Fuzzy Logic on the death penalty

May 10, 2010

“You save one life here, but 10 other lives will be gone. What will your choice be?” That was Law Minister Shanmugam’s response to a question over the death penalty for drug trafficking. I have always maintained that one of the side effects of the PAP’s unshakeable belief that they are the brightest of the brightest is, ironically, the inability to hear how they sound when they present arguments to the public. Its as though the religion of meritocracy causes selective deafness.

In a dialogue session in Joo Chiat, someone brought up the case of 22 year old Malaysian Yong Vui Kong currently on death row for bringing in 47grams of heroine. Shanmugam defended the death penalty in Singapore, particularly with regards to drug trafficking, by making two points:

  1. The death penalty is a “trade off” for saving more lives which could potentially be ruined by drugs;
  2. Abolishment of the death penalty will send a signal to drug barons to use “young and vulnerable” drug mules because they may be spared.


Point 1: Right off the bat we are presented with two logical fallacies. First is the ‘false dilemma’ fallacy– abolish the death penalty and lives will be ruined! Second is the ‘appeal to fear’ – we need the death penalty or society will suffer. Beyond these two fallacies, Shanmugam’s argument lacks empirical evidence. We need to ask – are our current low levels of drug abuse in Singapore due to vigilant police work, stringent border inspections, and the pro-active following of police tip-offs? Or is it down solely to the glorification of the death penalty?

Until one can empirically isolate the causal factor for our low levels of drug abuse, one cannot state with any confidence, as Shanmugam does, that it is down to the death penalty. And if one wants to argue that it’s a package – a combination of good police work and death penalty – then we enter the realms of speculation, and this should be pointed out by the mainstream press. As it stands, the relationship between the death penalty and our low levels of drug abuse is but a mere correlation, nothing more.

Point 2: Drug barons already are using the “young and the vulnerable” as drug mules. The fact that there are drug mules entering Singapore despite the well publicised death penalty demonstrates its limits as deterrent! Drug mules are often people mired in poverty, debt, driven by blackmail or are drug users themselves. The death penalty punishes victims and not the real criminals – the drug barons themselves.  

Shanmugan’s arguments just do not stand up to logical scrutiny but, as usual, the mainstream press does not point this out. Who dares tell the Emperor he’s not wearing any clothes? But just to show I’m not completely unconstructive, let me suggest how Shanmugan should have played it.

He should have gone with the ‘values’ argument. Oh, the death penalty is a practice found in many cultures and civilisations (blah blah blah) and most Singaporeans are used to it and want it (blah blah blah). Appeal to so-called conservative values and no one would have batted an eyelid. Unfortunately, he chose to appeal to our sense of reason and logic, and that is when things began to seriously unfold.


5 Responses to “Fuzzy Logic on the death penalty”

  1. sushi bar Says:


  2. zc Says:

    my main gripe is that he did not address the real issue. it is not so much, as of present day, whether mr yong deserves the death penalty, or whether there is indeed a positive correlation or even causation between the presence of the death penalty and the low level of drug abuse in Singapore. What Mr Shanmugam should address instead is why it is necessary for the death penalty to be mandatory; wherein it is not up to a judge or jury to determine the moral culpability of the offender.

    Many citizens are unfamiliar with the philosophy of law and it is therefore easy and convenient for the minister to fend off discomforts with rhetorics.

    • groundnotes Says:

      I believe the reason for the DP being mandatory is that if it were not most judges would prefer to opt for a long prison sentence than to put someone to death.

  3. Dillon Says:

    “I have always maintained that one of the side effects of the PAP’s unshakeable belief that they are the brightest of the brightest is, ironically, the inability to hear how they sound when they present arguments to the public. Its as though the religion of meritocracy causes selective deafness.”

    Unfortunately, I suspect that Shanmugam knows exactly how shaky his logic is. But his defence of the death penalty wasn’t aimed at the liberal, intelligent segment – he knows he can never convince them. Rather, his was a pure exercise in fear-mongering, aimed at the simple-minded masses. He invokes the intuitive common sense of there being a “trade-off” to everything, and raises the spectre of a “stream” of drug mules coming into Singapore, somehow causing 10 deaths for each one we “let go” (a most disingenuous turn of phrase, considering that no one is suggesting that drug mules be totally acquitted).

  4. murli Says:

    i get the fact that you object to the lack of logical reasoning but it’s not clear what your views on the death penalty itself are. someone else had some views: if interested, see http://www.murli.net/greekcomplexity/2010/08/an-old-interview-with-david-marshall.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+GreekComplexity+%28Greek+Complexity%29

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