05/11/2012 12:00 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2012

The Mandatory Death Penalty: A Blinkered Policy

Singapore has often been identified as "one of the most prominent defenders of capital punishment." But what many people -- including Singaporeans -- may not yet realize is that Singapore does not just have the death penalty, but also the mandatory death penalty.

The mandatory death penalty is applied to various crimes such as murder and firearms smuggling, but is most often used in relation to drug trafficking, as part of Singapore's tough drug policy and the Misuse of Drugs Act. The mandatory aspect of the punishment removes the discretionary powers of the judiciary when it comes to sentencing, effectively prohibiting them from taking mitigating circumstances into account.

The result is an irreversible punishment that blinkers all involved to the actual issues related to drug crime and abuse, and the variety of motivations that drive people towards them. Offenders are not allowed to explain their backgrounds and circumstances, and judges are not allowed to see the individual for who he or she really is. As a result, we're left with a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that's a lot more complicated than we're willing to admit.

Last week a friend and I travelled to Sabah in East Malaysia on behalf of anti-death penalty group We Believe In Second Chances to meet the family of Yong Vui Kong, our longest-running death penalty case. Yong was arrested in 2007 at the age of 19 and convicted of trafficking 47.27g of heroin in to Singapore. His latest appeal was dismissed last month, and he now waits for a response from the President of the Republic of Singapore to his clemency petition.

What we saw in Yong's home town of Sandakan was much more effective in helping us understand the circumstances that could have driven a boy towards drug smuggling than any academic or legal study would have told us.

A 2010 World Bank report found that although Sabah makes up only 10 percent of Malaysia's total population, it has 40 percent of the country's poverty. There are problems with both hard and soft infrastructure, from electricity supply to health and education. Datuk Chua Soon Bui, one of Sabah's Members of Parliament, told us that some children graduate from primary school still being unable to read, write or count. Yong himself was illiterate at the time of his arrest.

In places like Sandakan where people are poor, struggling and lacking in opportunities, it is easy to find young people naive, gullible and eager to get out of what is perceived as a dead-end town. The promise of going to cities like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore -- seen as advanced, prosperous paradises -- is enough to tempt some to commit crimes the severity of which they may or may not fully comprehend.

Yong is not the first Sabahan to find himself on the wrong side of the law, and neither will he be the last. Another boy from Sabah was Lee Siaw Foo, who was convicted of trafficking heroin into Singapore. Lee, too, came from a family facing hard times; his mother a bankrupt, his father in need of an operation after a heart attack. As the only child and sole breadwinner, he agreed to deliver packages in Malaysia and Singapore. The packages turned out to be heroin. Yong told his lawyer that in 2009 Lee was dragged kicking and screaming from his cell to the gallows.

Cristina Luke, a polytechnic student also from Sandakan, only narrowly escaped the death penalty for drug trafficking in Hainan due to inconsistencies in the investigation. She is currently serving a life sentence. She had been tricked by her Nigerian boyfriend into carrying a suitcase for him into China. Datuk Chua says that "love scams" such as these are rife in Sabah, where people aren't often on their guard and are eager to find ways to improve their lives.

There is very limited information on the backgrounds of those currently on death row in Singapore. Activists are only able to find these stories out by talking to the families they can locate. We often notice similarities: broken or dysfunctional families, low levels of education, naivete and gullibility, poverty. I use Sabah as an example, but it's by no the means the only source of such vulnerable demographics. These are conditions that can be found all over the world, and where these conditions exist drug syndicates will never run short of willing or unwitting recruits to smuggle their product. The mandatory death penalty shuts its eyes to this fact even as it shuttles drug mules to the execution chamber.

Singapore's government often insists that the mandatory death penalty is necessary to our city state, portraying it as a "trade-off" for security and a drug-free Singapore. But in 2011 the Central Narcotics Bureau admitted an error in statistical computation for the period of 2008 to 2010, and stated that cases of drug abuse are actually on the rise. The mainstream media often carries reports of large drug raids and arrests -- the cases keep on coming with no sign of abatement. If the mandatory death penalty is really such a good trade-off, then why is this still happening?

The mandatory death penalty is far too simplistic a solution for a problem as big as drug trafficking and abuse. Singapore clings on to it as a sort of security blanket, repeating over and over that it's dealing with the bad guys and keeping us safe. But unless we can shake off this penchant for knee-jerk responses, we'll find ourselves continually plagued with the same problem and never understanding why.