“Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders,” (Camus)
In 2016, convicted murderer Kho Jabing was executed, “ending eight years of legal drama which saw the Malaysian escape the gallows twice at the eleventh-hour.” (Today News) He became infamous after being convicted of beating a construction worker to death while drunk. His lawyers filed for an appeal twice – and both times, the execution date was postponed. When the third appeal was dismissed, he was executed on May 20th. This controversial case created a media frenzy, igniting debate over the morality of the death penalty.
However, this debate is not recent. Throughout history and across the globe, societies have considered whether the State has the right to take a life of a citizen. As criminal punishment, this is called the death penalty – or capital punishment. With many advocates and opponents, the controversial topic is global. Only 141 countries to date have abolished it de facto.
In this essay, I will be exploring Kho Jabing’s case through ethical, religious, and ideological lenses on global, local, and personal scales.
Islam offers a global religious perspective, one where there is general support of the death penalty. In fact, the four Islamic countries Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq account for up to 87% of all recorded executions (Amnesty, 2016). The Qur’an passage take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law (Qur’an 6:151) is widely interpreted to mean that the State has the right to take a life in pursuit of justice. Given that ideas on what justice is may differ, this consensus could be problematic. Hence, we can see that religious perspectives do not always provide a clear answer.
Another global religious perspective is that of Pope Francis, leader of the Catholic Church. He recently said “the death penalty is unacceptable, however grave the crime of the convicted… The God-given right to life also belongs to the criminal.” (Pope Francis, 2016). His perspective is influenced by his faith and belief that the bible is the source of truth: the sixth commandment states thou shalt not kill (The Bible, sixth commandment: Exodus 20:13). In the case of Kho Jabing, others agree and claim that the “Singaporean criminal justice system [was about] … slow, steady vengeance.” (Han 2016). However, the contradictory Biblical eye for an eye (The Bible, Exodus 21:23-25) phrase is also used to justify the death penalty, often by conservative Christians. So although the Pope is a global leader, his views are not agreed upon globally.
By mentioning the “right to life”, the Pope’s religious perspective seems to overlap with the ideology of human rights, formalized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Agreed in 1948, and signed by all but 8 countries (The Ethiopia Blog), it can (surprisingly) be used to argue both for and against capital punishment; similar to the Bible. Opponents of the death penalty note article 3 which states that all humans have the right to life (UDHR Article 3). However, proponents point to the same clause, which states that everyone has the right to security of person (UDHR Article 3). Proponents also argue that capital punishment is a strong deterrent which leads to better security for citizens. Certainly, Kho Jabing’s victim’s right to life and security of person was violated, and on one hand, the death penalty is required to secure those rights. However, one might also argue that Kho Jabing’s rights were violated by the death penalty. So this is really a matter of whose rights should take priority; and this is a very serious discussion. Because the article is interpreted through different ideological perspectives globally; opposing conclusions can be reached from the same article, in a similar way to the religious arguments.
Locally, in Singapore, the diverse range of religious practices and absence of an official religion (Wikipedia) means faith is not used as a basis for law. This separation of state and church (or mosque, etc) means law is based on ideologies instead. For Singapore, the dominant ideology is collectivism, which prioritizes the group over the individual. When applied to law, this means that Singapore is willing to sacrifice a few individuals for the benefit of all. Therefore, for Kho Jabing, the overriding factor was not his individual rights, but rather the good of society. This Singaporean mindset is heavily influenced by Singapore’s traumatic roots as a country (being unwillingly expelled from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965). As a young country with few natural resources, development could only be achieved by working together, under strict regulation. Founder Lee Kuan Yew firmly believed in nation-building (Market Business News), and many agreed that he “was right about Asian values being collectivist…”. (Easterly, pp unknown)
One local argument used within the collectivism ideology can be summarised as the ends justify the means. The Singaporean government believes that overall good results justify the death penalty. According to 2011 UN data, Singapore has the second lowest murder rate in the world (BBC news). Whether or not this is even a result of capital punishment laws, it is certainly a price that the Singaporean government deems worth paying for the benefit of the country and citizens. 80% of Singaporeans believe that the death penalty provides safety and security (The Straits Times). For Kho Jabing, this cost him his life, but for Singapore, this was in accordance with the local collectivist ideology. In their view, the end goal of a safe country is worth the means of capital punishment.
In Singapore, part of the local collectivist ideology is the idea of a social contract (W. Gough, pp. 2–3). Citizens have traded individual freedoms for the economic development and protection of the State. They give up making rules themselves, for the ruling party to do it instead. And the ruling party in Singapore has capital punishment. Despite the citizen’s opinion on the matter, as part of the social contract, they agree to obey the law. By being part of society and receiving all the benefits, citizens implicitly sign the social contract. In the case of Kho Jabing, by murdering someone and breaking the social contract, he reaped the consequences himself.
From a personal perspective, my lack of religious beliefs allows me to take a detached approach when exploring different perspectives. I can agree or disagree with any view – or justification for said view – on any topic. As an atheist, I analyse viewpoints from a point of reason rather than a point of belief, and as such, I look for logical consistency and supporting evidence in an argument.
This lack of faith has had an impact on my ethical perspective – that the death penalty is not morally justifiable. I agree with Bloomberg’s View when they argued against the “popular view that killers should be killed… rapists should be raped or thieves stolen from.” (Bloomberg View, 2014)
To me, the death penalty feels more like revenge than justice. The following quote from a Kho Jabing supporter resonated with me: “… we need to see death row inmates for who they are: people who have made mistakes, people who have made bad decisions, people who might have been cruel, but also people who have families, who have struggles, who are full of contradictions like us.” (Malaysiakini). These criminals are still human. A new study by Middlesex University discovered that 50% of young offenders are victims themselves (Middlesex University). This evidence makes me feel compassion towards criminals, and helps me identify with the humanist ideology, which has heavily influenced my ethical perspective.
The ethical humanist ideology emphasizes the ‘value and agency of human beings both individually and collectively, and prefers critical thinking and evidence to superstition [and religion].’ (Wikipedia). The humanist approach values both the life of Kho Jabing, and the lives that might be saved with the death penalty as a deterrent. This approach does not allow us to trade one value against the other. Furthermore, the rational side of humanism requires us to look at the evidence – some of which suggests capital punishment doesn’t even work as a deterrent. According to police officers, the death penalty “does little to prevent violent crimes,” (Committee on Law and Justice at the National Research Council). Additionally, a 2009 study showed that 88% of the top criminologists believe the death penalty is not a deterrent (Gallup News). To me, this evidence is more valuable than the theoretical argument that the death penalty could act as a deterrent. However, I can see why others see it differently, and so while I am against the death penalty, I would never say that it is wrong.
Perhaps I initially came to my perspective from literature; I am an avid reader and always have been. Constantly putting yourself into the shoes of other people makes you a lot more empathetic, and as a result, I feel empathy towards criminals. This has made me take a more humanist approach to the issue. For me, the collectivist approach that Singapore takes is not right for this dilemma. What’s missing here is compassion and empathy, which are key when dealing with issues involving human life.
We’ve identified and explored many religious, ideological, and ethical perspectives on personal, local and global levels; but why is this important? While the topic of the death penalty may not affect our daily lives, the ability to understand, analyse, and compare different perspectives can be applied to critical situations throughout our life.
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