05 December 2005

Woof Woof

Some lingering thoughts on the Nguyen Van Tuong case. Much earlier I had convincingly argued (Mr Wang is always convincing to himself) that the death sentence is no powerful than life imprisonment as a deterrent. If you cannot scare off a drug trafficker with a life sentence, you cannot scare him off with the death sentence either. The blogger known as Gilbert Koh expresses a similar view in the comments section of this Singabloodypore post and offers us a colourful illustration:

Actually I think life imprisonment is as strong or even stronger a deterrent than the death sentence. For all practical purposes, if a person cannot be deterred by the idea of being locked up for the rest of his life, I don't think he would be deterred by the idea of being hanged either.

It is like a devil-and-the-deep-blue-sea situation. Both are qualitatively very different, but both are also very extreme.

It is like telling a person "If you commit this crime, I will dig out both your eyes";

or proposing an alternative:

"If you commit this crime, I will cut off your testicles."

Both are qualitatively quite different - they lead to quite different consequences - but if one does not deter a particular person, the other is also unlikely to deter.

By the way, Whineeey, assuming you are male and have been convicted of the relevant crime, which form of punishment would you prefer?
Whineeey had no answer. But Mr Wang does have a further insight to offer on this matter. Here it is - the severity of the potential punishment matters less than the likelihood of being caught.

To elaborate, assume that a drug trafficker knows very well that Singapore has the death penalty (or for that matter, life imprisonment) for drug traffickers. He believes however that he has a 90% chance of successfully passing through Customs without getting caught. The potential for the death penalty (or life imprisonment) would not deter him if he is prepared to bet on his 90% chance.

Assume conversely that Singapore has much more lenient laws on drug trafficking (eg a maximum of 10 years in jail). However, also assume that the authorities are much more vigilant at the immigration checkpoints. Thus the drug trafficker believes that there is a 90% chance of being caught at Customs.

Mr Wang is very certain that in the 2nd scenario, many more drug traffickers would be deterred than in the 1st scenario, from attempting to pass through the immigration checkpoints with their illegal merchandise.

Thus one wonders why the Singapore government doesn't simply step up measures at the immigration checkpoints. For example, train 100 new sniffer dogs and plant them all over Changi Airport. Surely this would be (a) very useful in catching traffickers who still dare to come, (b) very effective in deterring traffickers from planning to come, (c) very useful in reducing the future risks of damaging foreign relations with another nation over the death penalty, and (d) coincidentally useful in thwarting the terrorist threat.

Who needs the death penalty?

Rover will do just fine.

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Merv said...

I beg to differ.

Very few criminals think about the probablity of getting caught.

Look here. (PDF document)


It applies to armed robbery, but I would think it also applies to most crimes.

"Most of those interviewed (63.6 per cent) indicated that they did not think about the
possibility of getting caught before the robbery. "

Merv said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

You must be careful how you interpret your stats. Firstly the people who were interviewed in that study were people who actually committed the offence of armed robbery, and had then been convicted. In other words, the study focuses only on people who had already failed to be deterred. Thus the population sample used in this study just doesn't serve the purposes of our present discussion. The study shows nothing, one way or the other, about what actually deters would-be criminals. In other words, it neither goes towards proving nor disproving the proposition that a high probability of being caught is an effective deterrent.

darrnot said...

I totally agree with Mr Wang. I have asked before at tomorrow.sg, what sort of drugs detection measures does Singapore immigration practise at the checkpoints?

Perhaps an NMP should ask the Home Affairs minister in parliament. I would support the death penalty if I am convinced there are no alternative measures to deter drug traffickers. Are we using it only as a last resort?

Kai said...

But, Mr Wang, how can you be sure or know the death penalty isn't a good enough deterrent? I mean, there's also the possibility that drugs trafficking would rise exponetially, if SG does away with the death penalty, when potential traffickers were deterred by it in the first place.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

First of all, it is important to note that the arguments against the death penalty are not only or even primarily based on its alleged ineffectiveness as a deterrent.

If the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent was the only issue, then the people who support the death sentence for drug trafficking should also support the death sentence for rapists, drunk drivers, robbers, litterers, NS defaulters, income tax evaders, pimps, molesters, shoplifters etc.

Merv said...

"In other words, the study focuses only on people who had already failed to be deterred. "

I mean, how are we going to prove that decreasing the severity and increasing the probablity of getting caught would deter crime?

How do we go about finding deterred potential criminals who gave up at the very last minute?

Would anyone even admit to that?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Of course it is difficult to see how such a study could be done. However, I'm just saying that the study you mentioned can't really prove anything relevant to our discussion.

Note however that increasing the probability of getting caught is helpful either way. After all, apart from deterring would-be traffickers, we do also really want to catch drug traffickers, don't we?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I have to say I am quite confused by many of the latest points above. Maybe I am reading too quickly but some of these points comments just don't make sense.

For example, Mugster, you say that lawyers and students cannot understand the psychological make-up of criminals. Well, then I suggest to you that Members of Parliament and civil servants would also have similar difficulties. Why then should I trust in the MPs and civil servants who created the death penalty in Singapore.

Then Quetelet says:

"Ideally, you'd want exceedingly high penalties with a low probability of detection, since it costs nothing to increase penalties but it costs a lot for every marginal increase in monitoring."

Sorry, this doesn't make sense to me. I cannot see it that way. Low probabilities of detection mean that drugs WILL actually pass into Singapore. As I see it, there's no point hanging drug traffickers if, for every trafficker that you catch and hang (and torture and castrate etc), a large number of other traffickers successfully enter Singapore with their goods undetected.

Also, repentance, which Mugster alluded to, doesn't gel with me. When the EU abolished the death penalty, it is not because it believes that the criminals in its part of the world are particularly repentant. I think that the death penalty is wrong because I think that it is wrong to kill people. People, period. Not just repentant people, nor unrepentant people, nor Singaporeans, nor Australians, nor drug traffickers, nor murderers, or income tax evaders. Just people.

The point about the difference between life imprisonment and death sentence is still misunderstood. Let me give you a further explanation.

Suppose I say, "If you commit this crime, I will chop off your ten toes and your ten fingers and dig out both your eyes."

Contrast to the situation where I say, "If you commit this crime, I will chop off your ten toes and nine of your ten fingers, leaving one little pinky, and I'll dig out one of your eyes, leaving the other eye intact."

Clearly, Scenario 2 is more favourable to the criminal than Scenario 1. However, if Scenario 2 does not deter you from the crime, Scenario 1 won't either. Criminals won't say, "In this country, I would still have one eye and one finger left! I decide to commit the crimes here."

Back to the life-&-death example. Some may say that the death sentence is worse than life imprisonment. Others may feel that life imprisonment is worse than the death sentence. Yet others may think that they are equally terrible.

In my view, it does not matter. Because both are already very, very, very extreme. If one does not deter a criminal, neither will the other. In other words, as far as deterrent value is concerned, neither the death sentence nor the life imprisonment holds any obvious edge over the other. Those who would still commit the crime are simply betting that they WON'T be caught. They are not saying, "If I get caught, it's ok, I don't mind being hanged," any more than they are saying, "If I get caught, it's ok, I don't mind being locked up for the rest of my life."

singaporean said...

Is Mr Wang suggesting that Changi Airport is short of 100 sniffer dogs because of the death penalty, that the death penalty is some cost cutting measure?

And while I fully agree that a harsh sentence is of little deterrence if the enforcement is lax (as in China), but do harsh sentences mean nothing if the enforcement is not lax, like in Singapore? Good enforcement and death penalty are not mutually exclusive, are they?

There will always be people who are not deterred by death or life imprisonment, but do we have to add this pool, those who are not deterred by 10 years imprisonment?

If we are to lockdown Changi Airport now and conduct full cavity search on everybody, what are we more likely to find? Heroin? Pirated DVDs? Duty unpaid tobacco or alcohol? Endangered species of animals? Chewing gum?

What if the penalty for smuggling chewing gum is death? There will always dumb/ignorant/suicidal people around, but we can be rest assured that the smuggling volume will dry up, especially since the rewards are so low.

So, why not have death penalty for all crimes?

Consider this: If we have death penalty for molest, and you grab the butt of some lady who managed to catch a glimpse of your face. Do you

1) Hope that you wont get caught, or
2) Make sure you dont get caught by killing her, since the penalty will be no harsher if you do get caught anyway.

Excessive application of death penalty WILL lead to more violent crimes.

So perhaps it is wrong for Singapore to impose mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking? Maybe, but wouldnt this impose way too much a burden on a trial judge to shoulder almost alone? Would all trial judges chicken out and make the death penalty an empty threat?

Oh, and lastly, I look forward to someone who can convince me that I am wrong. And just because I try to understand why the government does certain things and even reluctantly agree sometimes, doesnt make me a government supporter.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Again, many things which I find very difficult to agree with. For example, I can't agree with the idea that hanging is good because keeping criminals alive costs money. Go down this line and you might as well kill our non-productive senior citizens. Sorry, not acceptable to Mr Wang.

On the question of rational and irrational offenders - I think that particularly in crimes like drug trafficking, you find a lot of rational thinking. Why? Because drug trafficking is a business. It's not like the kind of case where a crazed jealous lover stabs someone and doesn't care about the consequences. Drug trafficking is ultimately driven by the drug barons, who aren't going to pursue non-profitable courses of action. What is the use of continually sending your traffickers through airports where they are continually detected and arrested and the drugs are continually seized? The barons may not care very much about the lives of the traffickers but they would surely care about their financial loss. Man, $1,300,000.00 worth of drugs lost, thanks to that bumbling Nguyen.

Singaporean - I was poking around the Internet and came across accounts of how Nguyen was actually arrested at Changi International Airport. Go check it out yourself. Suffice to say that it had absolutely nothing to do with the efficiency or vigilance of our immigration officers, or the quality of the intelligence information gathered by CNB. Nguyen was incredibly "suay" - a metal detector went off apparently due to a completely random malfunction, as Nguyen walked past it; he was carrying nothing metallic on himself at all. This account really does not inspire in Mr Wang the view that our immigration officers are already very effective and and we don't need to step up our vigilance.

Next - you offer a reason why we should not impose the death penalty for ALL crimes. Well, well. Mr Wang will offer you a better reason. If we imposed the death sentence on all crimes, no one would be left alive in Singapore. Go and count the number of crimes that YOU have personally committed:

Downloaded illegal music? Used pirated software? Littered? Cruelly kicked a cat? Drove faster than the speed limit? Drank a little, then drove? Had oral sex? Took a few pens and other "free" stationery from your office? Watched some porn? Owned a Playboy magazine? Jaywalked? Plucked a flower at a public park? Cheated on your bus fare? (oh coming soon, the new legislation).

You'd be dead 20 times over.

singaporean said...

Mr Wang,

the drugs are worthed millions only if it clears the customs. The last time I was in Cambodia, the travel guides advised travellers to be very suspicious of pizzarias that offer "special" unspecified toppings.

There are many ways to smuggle drugs. Even in the streets of Singapore, most drug addicts will hide their stash in their underwear. To clear the customs, the drug mules should at least shove the condom wrapped stash up where it would appear only after repeatedly duck squats, or swallow it. Nabbing such drug mules is near impossible. (Like I mentioned before, I am under no delusions that Singapore is totally drug free: "Rehabbed" drug addicts of my unit get caught with drugs within weeks of their release from prison/DB.)

To tape the stash on one's back and hope to clear the customs based on a cute innocent face is incredibly amateurish. A simple modern technology called Back Scatter X-Ray machines will reveal the package with ease. Except that few tourists will welcome the idea of being seen in the nude by customs officials. Which is why I speculate other accidental happenings, like a strategically faulty metal detector could spark off an "unintended" search with unexpectedly results, was not so accidental at all, so that nobody need to mention that Changi Airport has covertly used Back Scatter X Ray machines.

So, why did the drug lords make use of Nguyen in such an amateurish fashion? Who knows... maybe they need a larger pool of drug mules, and wanted a big case to rattle Singapore to change it's laws?

Far fetched? Probably. But I am an INTP.

"An INTP arguing a point may very well be trying to convince himself as much as his opposition. In this way INTPs are markedly different from INTJs, who are much more confident in their competence and willing to act on their convictions."

And, I can only speak for myself: If the penalty is death for the above Mr Wang mentioned crimes, I will choose to refrain from doing all those until I leave Singapore. I once had the misfortune of travelling with an obnoxious character who, on crossing the Second Link, started throwing trash out of the car window because it is finally legal to do so.

singaporean said...

I am suffering from withdrawal from a lack of Mr Wang updates, which leads me to rethink certain issues.

Gilbert Koh asserts that there is little deterrence in death vs life and gave the example of eyeballs vs testicles.

Had Nguyen been sentenced to imprisonment till death, would there be an international uproar this loud? I doubt it. So, while it is as big a sob story for Nguyen and family, be it life or death, the rest of the world couldnt care less.

Looking back at Gilbert Koh's eyeballs vs testicles analogy, had it been valid, would be like the world complaining that gourging eyeballs is barbaric but cutting testicles is acceptable.

The public perception of the two sentences are different and this is where it matters: Nguyen's days of trafficking drugs is over, even if he is just released with a fine. He will be a hot candidate for a full cavity search at any customs checkpoint, had he been released. The message is to the rest of the world that you will suffer the worst if you follow Nguyen's path. And it appears that the world has listened.

While I will not affirm that it is ethical or moral to resort to crude and barbaric means, the key to a penalty's effectiveness is that it has to be shocking and revulsive. If the penalty seem to be a pleasurable experience, I suspect we may have a long queue of applicants to be a drug mule.

Much of modern life had been defined by the hiding of our "barbaric" ways. Do you like suckling pig? Have you slaughtered a piglet before? Have you served NS or expect others to do it? Are you ready to put a bullet in someone's head? And if you run out of bullets, are you going to shout bang bang and hope that your enemy will just die? Are you going to kill only the enemy soldiers whom you certified has killed someone?

There is a difference between doing a dirty thing, and doing the right thing. Not all our dirty jobs can be outsourced to foreigners.

Agagooga said...

"Had Nguyen been sentenced to imprisonment till death, would there be an international uproar this loud? I doubt it. So, while it is as big a sob story for Nguyen and family, be it life or death, the rest of the world couldnt care less."

The point is about the deterrent effect, not about barbarity.

International uproar comes from the fact that we're imposing a barbarous punishment which, to boot, has dubious marginal deterrent value.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Hi Mugster

Well, I could respond to your points in detail, but frankly I've grown a little bored with the topic, and it HAS grown rather repetitive. So I will just leave you for a couple of morsels to think about:

1. In any country, including Singapore, the number of people who die from smoking-related causes greatly exceeds the number of people who die from, say, abusing heroin. Why aren't we hanging cigarette makers?

2. In any given month, the number of people who die in Singapore in traffic accidents caused by drunk driving greatly exceeds the number of people who die from, say, abusing heroin. Why aren't we hanging alcohol makers?

3. No one dies from abusing marijuana. Going by your own arguments, would you say that drug traffickers caught with marijuana should be spared the death sentence?

I know, by the way, a number of incidents, where people in Singapore courts have asked for the death sentence, rather than life imprisonment. Naturally these requests are not legally possible or significant.

Finally - if deterrence, or the lack of it, is really your sole consideration in this discussion, why don't you propose new forms of punishment to the Singapore government? For example, how about creating a new "death-&-torture sentence", where, say, we pull out the drug trafficker's toenails one by one, cane him twenty times on the backside, burn his private parts with an iron, and then kill him by crucifying him, sticking a couple of metal rods through his wrists and ankles, and let him bleed to death? Surely, this is a vastly superior form of deterrence to just a mere hanging, which is so quick.

If you think that the above is a good idea, then I think - let's just agree to disagree - we are just too far apart to find any common ground. If however, you thik that the above is a bad idea, and not merely for PR-related reasons, then ask yourself why, and then further ask yourself why your reasons in themselves shouldn't also apply to the death sentence in its current form.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I will address the one point that you asked me to specifically mentioned:

"hope that you can just clarify this first point though: Life imprisonment vs death penalty. Which one is more(in bold) effective ..."

Firstly, I think that the question is wrong. Even if we assume that Punishment A is a stronger deterrent than Punishment B, we have to bear in mind whether the quantum of difference in deterrence value justifies any special disadvantages that may come with Punishment A. See again my example about cutting off testicles and gouging out eyes.

Secondly, deterrence is only one factor out of many different kinds of factors that go into sentencing. For example, why do we have probation for young teenaged seditious bloggers? Surely life imprisonment/death sentence is a more powerful deterrent than probation. Yes, of course, but there are other factors coming into play. It is not merely a question of which is the most powerful deterrent.

You ask me whether the death sentence is more powerful than life imprisonment as a deterrent. For the purposes of discussion, let's take the answer to be yes. Then let's even further assume (and this is a big assumption, completely unsupported by any studies on the topic) that the death sentence is, to a significant extent, more effective than life imprisonment in deterring crime.

It still doesn't address any of the main arguments against the death sentence - for example, the irreversibility of the sentence in the case of wrongly convicted persons who are then shown to be innocent; the human rights angle; the religious/spiritual aspects ...

... and might I add another Mr Wang reason - the potential fall-out in diplomatic relationships with the ever-increasing great number of countries which DON'T believe in the death sentence.

Please understand this - the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the death sentence as a deterrent has never really been a primary argument AGAINST the death sentence. The effectiveness of the death sentence has in fact been the MAIN argument FOR the death sentence. The people who object to the death sentence then simply point, as a COUNTER-argument, to the several famous studies which have failed to show any link between having the death penalty and having a reduction in crime. But the main arguments against the death sentence lie on other grounds.