Over half of Malaysians polled in new survey feel death sentence still necessary

The face-to-face survey of 500 Malaysians nationwide aged 18 and above was conducted last November and December — following Putrajaya’s move to abolish the mandatory death sentence and grant judges the discretion to commute the capital punishment for certain crimes. — Reuters pic
The face-to-face survey of 500 Malaysians nationwide aged 18 and above was conducted last November and December — following Putrajaya’s move to abolish the mandatory death sentence and grant judges the discretion to commute the capital punishment for certain crimes. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, June 19 — Most Malaysians feel the government should keep the death penalty, especially for brutal crimes like murder, where the perpetrator exhibited high levels of intention and aggression, according to a survey by The Centre, a research outfit founded by Umno’s Khairy Jamaluddin and Shahril Hamdan.

The face-to-face survey of 500 Malaysians nationwide aged 18 and above was conducted last November and December — following Putrajaya’s move to abolish the mandatory death sentence and grant judges the discretion to commute the capital punishment for certain crimes.

Sixty per cent of the 500 polled felt Malaysian society still needs the death sentence.

Lead researcher Tham Jia Vern said it was a significant percentage but was not conclusive as 31 per cent said they could neither agree nor disagree to keeping the death penalty.

She also said those in favour of the death penalty were not very firm in their views. 

“This result may indicate the gap between instinctive support for the death penalty with a lack of familiarity with the deeper substance of the issue,” she said yesterday when discussing the survey findings.

Types of crimes deserving death sentence

Tham said Malaysians were clearer in choosing the death penalty when the survey questions focused on the proportion of the sentence to specific crimes well as mitigating factors drawn from actual cases. 

“There was a clear support for death penalty, including mandatory, for grievous harm with evidence of intention to kill,” she said.

The survey also found Malaysians were increasingly pro-death penalty in crimes that showed high levels of intention by the perpetrator and aggression. 

Eighty-five per cent called for the death sentence in intentional killings, while almost half of the 500 Malaysians surveyed said they supported the mandatory death sentence in such cases.

“However, when case facts are introduced, the pro-death penalty stance for premeditated murder is moderate. 

“Only 27 per cent chose the death penalty for the victim of domestic abuse found guilty of killing her abuser,” Tham said.

One of the cases cited was the June 2017 death of 18-year-old student T. Nhaveen who was assaulted, including sexually, by a group of teenagers in Bukit Gelugor, Penang who left him in a coma. The Centre researchers found that 66 per cent of Malaysians polled chose the death sentence for crimes similar to Nhaveen’s.

“Even so, despite the brutal nature of the case, less than a quarter of respondents chose the mandatory death penalty,” Tham said.

She said that when the crimes were about illicit drugs, over 61 per cent were in favour of the death sentence for kingpins, with 30 per cent of those saying it should be made a mandatory death sentence.

For drug carriers, 38 per cent called for the death sentence on those who knowingly transported the substances while 15 per cent said yes to death for drug mules. 

More than those believing in retribution, 85 per cent of those polled said the death sentence can deter others from committing similar crimes. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
More than those believing in retribution, 85 per cent of those polled said the death sentence can deter others from committing similar crimes. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

Nearly three quarters favour ‘an eye for an eye’

The Centre used four global research key factors to categorise Malaysians’ belief in the necessity of the death sentence. They are: belief in retribution, belief in deterrence, cost pragmatism and belief in rehabilitation or alternative sentences.

Of the 500 polled, nearly three-quarters or 71 per cent believed in retribution.

“A large proportion of the respondents indicated that they would feel satisfied if those guilty of certain crimes paid for it with their lives. 

“The idea of an eye for an eye is evidently prevalent in Malaysian society.

“The personal sense of satisfaction from retribution is more for the sake of the victims and victims’ families than a sense of justice to society at large,” Tham said.

She said this indicates that Malaysians empathise with others on their loss and suffering, which fuelled their support of the death penalty.

At the same time, Tham said the survey findings also showed that the circumstances and nature of such losses are important factors too.

She said that more than those believing in retribution, 85 per cent said the death sentence can deter others from committing similar crimes.

“Despite extensive research in this area however, there is still no conclusive evidence as to whether the death penalty has a deterrent effect on crime rates,” she added.

The survey showed that Malaysians were divided 50-50 on whether the death penalty is more cost-efficient than the alternative, life imprisonment. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
The survey showed that Malaysians were divided 50-50 on whether the death penalty is more cost-efficient than the alternative, life imprisonment. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

Alternative sentences

The survey showed that Malaysians were divided 50-50 on whether the death penalty is more cost-efficient than the alternative, life imprisonment.

“This result may be due to an unwillingness to equate life with money or a lack of assessment,” Tham said, adding that 83 per cent agreed that life imprisonment is a more viable sentence to death.

However, 68 per cent of Malaysians polled said they would either agree with or are undecided on the idea of second chances for those sentenced to life in prison. 

Tham said a sizeable 30 per cent were against pardons or sentences being reduced. 

“Overall, a mixed picture with respect to belief in the potential for rehabilitation,” she added.

Malaysia is currently having a moratorium on death penalties. 

As of February, the government — when it was controlled by Pakatan Harapan — said it was still studying the possibility of abolishing the mandatory death penalty but not capital punishment altogether.

The death penalty is currently retained for 33 offences in Malaysia, including 12 in which they are mandatory punishment. They are: drug trafficking, murder, offences against the King, five offences pertaining to terrorism, hostage taking, organised crime, firearms offences and rape.

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