How many clemencies from hanging has Singapore granted?

When all legal avenues have been exhausted, the last resort for a criminal sentenced to death, is to apply for Presidential clemency.

When Singapore gained independence in 1965, the avenue of clemency was embedded into the Singapore Constitution[1]. Although clemency is usually discussed in the context of capital cases, it is in fact available to any offender for any offence. The Singapore Constitution provides that any offender convicted of any offence in Singapore can apply to the President for a pardon, reprieve or respite, of the execution of any sentence pronounced on such offender. The President may “on the advice of the Cabinet” grant clemency in deserving cases. “On the advice of the Cabinet” means that the President has no personal discretion. The power of clemency is exercised only if the Cabinet advises it.

The grant of Presidential clemency from the death sentence is the focus of this article.

For criminals sentenced to death, the Singapore Constitution additionally provides that the President must, once the Court of Appeal has confirmed the death sentence, call for reports on the conviction to be submitted to the Cabinet to consider the possibility of commuting the death sentence.[2] So, whether the condemned prisoner asks for clemency or not, the Cabinet will consider clemency for such prisoner.

Since Singapore’s independence, all of six clemencies against death sentences have been granted.[3] In each of those six cases, the condemned prisoners had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

I have tabulated the details relating to the six Presidential clemencies from death sentences which have been granted in Singapore, and the table is shown below.

What do we see when the number of clemencies granted is compared with the number of state executions?

Of the six clemencies granted, three were granted prior to 1991 and three after 1991.

On the number of criminals hanged since 1965 to 1991, there are no official data. According to Amnesty International, a total of 21 judicial executions took place in Singapore from 1981 to 1990 [4], which data a scholar has said “may well under-estimate the true number of executions during this period since the statistics are usually compiled from media reports.” [5]

As for the number of criminals hanged since 1991 to 2019, I have tallied 491 judicial executions took place based on official sources.[6] As against that toll, two clemencies against death sentences were granted in 1992 by President Wee Kim Wee and one in 1998 by President Ong Teng Cheong.

No clemency from a death sentence was granted by President S R Nathan during his 12-year term nor by President Tony Tan, and nor by President Halimah Yacob at the time of writing this article. In any case, the President has no personal discretion when it comes to granting clemencies. His role is ceremonial.

Incidentally, in 2018, President Halimah Yacob granted clemency to a convicted murderer who was sentenced to “detention at the President’s pleasure”.[7] Detained at the President’s pleasure means to be imprisoned indefinitely until the offender is deemed to be suitable for release. The man was 15 years old when he committed and was convicted of murder in 2001. Because of his age when he committed the murder, his identity was sealed. Being below 18 at the time of conviction, he was spared the death penalty and was instead sentenced to be detained at the President’s pleasure in accordance with Singapore’s criminal laws then.

As for clemencies from the death sentence, since 1998 to now, there have been none.

One scholar has opined: “Based on data from 1991 to 2016, excepting jurisdictions where ‘clemency procedures are either absent or exist only on paper’ (such as China and Japan), Singapore may well possess one of the world’s lowest clemency rates among retentionist nations, at less than 1 per cent of finalized cases.” [8]

Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss is a practising lawyer in Singapore of more than 30 years’ standing.

24 February 2021

[1] Article 22P of the Singapore Constitution

[2] Article 22P(2) of the Singapore Constitution

[3] ‘Last Chance for Life: Clemency in Southeast Asian Death Penalty Cases’, Daniel Pascoe 2019, at p. 95. Johnson, D. T. (2013), ‘The jolly hangman, the jailed journalist, and the decline of Singapore’s death penalty’, Asian Journal of Criminology, 8:54 stated that there have been “seven pardons since 1965” but provided no further details.

[4] Johnson, D. T. (2013), ‘The jolly hangman, the jailed journalist, and the decline of Singapore’s death penalty’, Asian Journal of Criminology, 8:54.

[5] Chan Wing Cheong (2016), ‘The Death Penalty in Singapore: In Decline but Still Too Soon for Optimism’, Asian Journal of Criminology, 11: 181, Footnote 10

[6] How many has Singapore hanged from the gallows?’, Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss (22 Feb 2021) at https://jeannettechongaruldoss.medium.com/

[7] ‘Teen who killed Anthony Ler’s wife gets clemency after 17 years in jail,’ The Straits Times, 13 December 2018

[8] ‘Last Chance for Life: Clemency in Southeast Asian Death Penalty Cases’, Daniel Pascoe 2019, at p. 96.

A lawyer practising in Singapore for more than 30 years.