One year ago, the newly elected government of Malaysia officially announced its intention to abolish the death penalty. This was an historic moment not only for Malaysia—where over 1200 people are currently on death row, overwhelmingly for drug-related offenses—but for the entire region.
Just a few months later, however, the same government started backtracking on its promise, citing a lack of public support for abolition as a key reason for this choice.
This deference to public opinion is not exceptional. Rather, public support is often used as a central justification for pursuing populist policies, including violent drug wars and the death penalty. While examples of populist anti-drug campaigns can be found around the world, in some extreme cases— such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines—these campaigns have triggered calls for the use or reintroduction of capital punishment as a tool of drug control. This stands in contrast with an established global trend of moving away from the death penalty for drug offenses, as recorded by Harm Reduction international.
A closer look at developments in these countries raises the question: what does the public really think about the death penalty for drug offenses?
In an effort to better understand these phenomena, Harm Reduction International recently analyzed a selection of 39 valid public opinion surveys conducted in 5 key countries in Asia—a region that holds 16 of the 35 countries which still retain the death penalty for drug offenses. This included surveys from China, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines.
From this analysis, we learnt that public support for capital punishment, both in general and for drug offenses specifically, is much more complex and nuanced than often depicted.
Public support for the death penalty appears to be based on a belief in the deterrent potential of capital punishment, and in the conviction that the criminal justice system works perfectly. If and when the public learns otherwise, and especially when it learns of the many people who are wrongfully convicted or executed, support drops significantly.
Public support for the death penalty also appears to be “abstract”, almost a gut feeling: while most respondents claimed to support the death penalty in theory, people were much more measured in their views when presented with real-life scenarios. This suggests that when faced with the human cost of capital punishment, the public may exercise more caution and be more reluctant to support the death penalty.
This is particularly true for drug-law violations. Surveys that asked respondents to express their support for the death penalty as a punishment for real-life drug cases never registered a majority of support. In the four surveys which presented respondents with the real-life case of a woman drug courier caught at the airport, support dropped to well under 20 percent.
Finally, these surveys reveal that the public actually tends to know very little and has little interest in the death penalty. While the majority expresses support for this measure, the strength of such support is invariably limited. In other words, the death penalty simply is not a priority issue for the public — unless intentionally made so by media and government campaigns.
These findings ultimately confirm that drug offenses are a strategic entry point towards the complete abolition of the death penalty: support for capital punishment is lower for non-violent offenses, the lack of unique deterrent effect is clear with regard to drug offenses, and some surveys even found that capital punishment was the least preferred response to drug trafficking.
Photo of a street in Beijing, China; by Nggsc via Wikimedia Commons