The new ruling gives judges greater discretion and flexibility in sentencing.
Human rights activists have long called for the end to Singapore's death penalty.
However, the Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean has rejected this, saying it's necessary to deter serious crimes.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Sinapan Samydorai, human rights advocate and executive director, Think Centre, Singapore
SAMYDORAI: In the past, for those who murder, it's automatically mandatory (death penalty), that means it's assured that you'll be hanged. But now it means that if you did have the intention to kill the person and if it's just out of the moment, then it's no more a mandatory death penalty.
LAM: So in the past, even if it were proven to be homicide (as opposed to pre-meditated murder), the accused would still be sentenced to death?
SAMYDORAI: Yes, they mostly will face the death penalty because there're no mitigating factors allowed in the cases. Why it happened, Was it planned, How was it executed, Who else was involved, Did the murderer know that the weapon he's using would actually kill a person, Or even if the injury has happened, that it would kill the person?
LAM: So in other words, this new ruling gives judges greater discretion and flexibility, I suppose, in sentencing?
SAMYDORAI: Ya, in terms of murder, yes, definitely much more flexibility. And in the parliament discussion yesterday, some MPs were saying they may have to re-look at the whole policy because some parts of it are outdated. Whether the mandatory death penalty in terms of murder and other things must be re-looked at.
LAM: So what about drug trafficking - many people have in the past been sentenced to death for drug trafficking. Where does the government stand on that?
SAMYDORAI: They still say the mandatory death penalty is needed as a core part of their action plan, to reduce drug addiction or drugs-related issues. Out of the 34 cases that are facing the death penalty here (on death row), 28 cases were drug trafficking cases. All 28 will go to appeal and it also means that they have a chance they may not face the mandatory death penalty. The mandatory death penalty only comes in if they do not cooperate effectively with the Attorney-General's (prosecutors) office, as well as the police investigators. The difficulty here is how to prove they effectively cooperated? Especially if they're lower-level couriers. How would they give information that will lead to the arrest of the senior 'kingpin' who's in the drug trafficking trade?
LAM: And is the amount and volume of drugs trafficked taken into consideration as well?
SAMYDORAI: Of course, of course. In the past, that remains still. Fifteen grams of heroin for example, a person faces the death penalty. The only difference now is that judges have a discretion, if they have a certificate from the police, saying they'd cooperated effectively, and that should be taken into consideration. It's subjective, right? Because the COC (Certificate of Cooperation) passed through certain criteria, how this person behaved..
You know, when a person is arrested, he may be very emotionally unstable, he may sound aggressive, he may sound loud and abusive. I mean something could go wrong.
In fact, there're 34 cases at the moment, the total number prisoners on death row. And 28 are for drug trafficking and six for murder.
LAM: Does this legislation reflect changing attitudes in Singapore towards the death penalty?
SAMYDORAI: Yes, in fact in parliament, one of the professors from the Singapore Management University, point out that many of his students are receptive to 'testing' drugs, especially 'ice'. And it was proven by the Minister in charge of the Malay community - more than half of the people arrested are from the poorer Malay sector and they're increasing, especially the young ones, under the age of 21. I think the government has decided that they will introduce a new scheme, a preventive measure, public education and the community rehabilitation centre. It shows that they see now that the problem is a social health problem. People are taking up drugs for many reasons - it's not just life style.
In the past, there was never a public debate. People automatically thought that there was no choice, I mean the death penalty is there, you know. But now people are re-thinking, especially the younger people in school. In fact, those around 21, even up to 30. So I think it will make a great impact in terms of mindset. And it's seen more as a social problem, not a criminal problem. That a person who possesses this amount of drugs must die, you know.
The government seems to be saying that you should frighten the people. To be honest, I think very few people actually think that fifteen grams of drugs is going to do that much damage on so many other people.