SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): For two years, Robin Tay was constantly doing mental calculations for what he called a "7-11-style" drug-trafficking business - "always open and whatever you want, we have".
Tay, now 46, had to ensure that the quantities of each drug he had on him, which he sometimes picked up from Malaysia, were below the capital threshold.
In 2001, he was sentenced to seven years' jail and eight strokes of the cane for trafficking in drugs including ecstasy, erimin and ketamine.
He had been jailed five times before for various offences including extortion, assault and cheating, but said that the arrest for trafficking felt the worst.
"No matter how gung-ho we are, we are still afraid of death. When you're caught, that's the first thing that comes to your mind - Will I live or will I die?" said Tay, who added that even when he was handcuffed he was calculating how much drug was stored in his car.
"If let's say there was no death penalty, we would have brought in a lot more," he said.
Last month, Minister of State for Home Affairs Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim cited a 2018 study by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) which showed that drug traffickers were aware of the death penalty.
He said: "This had influenced their drug-trafficking behaviour, as they adjusted the amount of drugs they trafficked to below the capital threshold."
Associate Professor Faishal noted that 15g of pure diamorphine, which is the threshold for diamorphine, or heroin, is equivalent to about 1,250 straws of heroin, which can supply about 180 drug abusers for a week.
"One would not be carrying drugs for personal consumption. Instead, it would be for mass distribution to others for financial gain," he said.
Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said earlier this year that when the mandatory death penalty for trafficking more than 1.2kg of opium was introduced in 1990, there was a two-third reduction in the average net weight trafficked in the four years after implementation compared to the four years before.
Shanmugam added that the preliminary results of a survey conducted by MHA last year found that 66 per cent of respondents said the mandatory death penalty was appropriate for drug trafficking, and 80 per cent of respondents believed the death penalty deterred the commission of intentional murder, firearm offences and drug trafficking. The full results of the survey are pending.
This comes amid calls from United Nations human rights experts last month to suspend capital punishment in Singapore.
Defence lawyers The Straits Times spoke to wondered how effective the mandatory death penalty is for all offenders today, noting that a substantial fraction of drug traffickers are foreigners who are desperate for cash and do not receive the same anti-drug education Singapore residents have.
Sunil Sudheesan said: "There will be desperate foreigners who are not deterred by the death penalty. These people gamble with their lives in the hope that the authorities do not catch them (and) are in turn used by drug syndicates.
"Singaporeans have been exposed to frequent reminders as to the consequences of the drug trade and know not to mess around. Foreigners do not have that same benefit."
Ramesh Tiwary, who last month secured an acquittal for a man on death row for drug trafficking, said: "Many of the convictions we see are Malaysians who do not fully consider the repercussions of their actions because they are so desperate for money and they don't have much to lose.
"We have good reason to be afraid of the repercussions of loosening the strings because we're a small nation and more drugs will lead to more crime and drugs destroy families. But I don't believe hanging people is the solution. Life imprisonment is a very substantial sentence too which some people don't realise."
He explained that his qualms were with the finality of the death penalty that leaves no room for review should new evidence emerge or if the law is interpreted differently. He also urged non-governmental organisations to educate Malaysians who cross the Causeway to work on Singapore's laws and no-drugs policy.
Criminal lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam noted that these Malaysian drug mules know the risks but are manipulated or lured by syndicates.
He said: "On the one hand, they are the smallest pawns, but on the other, if you do nothing or do not deter, you get more of these pawns. There are arguments both ways."
He added that laws are meant to reflect what the majority feel. "This balance shifts over time as society matures and progresses, and certain different ideals come to the forefront and perceptions change."
Tay, who managed to turn his life around after the close shave, said: "I see it not as condemning individuals, but about saving the lives that drugs would destroy... Maximum deterrence is necessary to prevent drugs from flooding into the country."
He added: "I know I've destroyed many lives and families."
Tay currently runs the residential rehabilitation programme at non-profit group The New Charis Mission.
When asked what he has to say to those who believe that capital punishment should be used only for violent crimes like murder instead of drug offences, he said: "Isn't it also killing someone?
"It's very hard to make everyone understand, but anyone who went through what I did can understand unless they are still in denial... Selling (drugs) is really destroying people's lives."