In 2018, the then Malaysian government announced the abolition of the death penalty for all offences that stipulated the punishment. It was meant as a progressive step forward, but against a backdrop of what appeared to be a public backlash and a series of contradicting policy statements (not to mention a change in government and a global pandemic), the issue has received no resolution since.
Going by various press conferences, memoranda, petitions and polls against the death penalty, it would appear that the Malaysian public’s opinion on this topic is broadly conservative. It has been reported for example that an overwhelming 82% of netizens opposed abolishing the death penalty.
But are Malaysians really that decisive and clear about the death penalty? And can you truly measure the public sentiment on a complex and emotive issue based on simple agree/disagree polls?
We at The Centre are particularly interested in the area of proportionate sentencing and we sought to find answers to these questions and more in a recent study.
For an overview of the death penalty in Malaysia, read our primer here.
About the survey
With fieldwork partner Hometrics, The Centre conducted an extensive survey on opinions toward the death penalty between 29 November 2019 and 6 December 2019. Apart from seeking to understand the reasons behind respondents’ general attitudes toward the death penalty, we also wanted to investigate the strength of these views against different offences that currently merit the death penalty, the presence of aggravating and mitigating factors, as well as respondents’ mock sentencing of actual case scenarios.
Did you know:
The majority of death row cases in Malaysia are for drug-related offences.
Questions in the survey were refined from three existing studies done on the death penalty: an extensive public opinion survey in Malaysia by Professor Roger Hood in 2013, a Singaporean study done by the National University of Singapore in 2018, as well as a death penalty attitude scale created by Kevin O’Neil and his team of American researchers.
The Bahasa Malaysia, English and Mandarin survey was conducted through 500 face-to-face interviews in Peninsular Malaysia based on a stratified sample of states, age, gender and ethnicity. The demographic breakdown of respondents are as follows:
Note: Due to constraints, the face-to-face survey was limited to Peninsular Malaysia only.
Death penalty ‘necessary’ for majority, but not clearly so
The survey kicked off by asking respondents if they felt that the death penalty is needed in a society. A small majority of respondents, 60%, agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. However a relatively significant 31% of respondents were neutral. This suggests that Malaysians could be more uncertain about the death penalty than indicated by simple ‘yes/no’ polls.
Navigation Note: Select the gear icon on the bottom right of the chart to view respondents by their demographics, or tap on each circle for more information.
We also asked respondents if they felt that their opinions toward the death penalty were definite or clear. 59% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they had definite views on the death penalty but the remaining (and significant) 41% were not as sure — an important detail that would be missed in ‘yes/no’ polls.
Support mostly driven by beliefs in deterrence and retribution
Malaysians’ support for the death penalty is mostly driven by beliefs in deterrence and retribution. A large majority, 85% of respondents, believe that the death penalty makes criminals think twice and discourages people from committing that crime. It is a powerful belief despite the fact that there is as yet no conclusive evidence worldwide whether the death penalty has a deterring effect.
The belief in retribution is also strong – 71% of respondents say that they would feel satisfied if those guilty of certain crimes paid for it with their lives. Interestingly, the desire for retribution is more on behalf of the victims and the victims’ families (73% of respondents) rather than for society (60% of respondents).
Comparatively, beliefs in cost pragmatism and rehabilitation were not strong drivers of respondents’ attitudes towards the death penalty. On the count of cost pragmatism specifically, respondents were surprisingly divided. Only 50% of respondents agreed that sentencing to death is more cost-efficient than handing out life sentences. Degree-holders were found to agree more on the cost-efficiency of the death penalty than non-degree holders.
Mixed feelings about second chances
Although 60% of respondents supported the death penalty in general, a higher majority of 83% agreed with the idea of life imprisonment as a punishment.
At the same time, however, only 39% of respondents agreed on giving second chances to criminals who have been sentenced to life imprisonment. 59% of respondents were either neutral or against the idea of reduced sentences or pardons, indicating that Malaysians are broadly quite punitive towards those who have been found guilty.
A few noteworthy differences across demographics
Ethnicity. Chinese respondents are 16% more likely to support the death penalty than Malay/Bumiputera respondents, while Indian respondents are 18% more likely to support the death penalty than Malay/Bumiputera respondents.
Education level. Tertiary-educated respondents are 45% more likely to support the death penalty than secondary-educated ones.
Income. Respondents with a monthly household income of RM8,000 and above are 23% less likely to be pro-death penalty compared to respondents with monthly household income under RM3,000.
Have it but don’t use it?
Only 4% of respondents to our survey believe that the death penalty should not be used at all vs. 60% of respondents who believe that the death penalty is needed in a society. Could this be due to the symbolic importance of having the death penalty in our statutes? In our editorial last year, we speculated that this could be the case and that reviewing the sentencing guidelines for all offences would be a more productive path forward.
This argument appears to be supported by the findings of our survey. Malaysians’ support for the death penalty – including the mandatory death penalty – is very much contingent on type of offence as well as the presence of aggravating and mitigating factors. Read these findings in Part 2 of our research write-up.
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