On April 3, Malaysia’s parliament voted to abolish the mandatory death penalty. In its place, the courts may mete out alternative sentences such as life imprisonment or whipping.
“[For] people who get involved in criminal activity due to economic hardships or exigent circumstances, there is now a way to proportionately punish them without the need to impose the ultimate penalty, which is death,” said Malaysian human rights lawyer Andrew Khoo, who lives in Kuala Lumpur and has campaigned to quash the death penalty in his country for the past 20 years.
The Southeast Asian country imposed a moratorium on executions in 2018 when it first pledged to abolish the death penalty completely. Now, capital punishment will no longer be compulsory for 11 crimes like murder, drug trafficking, and terrorism. The new law will also be applied retrospectively to reviewing the sentences of more than a thousand prisoners on death row, including those who have exhausted their appeals.
CT spoke with Khoo on the impacts of this new law and what a robust Christian engagement in politics amid a majority-Muslim setting might look like.
What is the significance of abolishing the mandatory death penalty in Malaysia?
We return the decision about sentencing back to the hands of judges, rather than judges being forced by law to impose a sentence without their ability to include any mitigation. It’s a return to justice and to proportionate sentencing.
Justice is about receiving an appropriate punishment for criminal activity, committing a crime, or going against the norms of society. But from a biblical perspective, justice needs to be tempered with mercy in the sense that we hate the crime but we don’t hate the person who committed the crime.
We can reinforce or restate society’s non-acceptance of criminal activity, but we can also allow ourselves to appreciate that sometimes people are driven to criminal activity through external pressures, economic considerations, and trying circumstances. This is not to say that we excuse the crime, but we allow ourselves a modicum of mercy when we impose sentences.
So the death penalty remains an option for some criminal offenses.
Yes. Generally speaking, we have not abolished the death penalty. If a crime leads to the death of an individual, the possibility of the imposition of the death penalty exists.
There’s been an attempt to decouple the death penalty from criminal activity that does not lead to the death of a person. For example, you could get the death penalty for illegally or unlawfully possessing a firearm in the past. The firearm didn’t even need to be fired. The fact that you possessed the firearm without a license was sufficient for you to be sentenced to death if you were convicted. So, we have broken the connection between the death penalty and a crime that did not result in a person’s death. That is a good thing.
Has the Malaysian government’s decision been influenced by events in neighboring country Singapore, where executions continue to be carried out?
I most certainly think so. Singapore was deaf to appeals—not just from Malaysia but from the international community—for mercy, clemency, and mitigation in sentencing when it came to executing people who were intellectually compromised.
This forced us to rethink the idea of justice and fairness in terms of sentencing and whether it was right to impose the death penalty on people whose criminal conduct was very marginal. People who had just exceeded the threshold for being considered a drug trafficker were treated in the same way as someone who was seriously trafficking in drugs. It didn’t matter whether it was 500 grams or 500 kilos of drugs; the sentence was still the same. This kind of injustice was reflected in some of the executions that were taking place in Singapore, where people with small amounts of drugs were found guilty and sentenced to death.
Even though the campaign to abolish the mandatory death penalty did not work in Singapore, it had a transboundary effect across the Causeway because Malaysian society began to see more clearly how these kinds of absolute mandatory sentences were unfair and unjust. It contributed to the environment whereby it made it possible for people to say, “We can afford to do away with the mandatory death penalty.”
How did the Malaysian church respond to the new law?
Issues like the criminal justice system or crime and punishment are not traditional issues which the church has spoken up for in the past.
There is an inherent contradiction here because the Christian witness is to all of life. There shouldn’t be a reservation about giving input on a particular issue, topic, or controversy because we don’t want to invite criticism, negative feedback, or pushback from the rest of society.
If we are sincere in our beliefs, we should be duty bound to share those perspectives and help influence public debate on all issues in Christian love. But because we have been brought up in a nation where Christianity is a minority religion, we are sensitive to the role that we play in public life. So, there’s a hesitancy to speak up on certain areas sometimes.
Does the notion of a sacred and secular divide affect Malaysian Christian engagements in the public square? Do Muslim leaders act differently?
In a true reflection of Christianity, there is no distinction between church and state. Even when America talks about the separation of church and state, they don’t see any incongruity about having people like Rev. Raphael Warnock, an ordained minister and pastor, as an elected senator in the state of Georgia.
Islam doesn’t see any separation between mosque and state. In Malaysia, Islamic religious leaders have become ministers in charge of religion, members of Parliament, and state assemblymen. But I’m not sure how comfortable Malaysian society would be if we had a Christian pastor go into politics and keep his job as a pastor at the same time.
Why are we uncomfortable with that? It’s something that Christians in Malaysia—and Malaysians in general—need to reflect upon. As my favorite quote from Desmond Tutu says, “When people say that the Bible and politics don't mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading.”
What can the Malaysian church do more or less of?
Malaysian Christians need to get more involved in small-p politics. They should get more involved in national polity and decision-making processes to bring Christian perspectives and values into public life.
Some people will misunderstand this and say, “You’re trying to Christianize Malaysia.” I’m not saying that at all. If we are people of faith, our ethics and morals are informed by that faith. We should be reflecting our perspectives in policy decisions that are being made in the country, because it affects people.
If we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31), then the idea that we should refrain from policy involvement even though we could help improve the quality and nature of life for the people around us—our neighbors—is a total antithesis of what the Bible tells us to do.
One area to do this is in terms of outreach and care for people in the prison system, which is very dehumanizing. It’s not a glamorous job. It’s difficult work, and it’s certainly not financially rewarding. People may shy away from this, but there are people in prisons who need help. They are hurting and in pain. There is an opportunity for us to minister to their needs and to give them some dignity in life and treat them as human beings. This is where we can show Christian love to people from all religious backgrounds and walks of life.
What theological truth or concept informs your opposition to the death penalty?
I believe in a God who is the Creator of life. It is not the role of a human being to take away that life. A mature and civilized criminal justice system will reflect that respect for the dignity and sanctity of life.
What is the range of perspectives that Malaysian evangelicals have on this issue?
The Christian community, as a whole, does not have a consensus on what position they take with respect to the death penalty.
Some feel that the death penalty is justifiable. They acknowledge that there is a time and place for it and there are circumstances in which the death penalty can be justified and defended in terms of its use. Since it is mentioned in the Bible and since God did order the killing of whole groups of communities in Old Testament times, they believe that there is room for righteous anger to be reflected. One of the ways that this righteous indignation about unholy conduct or activity can be expressed is in the use of the death penalty.
Then there are those who will say it will never be correct for society to take a life or for the state to say they are justified in executing someone in the name of protecting society. Doing so gives society, and human beings, the power of God to give and end life.
How do you dialogue with fellow Malaysian Christians who favor the death penalty because they believe it serves as an effective deterrent against serious crimes?
There is no empirical evidence to show that the death penalty is a deterrent. There are empirical studies that show the reverse: When the death penalty is there, crime continues to take place. For example, homicide rates in US states that retain the death penalty are higher than states that have abolished it in the past 20 years according to nongovernmental organization The Death Penalty Project.
The very fact that Malaysia introduced the mandatory death sentence for drugs in 1983 didn’t stop people from trafficking in drugs or getting involved in the business of carrying drugs. The logic just collapses.
If you say that the death penalty does work as a deterrent, why is it that people will continue to commit this crime, knowing full well that if caught and convicted they would face the mandatory death penalty?
What do you anticipate continuing to do now that this law has been passed?
My work will not be done until the death penalty is abolished in Malaysia in its entirety. To me, this is a milestone in that long journey, but there is still so much that needs to be done. It will probably take another 20 years.