Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Singapore to resume executions amid heightened international scrutiny


Amanda Clift-Matthews
Barrister and former in-house counsel at The Death Penalty Project


Time to read

4 Minutes
The national flag of Singapore
Photo credit: Vince WYP via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Over the past week, Singapore has signalled its clear intention to resume executions after a hiatus of more than two years. Roslan bin Bakar, a Singaporean national, and Pausi bin Jefridin, a Malaysian national, were informed late last week that they are to be hanged imminently. An urgent motion filed yesterday for a stay of execution has been granted by the Singapore Court of Appeal, but on the condition that the men provide security for the State’s costs of defending the action should it fail.

Roslan and Pausi were jointly convicted in 2010 for trafficking a quantity of methamphetamine within Singapore (an offence referred to in the UK as ‘possession with intent to supply’).[1] Although they were merely drug couriers, the prosecution did not grant them a ‘certificate of substantial assistance’ that would have enabled a judge to pass a life sentence and caning instead of a death sentence. A certificate of substantial assistance is granted only to couriers if they cooperate with investigating authorities and that cooperation causes tangible disruption to other drug trafficking activities. Without this certificate, death sentences are mandatory.

Notice of Roslan’s and Pausi’s executions follows the issue of a similar warrant in November last year to Malaysian national Nagaenthran a/l K Darmalingam. Nagaenthran’s case made headlines around the world, drawing criticism from the likes of Richard Branson and Stephen Fry, because Nagaenthran is said to be both intellectual disabled and psychiatrically ill. The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has said that it is contrary to international law to inflict the death penalty on the intellectual or psychosocial disabled. But the Singapore courts have found that international human rights are sacrificial to domestic law and adaptable to ‘Asian values’ which prioritise social harmony and the good of the community as well as retribution, rather than individualistic notions of human rights.

Both Roslan and Pausi are also said to possess subnormal IQs. In their cases, the High Court ruled that their low intelligence was insufficient to demonstrate the requisite ‘abnormality of mind’ that also might have enabled them to qualify for a lesser sentence than death.[2] The scheduling of the two men’s executions has caused further international scrutiny of Singapore’s use of the death penalty.

Executions previously on hold

Executions were put on hold in Singapore in 2020 during the height of the COVID pandemic and in 2021 two civil group actions by death row prisoners delayed executions further. The first case concerned the illegal funnelling of prisoners’ private and sometimes legally privileged correspondence to public prosecutors by the Singapore Prison Service (SPS).[3] The Attorney-General did not make any public admission of wrongdoing and vigorously challenged the action on procedural grounds. Besides impropriety, that action spoke to a deeper structural issue within the criminal justice system in Singapore: the Attorney-General represents the government’s interests (including the SPS) and the office of the public prosecutor is a division within the Attorney-General’s Chambers. The Attorney-General, however, has consistently denied that public prosecutions lack independence.

More controversially, the second action concerned the fact that a significant majority of those sentenced to death for drug trafficking offences are ethnically Malay, even though Malays account for a very small fraction of Singapore’s population.[4] The Attorney-General accused the claimants of being selective with the data but did not provide any of its own to contradict it. He denied that there is any bias or prejudice - even inadvertently - by public prosecutors, or in the practices of the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), the body dedicated to investigating drugs offences in Singapore. 

The fact that a significant majority of the death row population in Singapore are ethnically Malay does not prove discrimination. However, the optics are not good. Nor is it helped by the government’s lack of transparency. Data on the numbers of persons sentenced to death are not released. Policies guiding charging decisions are not made public. The Attorney-General himself is said to make the final decision on whether to prosecute someone for a death eligible offence, but citizens are not told the criteria upon which those decisions are based. Moreover, criticism of the death penalty is not well-tolerated and even dialogue on such issues is viewed as threatening to social order. Cases challenging the government are frequently attacked as ‘an abuse of process’: in both the two civil cases referred to above, personal costs orders were sought against the lawyer acting on behalf of the claimants in the case. None of this instils confidence when it comes to accountability.

Additional concerns about the application of the death penalty

Concerns with Singapore’s application of the death penalty do not end there. Suspects have minimal rights following arrest. Although in law they are entitled to legal advice, the courts have sanctioned weeks-long delays at the request of investigating authorities. Investigative interviews do not have to be recorded verbatim, yet adverse inferences are drawn if details that are not recorded by the CNB are later relied upon in court. Leaving notions of due process aside, the rationale is, presumably, that this approach ensures more guilty people are convicted. But it has never been empirically tested; nor has it been investigated whether such slim protections increase in the number of innocent people falsely convicted.  

Draconian penalties are said to be justified as a necessary deterrent in the government’s war on drugs, although, again, there is no empirical evidence that the penalties have any deterrent effect. The government’s long-standing narrative is that the Singaporean way of life is under threat. It claims its approach ensures the stability of the country and Singaporean citizens are expected to trust the integrity and competence of their public servants. The courts’ frequent deference to parliament or members of public office only reduces checks on state power.

Be that as it may, one would hope that the facts revealed by these recent controversial challenges would give any fair-minded, justice-seeking minister pause for reflection and review. Given the widespread criticism, one would also hope a responsible government would reconsider whether putting to death intellectually disabled, low-level drug mules from marginalised communities is acceptable or, at the very least, has any demonstrable societal benefit.

Amanda Clift-Matthews is a barrister and former in-house counsel at The Death Penalty Project. She is currently undertaking a part-time DPhil in the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford.


[1] Roslan bin Bakar v Public Prosecutor [2016] SGCA 29 (Court of Appeal of Singapore).

[2] Roslan bin Bakar v Public Prosecutor and another matter [2017] SGHC 291 (High Court of Singapore).

[3] Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin and others v Attorney-General [2021] SGHC 270 (High Court of Singapore).

[4] Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin and others v Attorney-General [2021] SGHC 274 (High Court of Singapore).