Legal killing

How effective is the death penalty in deterring crime? Amnesty International Malaysia showcased this stage play based on the story of Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian sentenced to death in Singapore for drug trafficking (he escaped this when the law in Singapore changed). 

WHEN Baby Freddie was kidnapped from his home three weeks ago, I felt a knot in my stomach and bile in my mouth. To take a child like that from his mother was a crime so heinous that I felt an urge to see the kidnappers suffer for what they had done. And a hanging was too good for them but that’s what they deserved.

Coincidentally, just the day before, the newspapers had reported that another set of kidnappers were sentenced to death after being found guilty of abductions in 2011, so such a punishment was within the law.

Except I don’t believe in the death penalty. 

I do accept that it’s part of the law. The Federal Constitution makes it clear that the law can take the life of a citizen, and the death penalty is mandatory for some offences, including murder and drug trafficking. Other offences such as kidnapping for ransom leave it to the discretion of the judge.

How effective is the death penalty in deterring crime? Amnesty International Malaysia showcased this stage play based on the story of Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian sentenced to death in Singapore for drug trafficking (he escaped this when the law in Singapore changed). 

As of October 2012, more than 900 people are currently in Malaysian jails awaiting the death penalty, and 675 of them are on drug-related charges. As a percentage of the population, this is small, but for each individual it’s literally their life.

I remember growing up watching the anti-drugs advertisements on TV highlighting the death sentence, and it did make an impact on me. I remember thinking that people who traffic and sell drugs are indirectly killing innocent addicts and that those that deal out death should be rightly punished so.

Yet, with maturity comes an understanding that things are not always so clear-cut. Not all traffickers are inherently evil and for some people, a death sentence is a sad full stop to a life marred by too many bad choices. People must take responsibility of their individual actions, but I now believe that society must play a role to help them be their best. 

In fact, as a country, Malaysia is in the minority insofar as capital punishment is concerned. Out of 198 countries, only 58 countries (including Malaysia) are classified by Amnesty International as “retentionist”. The remaining 140 either have abolished the death penalty altogether, or abolished it for ordinary crimes, or have not executed anybody for the last years. (Ordinary crimes are defined as those that are not “crimes under military law or crimes committed in exceptional circumstances, such as wartime crimes”.)

On the other hand, the rate of execution in Malaysia is very low. There was only one in 2011 and none in 2012. This means hundreds of people are sitting in jail not knowing if they will get a pardon or death. 

There have been considerations to abolish the death penalty in Malaysia. In August 2010, Datuk Seri Nazri Abdul Aziz, the then de-facto law minister, said, “If it is wrong to take someone’s life, then the Government should not do it either”. In March 2012, the Malaysian Bar Council unanimously passed a resolution to abolish capital punishment and replace it with life imprisonment instead. In October of that same year, the government said that a review to abolish the death sentence for the Dangerous Drugs Act was pending. 

However, there has been no news since then, despite recommendations made last month by 16 fellow United Nations countries to abolish it (or establish a moratorium on it) at the recent UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) last month.

For me, the crux of the debate seems to be this: Does the death penalty deter other people from committing similar crimes in the future? If by taking a life, we are in fact saving more lives, then we must ask ourselves if the price to not execute is too much to bear.

The results are not conclusive. An oft-quoted study in 2003 from Emory University in Atlanta concluded that for each person executed, it results in between three and 18 fewer murders later on. Yet, others have given examples of countries whose murder rates have dropped even after the abolishment of capital punishment. For example, Canada had a lower murder rate in 2001 than in 1975 (the year just before they abolished capital punishment). 

In fact, it may be that science cannot conclusively answer this question. Some researchers have posited that given the relatively rarity of executions, it is difficult to find valid statistical evidence supporting capital punishment as a deterrent for any crime that occurs in low numbers. 

It could also be argued that since capital crimes trials are costly, abolishing the death penalty actually helps reduce crime, because the money saved could be spent on better law enforcement. In the United States, the cost of putting someone on trial for a capital crime comes to between US$2.5mil to US$5mil (RM8 to 16mil). In comparison, for a life sentence, it is less than a million dollars (RM3.2mil). 

Yet, the feeling inside, that “justice needs to be done”, burns within. We want criminals who hurt innocents to suffer, especially when they seem callous about human lives in the pursuit of their own selfish objectives. 

For many, if justice is to be served, many believe that death is the only punishment these offenders deserve. I can understand that – it was the feeling I had myself when Baby Freddie was taken.

But surely the hallmark of a civilised society is a recognition that what we instinctively want isn’t necessarily what is good for us as a whole. What is the point of asking an eye for an eye if we have lost sight of what matters at the end of it all? 

It says more of us as a nation if we can see light at the end of a tunnel, and think not only of how to reform such individuals, but also how to help those who may be heading in the wrong direction. As for the knot in the stomach and the bitter aftertaste, we may have to accept that as the cost of being civilised.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at

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Legal killing


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