The candlelight vigil outside the Singapore High Commission in support of Kalwant Singh prior to execution.

Asia Thinkers review the United Nations’ resolution for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty and the response by some ASEAN nations who, despite world opposition, continue to support the mandatory death penalty.

In response to the 2020 resolution, only three ASEAN countries voted for a moratorium on the death penalty, including Malaysia, while Singapore and Brunei voted against it. Asia Thinkers discuss the issues and engage netizens in Malaysia and Singapore to understand public support for the death penalty and the views of those who want it abolished. 

In 2020, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 8th resolution for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. A total of 120 nations voted for the resolution which called for nations to restrict the use of the death penalty, with aim of eventually eliminating it. Although the UN General Assembly resolution is not legally binding, it holds great symbolic significance. Out of the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, only three – Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines – voted to support the resolution. Singapore and Brunei voted against it, while the remaining five nations, who are well known for supporting the death penalty, abstained.

Within ASEAN, only five countries in the region − Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam − have carried out executions in the period 2016-2020, yet no executions have been carried out in Indonesia since 2016, and Malaysia has observed an official moratorium since 2018.

Does the death penalty deter crime?

Amnesty International says the argument behind countries maintaining the death penalty is that it deters the worst sort of crimes in the form of murder, drug-trafficking and terrorism. The United Nations has stated, “there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value, and that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty’s implementation is irreversible and irreparable.”  A further report by Amnesty International in reviewing evidence from around the world has found that the death penalty has no unique deterrent effect on crime. Many people have argued that abolishing the death penalty leads to higher crime rates, but studies in the USA and Canada, for instance, do not back this claim. In 2003 in Canada, 27 years after the country abolished the death penalty, the murder rate had fallen by 44 per cent.  

The most controversial use of the death penalty in ASEAN is related to the execution of drug traffickers. Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia amongst others still uphold the death penalty for drug trafficking, whilst Malaysia put in place a moratorium in 2018. However, as stated, there is no clear evidence that the use of the death penalty for such crimes acts as a stronger deterrent than long terms of imprisonment. Amnesty International believes far from making society safer, the death penalty has been shown to have a brutalizing effect on society.

Asian Thinkers contacts netizens in Malaysia and Singapore to ask: “do we need the death penalty as a deterrent against crime? Is it proving effective in preventing crime, or should it be abolished to protect the right to life, as recognized in the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’


Malaysia held 33 capital crimes, including murder, drug trafficking, treason, and acts of terrorism, of which 12 crimes carried the mandatory death sentence and currently hold approximately 1,324 people on death row. In 2012, the “Death Penalty Project” collected data from face-to-face interviews with 1,535, Malaysians. The research was funded by a grant made to the Death Penalty Project by the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office. A large majority of respondents supported either a mandatory or a discretionary death penalty: for murder (91%), for one of the five drug trafficking offences (between 74% and 80%) and firearms offences (83%). Those respondents who supported the mandatory death penalty did so believing that “retribution” was required, and that there can be no excuse for committing a crime. Followed by “deterrence”, “there must be a powerful deterrent to prevent crime.”

However, much lower support for the death penalty was found when respondents were faced with cases concerning aggravating or mitigating features, all of which they were told had been mandatorily sentenced to death. Respondents also answered in respect of serious crimes and drug trafficking they valued the importance of ‘better moral education of young people and more effective policing’ ahead of the death penalty. The survey concluded that when faced with the reality of punishment, the majority of Malaysians favoured being able to exercise discretion when applying the death penalty.

The reformist government elected in 2018 pledged to ban capital punishment, but this was watered down into a pledge that would merely abolish the mandatory use of the death penalty. The policy shift replaced the mandatory death penalty with alternative sentences, which were set to include 11 crimes such as murder and terrorism, and gives a judge discretion to consider mitigating circumstances and commuting sentences for these offences. In June 2022 the mandatory death sentence was abolished.

Asia Thinkers spoke with a Senior Lawyer based in Kuala Lumpur to ask for his view on the abolishment of the mandatory death penalty.

“I don’t believe the government’s decision goes far enough, the death penalty is incompatible with the fundamental tenets of human rights and dignity, it also infringes upon the independence of the judiciary and fair trial guarantees. It denies judges the possibility to consider the defendant’s individual circumstances, or the circumstances of the particular offence. Although I believe that the Malaysian public is not ready to accept the complete abolition of the death penalty, I think it is inevitable that it will be abolished.

The argument that the death penalty is the ‘ultimate deterrent to crime does not consider that there are many other factors which influence crime trends – including strong policing and social programs. Overseas studies have shown that, ironically, crime may reduce when the death penalty is abolished.

Asia Thinkers engages Malaysian netizens through social media and asked for their opinion: 

Responses ranged from “there is no right by the State to take anothers life, whatever the crime, to, the court is right to impose the death penalty as a strong deterrent to crimeOng, a member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, said that he supports the government’s plans to end mandatory death sentencing, but believes judges still need to keep capital punishment as an option to help deter the most serious crimes. He says that leaving capital punishment to the court’s discretion would strike a just balance between the rights of criminals and victims alike.

“Retaining the death penalty doesn’t mean that we ignore human rights,” he said. “We are also protecting the human rights of the victims because we providing justice for the families.”

A candlelight vigil to protest the execution of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam in Singapore (Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images


The Singaporean Government has taken a firm stance in retaining the death penalty, It believes that the death penalty has been a strong deterrent to crime and keeps the country’s drug problem under control.

However, following the global trend of eliminating the cruel practice, international arguments have been made against Singapore’s use of the death penalty. Since 2008, the UN General Assembly has been debating on a call for a moratorium on executions with a view of getting all member states, including Singapore, to abolish the death penalty. Singapore reportedly has 50 people on death row who have exhausted all appeals. It remains one of ASEANs outspoken defenders of the death penalty as a punishment for serious crimes.

Singapore has continued to ignore World opinion and to urge its citizens, particularly anti-death penalty activists, to look at the bigger picture of the possible increase in crime caused by drug abuse, and the impacts of such crimes on victims and their families, should the death penalty be abolished. The Governments’ survey in 2019 and 2021 found that about 82 per cent of those surveyed believed the death penalty in Singapore deterred people from committing serious crimes. About 69 per cent said that the death penalty was more effective than life imprisonment in deterring people from committing serious crimes. However, a 2016 study by the National University of Singapore( NUS) Faculty of Law, found that the support for the death penalty fell when there were mitigating circumstances, and that younger people were less in favour of the death penalty for drug trafficking.

After two years without any hangings, Singapore has carried out six executions in 2022, the highest level since 2018, including a purported intellectually disabled man who was hanged in April. This triggered an outpouring of worldwide support and concern for Nagaenthran’s story, especially as there were concerns that he was a person with possible intellectual disabilities. An online petition urging the President of Singapore to grant him clemency garnered over 100,000 signatures. His hanging sparked a debate as young Singaporeans began speaking up, mostly on social media. There was also a small protest of around 400 people gathered at Hong Lim Park – the sole place in Singapore where protests are largely allowed without prior police approval. In the past, rallies against the death penalty that were held there had attracted crowds of less than 50. Jolovan Wham, Social Worker at Transformative Justice Collective and the protest organizer, told the BBC, “Nagaenthran’s case galvanized many in Singapore and made everyone realize how unforgiving and brutal is our punishment system. 

Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in March, that the majority of Singapore residents still support the death penalty, citing preliminary findings from a survey conducted last year. However Singapore lawyers M Ravi and Charles Yeo Yao Hui who have defended many facing the gallows, including Nagaenthran, in high profile court cases, have constandly criticised Singapore’s human rights relating to the death penalty.Charles Yeo, who is currently seeking political asylum in the United Kingdom against what he called as politically motivated criminal charges levelled against him by the Singapore Government, has told “Malaysia Now” “that ahe will continue exposing what he describes as the wrongdoings of the authorities” He further added that he left Singapore as he feared he would not receive a fair trial if he stayed, adding that the charges against him were politically motivated. This includes his opposition to Singapore’s death penalty, and his relationship with M Ravi to defend death row prisoners.

Kirsten Han a Singapore journalist and anti-death penalty campaigner for over 10 years, believes that public support for capital punishment isn’t as overwhelming and unshakeable as the government often portrays it to be.

Asian Thinkers contacted several Singapore netizens via social media, and views were split depending on the age group. It was clear from comments that the older netizens still supported the death penalty as a deterrent, whereas younger citizens supported the view that the death penalty should not be mandatory, leaving the discretion to the judiciary to impose the death penalty. A few went as far as wanting the death penalty abolished altogether.

Government surveys suggest the majority of Singaporeans support the use of the death penalty, but Nagaenthran’s case has ignited a debate, especially amongst the youth over capital punishment and maintaining the mandatory death sentence.


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