By Clare Morneau
On October 11, the Malaysian Cabinet abolished the death penalty. This might appear to be a surprising change for Malaysia, as most neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia still practice capital punishment, but the new legislation mirrors the stance of the new political leadership in the country. It was introduced following the campaign of Malaysia’s recently installed government, which promised to abolish capital punishment as part of its platform. This government replaced a political party that had been in power in Malaysia since 1957, creating hope for a more effective democracy in a country that has been plagued in recent years with government corruption.
Throughout its political campaign and the election, the winning party, the Pakatan Harapan, maintained a strong and principled stance on human rights reforms, and a strengthened justice system. In a statement to The Associated Press, the government’s Communication Minister, Gobind Singh Deo, stated that the decision “is part of [the party’s] election pledge and also in line with the move away from capital punishment in the rest of the world.”
Human rights organizations have publicly commented on the election and the ensuing decision to abolish capital punishment, with Amnesty International’s Secretary General announcing, “Malaysia’s new government has promised to deliver on human rights and [this] announcement is an encouraging sign.” Capital punishment is seen by many as inhumane retribution, making a spectacle of the death of prisoners, causing them unnecessary pain, and often adding no advantage to the protection of society, as many death row cases focus on minor drug trafficking issues. This decision was in line with public opinion in Malaysia, as a 2016 poll conducted by the political party Gerakan found that over half of respondents wanted the government to abolish the mandatory death penalty.
Although human rights organizations have heralded this change as positive, it is possible that Malaysia’s pro-death penalty neighbors do not view the decision quite as highly. For example, China is currently the largest public executioner in the world, and the government has a history of using execution in an attempt to curb crime and maintain political control. Overall, there is no guarantee that this will inspire other Asian countries to abolish the death penalty, but it is a step forward for human rights in Malaysia. With no death penalty, Malaysia’s new government demonstrates its commitment to human rights, while not introducing any change that holds the possibility of damaging society, as life sentences are still a potential penalty for the most serious offenses. Prisoners will no longer face the fear of death under capital punishment, but it seems likely that many death row prisoners will receive life sentences for their crimes, therefore posing no danger to society.
With the change in capital punishment laws, the current 1200 pending executions in Malaysia will be halted, and death row prisoners will have their fates decided by courts in the coming months. Some of these prisoners have submitted applications to have their cases reexamined, which is more likely to happen now that they are no longer on death row.
In the aftermath of this decision, protesters of capital punishment have renewed hope that they will see other countries around the world following the Malaysian example and moving away from capital punishment. There are clear alternatives to the death penalty, and watching Malaysia work through the complications of legal change regarding imprisonment will provide other countries with an example of how to apply these changes. If advocacy organizations in countries that currently utilize the death penalty work to develop increased public support against it, perhaps we will see further action in the abolishment of capital punishment in the parts of the world that are laggards in criminal sentencing reform.
With legislation looking to be tabled during the month of October, Malaysia is set to join 142 other countries in the abolishment of capital punishment.
Clare is sophomore in Morse. You can contact her at Clare.Morneau@yale.edu.