justification that that actus reus led to the death of another individual seems a distant stretch. To say that drugs destroy families and hence drug traffickers deserve to face the death penalty seems like a statement that fails the but for causation test. Families can be broken up or family members may die for a variety of reasons and to link a traffickers act of transporting drugs to the death of a family member is rather difficult. There can be so many other acts that can break the chain of causation from the act of trafficking to the death of a family member.

Anyone who knows me personally would know that I am an individual who is very against substance use. I do not smoke and I quit drinking alcohol a couple of years ago. I am a vegetarian and I am very conscious of the food choices I make. I feel that countries like Thailand are making a monumental mistake by legalising Marijuana. I believe substance addiction is a very real problem. I have seen how reliant individuals are even on legal substances like nicotine. Even if there are studies proving that narcotics like Marijuana have limited harm to the human body, substance addiction is a negative externality which I believe is highly overlooked in countries legalising narcotics like Marijuana. I support Singapore’s tough stance on drugs. However, I think the justification for the death penalty deserves more debate.

Another point of consideration is the concept of proportionality. There are two types of proportionality. Cardinal and ordinal. Cardinal proportionality states that for the same type of crime, there are levels of severity. For example, in murder, there is a difference when someone stabs his victim once and another who stabs his victim 30 times, all in the vital areas of the neck, chest and head. The one who stabbed multiple times would be deemed to have committed a more severe version of that particular offence and get the upper limit of the punishment. Ordinal proportionality is the concept that more severe crimes should be punished more severely than less severe crimes. Hence, simple theft of stealing a loaf of bread from the minimart would attract less punishment than severely beating someone up outside a nightclub. This then begs the question, how is it that the highest form of murder (s 300(a) of the Penal Code 1871) and drug trafficking attract both the same form of punishment, i.e. death.

I believe that the finality of the punishment of the death penalty warrants constant discussion and debate. We should not shy away from such discussions and simply dismiss anyone who opposes the death penalty for drug trafficking as someone who supports a society that tolerates drug use among its population. Drugs like marijuana have no place in Singapore. The question is whether sending another person to the gallows is the most appropriate form of punishment.


Yours sincerely,