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Singapore has, perhaps understandably, been the subject of much international tsk-tsking  over its policy of capital punishment for serious crimes. We are not just talking Punishment with a capital “P” here- the good old noose awaits persons convicted of drug trafficking, murder and certain firearms offences.

For would-be drug traffickers at least, the high- stakes game of Singapore-style roulette means that the odds are stacked firmly in favour of the house. The Misuse of Drugs act provides that any person found in possession of drugs is presumed to know the nature of the drug. Also, any person who has in his possession drugs exceeding a statutory amount (the amount varies depending on the drug) is presumed to have that drug for the purpose of trafficking. And, finally, any person who trafficks in excess of a certain amount of hardcore drugs (yes hippies, weed is a hardcore drug in Singapore) gets the death penalty.

What this essentially means is that the usual presumption of innocence goes out the window. A person accused of being a drug trafficker now has the burden of proving that he 1) Didn’t know he was carrying drugs, or 2) That he was not carrying the drugs for the purposes of trafficking. As everyone who has ever had to explain lipstick on a collar will tell you, it is nigh impossible to prove a negative.

Thus far, international criticism has been brushed aside with stoic practicality-Singapore is situated less than 1500km from the golden triangle and is a preferred transit- point for drug smugglers;  drugs exert a huge toll on society and public order; the death penalty is a necessary deterrent etc. It also helps that the neighbouring countries all have their own death penalty for drugs.

It makes for some interesting moments for a first-time traveller to Singapore: “Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for flying Singapore Airlines. We hope you had a pleasant flight. You may wish to know that drug smuggling carries the death penalty. We look forward to seeing you again.” (I’m assuming they are only referring to the passengers who aren’t smuggling drugs.)

Well, change is in the air.

In a ministerial statement  made in Parliament on Monday, the Home Affairs Ministry has announced that it is seeking to make changes to the death penalty legislation in Singapore. In particular, the courts will be given sentencing discretion in respect of drug traffickers who 1) are only couriers and 2) render “substantive cooperation” to the authorities. There are, of course, other changes which are not relevant here.

Its important to note that the “sentencing discretion” involves only 2 options- the death penalty or life imprisonment with caning.

The government’s rationale for the proposed changes is that it is attempting to calibrate the severity of the punishment to the relative culpability of the drug offenders within the drug trafficking hierarchy. Few will disagree with this approach.

However, the government’s second stated objective is more troubling. According to the Home Affairs Minister, the government is trying to “find more ways to of targeting those who are higher up in the drug syndicates” and that “substantive cooperation leading to concrete outcomes” from couriers is the aim.

The above suggests that, in order to meet the requirements of “substantive cooperation”, a person being investigated for drug trafficking must give information which leads to the arrest of someone higher up the chain.

All this seems really nice in theory. However, it seems to me that the authorities are going to get less “substantive cooperation” than they are hoping. Now, I am not for one moment claiming to be an expert in drug smuggling, but it occurs to me that, if I sent someone into Singapore as a drug mule, the last thing I would do would be to wait by the phone at my last- known address (which I would have inexplicably given my mule, along with my full name) just so that the police can pick me up once my mule rats on me. What possible “concrete outcomes” could result from this mule’s cooperation?

Also, the proposed changes seem to ignore the fact that innocent mules exist. Again, it makes perfect business sense not to actually tell your mules that they are carrying a death-penalty attracting load of drugs. For one, the mule would ask for more money. Second, the mule is more likely to be nervous and fidgety at customs, all of which are less than desirable traits for a drug smuggler. Assume these innocent couriers are arrested. How would these persons qualify for sentencing discretion under the proposed changes?

Of course, there will be some who say these couriers can always prove their innocence by rebutting the presumption of knowledge. These are also the people who wait for Santa to come down the rubbish chute outside their flats every Christmas eve.

More worryingly, the innocent courier who, previously would have protested his innocence simply because it was that or hang, would now be faced with a difficult choice. Confess and hope to live, or stick to  his guns and throw the dice. Its ironic, then, that the proposed changes may well lead to more confessions, regardless of guilt.

If you aren’t worried yet, consider this: the same innocent courier who has opted for safety by confessing, is still liable to get the death penalty anyway. That’s because sentencing discretion is ultimately in the hands of the Courts. On paper the mule, having confessed to a crime he didn’t commit, could still be hanged. We will see whether that happens in practice, but I haven’t seen anything on paper which suggests that it isn’t at least a theoretical possibility.

To be fair, the government has made it clear that these are just concepts and that the implementation is still a ways off. It will be interesting to see how these changes are made and applied in real cases. Until then, I, for one am grateful for small mercies. Distinguishing lowly couriers from drug kingpins is a small but important step in the right direction.