THERE has been lots of furore over the recent executions of the ringleaders of the Bali 9 drug smugglers.

Their execution brought out the usual parade of vociferous but not necessarily level-headed critics of the death penalty.

Their vocal opposition has gone as far as to make martyrs out of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, some even eulogising them as “brave”.

Come on now. Really? These were merely selfish criminals who knowingly took a gamble and came out on the losing end.

Regardless, I’m here to debate capital punishment itself.

The death penalty is slowly being outmoded in many parts of the civilised world. There is a certain stigma attached to countries that continue the use of what some would call an archaic and cruel penalty.

Many who oppose the death penalty posture as if they had the moral high ground, scorning those in the opposing camp who they believe to be less civilised.

By the end of this, I hope to have shown the reader that the idealistic humanists and grieving parents making the news are not the ends all in “civilised” opinion.

In fact, I hope and argue for a wider use of the death penalty. Because it is simply the pragmatic thing to do.

Incredulous you think? Read on.

  1. Effectiveness

Let us examine the reasons penal systems are put in place:

1) To neutralise threats to society;

2) As a deterrent to the convicted and to others;

3) Rehabilitation of criminals before reintroduction to society; and,

4) To satiate the aggrieved and a sense of justice, that all wrongs deserve punishment.

I remember watching a documentary about US jails that stated that the recidivism rates for convicted felons are at 66% within 3 years of being released from jail.

It means that for every three persons released from jail, two of them end back up in jail for committing crimes after being released from prisons!

I don’t remember clearly the rest of the stats, but what else made an impression on me was that a high percentage of these felons never break the cycle of crime and incarceration.

In fact, most of them enter prisons as smalltime crooks, but come out much more hardened.

In other words, the track record of jails is abhorrent.

You can say that the US is running a very expensive system that doesn’t work for two-thirds of the people they’re meant for, or that it doesn’t work two-thirds of the time.

If I sold you such a product, would you not get angry?

When you consider the raison d’etre for penal systems, the death penalty works better in every single aspect over incarceration. It neutralises disruptive elements permanently and is a stronger deterrent.

Further, it makes irrelevant the need to rehabilitate the criminal as there will be no reintroduction to society.

  1. Subjectivity of deservedness — the chink in the armour

But here is the chink in the armour in the argument for the death penalty. As far as punishment befitting the crime goes, where should we draw the line on which crimes “deserve” the death penalty? The debate would be never ending.

So while capital punishment should have a place in our penal system, the way it is wielded (based on the severity of the crime) can and should be overhauled.

Society would be better served if proven track records of recidivism are also taken into account.

Felons that have proven themselves incorrigible should be put down, “Strike 1! Strike 2! Strike 3! You’re out!” It is only pragmatic.

  1. Pointlessness of rehabilitating the incorrigible

But many people cannot see beyond their own sympathies. Examples of this include making excuses for the accused, eg poverty, abuse or upbringing.

Or soundbites that hit at the gut but have no basis whatsoever, such as “everyone deserves a second chance”, conveniently ignoring the statistics of relapsed criminals.

Further, whether or not a felon is incorrigible because of forces beyond his control, or because of his own lifestyle choices, the end result is the same — if they cannot be rehabilitated, they will continue to be a disruptive force to society upon release.

What good is it for society to keep them there then?

By extension, putting resources behind developing and running more effective rehabilitation systems for felons, while a noble one, is too costly on society for far too few individuals.

The objective of rehabilitation is to me a secondary objective. Access to more rehabilitation-focused facilities should really remain a privilege of only those who demonstrate promise of success.

  1. What about miscarriage of justice?

What about those who have been wrongly sentenced to die, the innocent victims of justice gone wrong?

To that question, I’d answer with the same question — what about the lives of those who were destroyed by recently-released felons who relapsed into criminal behavior?

They, too, are victims of justice gone wrong. It is a failure of the justice and penal system if they did not protect the rest of society by preventing a felon with a high likelihood of relapse from being reintroduced into society.

It is a failure of omission. And I confidently venture that there are far more victims in the latter category than in the former category.

Further, miscarriage of justice is a function of the judicial process.

Many people get wrongly sentenced to jail as well. Are we to completely abandon all forms of punishment altogether?


In summary, it is to me important to rank “deservedness” of the individual crime as only a bit part of the equation in formulating our penal systems and the modes of punishment.

The probability of recidivism should be taken into consideration in handing out the death penalty or other forms of punishment.

I also think that an overhaul of our penal system is necessary so that fewer felons are kept in “prison limbo”.

We should know who to focus rehabilitation efforts on and who to give up on, trying as much as possible to reduce the number kept in indecisive “limbo”.

This would bring down our prison populations and ensure that money goes only to house those who demonstrate the most probability of being rehabilitated.

I can’t say enough how counterintuitive it is that so much of the government’s money should goes towards supporting the least productive (and even “deserving”) part of society.

Finally, it is OK to disagree with me on the death penalty. But please do not automatically discount proponents of the death penalty as barbaric and uncivilised.

Maybe we are just being sensible rather than sentimental.

Jared Lim
Jared Lim

*When not inundated by work at Loanstreet, Jared muses pointlessly about the established norms of society.

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