Capital punishment – a matter of life and death

ON September 3, Muhammad Hafizul Rashid Emmy, 29, broke down in tears when the Kuala Lumpur High Court sentenced him to death by hanging after finding him guilty of trafficking 299.09g of cannabis into the country three years ago.

Following this heart-wrenching news, social media users are demanding this arbitrary, immoral and barbaric punishment – the death penalty – to be abolished in Malaysia. They are of the opinion that such taking of human life is no longer relevant in today’s world.

The death sentence has its beginnings in primitive societies which were reflected in ancient legal systems. Many countries in the world today, including Malaysia and Singapore, have legislated laws that state expressly that certain offences are capital offences for which the punishment is the death penalty.

Deterrence of crimes and just retribution

Since life is a priori the most precious possession of man, the threat that his life will be taken if he does certain acts is the best deterrent against the commission of those acts. The theory of determent clearly states that aim of the death penalty is to strike terror into the heart of a malefactor, so that he might be brought to his senses and be taught to obey the law in the future.

The death penalty has traditionally been justified on retributivist grounds. Retributive justice is a system of justice in which the criminal is punished in proportion to the moral magnitude of the crimes. To put it another way, crimes that are heinous or generate more moral outrage are met with harsher punishments. If there are some moral monsters who live in our midst and are unable to control their savagery and violence, it is better for society’s welfare that they be made to pay the ultimate price for their evil acts.

Retribution has its basis in religious values, which have historically maintained that it is proper to take an “eye for an eye” and “a life for a life” (Holy Bible, Exodus 21:23). We can find death penalties for crimes in the Babylonian legal text, the Hammurabi Code (Babylonian legal text) and the Al-Quran.

It is important to bear in mind that fair retribution is not unjust provided the accused was given due process, his wrong was serious and there were further safeguards like appeal, pardon and review.

Public support for the death penalty

The London-based Death Penalty Project and the Malaysian Bar released a public opinion survey as to the mandatory sentence of death, reaching a representative sample of over 1,500 Malaysians. Majority of them were in favour of the death penalty, whether mandatory or discretionary: 91% for murder, 74% to 80% for drug trafficking depending on the drug concerned, and 83% for firearms offences, the main reason in support of the death penalty was retribution.

Death penalty is constitutional

The Malaysian courts, on the other hand, while interpreting the right to life under Article 5 of the Federal Constitution, ruled that the death penalty per se is constitutional, provided that it is recognised by the law. The courts upheld the death penalties for drug trafficking and possessing firearms in Ong Ah Chuan v. PP [1981] AC 648 and PP v Lau Kee Hoo [1983] 1 MLJ 157 respectively.

The sword of justice hangs over all, it is only potent as long as it hangs; it is very nearly useless once it falls. The existence of death penalties for crimes such as murder emphasises society’s abhorrence of the offence and reaffirms belief in the sanctity of human life. As complete abolition of the death penalty is not a jus cogens norm, Malaysia is not legally obliged to abolish the death penalty.

Society ought to be educated on the grave consequences of drug abuse in order to enhance the deterrent effect of the death penalty. People must be exposed to how hardcore drug users live their deplorable state of existence. There should be more public sentiment and awareness of the executions when carried out. As it is now, the execution of a convicted criminal in our jails attracts no more attention from the media than a couple of lines of the news in brief. – September 8, 2021.

* Julian Ong Qi Xuan reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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