The case against the death penalty

Below is the speech that Dr Chee Soon Juan gave at the Open Singapore Centre public forum on 16 April 2005. A video of the event can be seen at

Dear friends, ladies and gentlemen,

I say we hang Shanmugam. But lets not do it in Changi Prison. Instead lets do it here along Orchard, find an open space, set up the gallows there, announce the date of the execution and make sure that we get our family and friends to come and watch the spectacle.

Well see the prisoner being dragged out kicking and screaming or he may walkout out calmly after being given some relaxants. Well see the noose being looped around his throat and tightened above his left ear, and the hood to cover his face so that we cannot see the expression of his face during those seconds while he gasps for air and fights for his life. Then well hear the bang of the trap-door as it opens and the prisoner fall through. Hell writhe for a few seconds and then hell stop

For good measure, lets remove the hood after he is dead and show the spectators his face, engorged purple because of the trapped blood in the head. His tongue will be swollen and protruding out, and his eyes may have popped out. We may find faeces dropping out as well as urine and semen the physical reactions of the body to the violence inflicted on it.

The people v death penalty

Should we do this public? Anyone thinks that we shouldnt do this in public? Why not? [Someone in the audience shouted Inhumane!] Thats right its inhumane. But dont forget that this goes on in prison. If its inhumane is it any better that it takes place in private away from our eyes, our minds and our conscience? Have we become a society that along as we appear civilized we dont have to worry about what takes place in reality? Have we become a society where only our image matters?

If we dont want executions to be held in public, how do we then make the death penalty a deterrence, which is the key rationale for our hanging of criminals. If thats the case why dont we publicise it more? Australian airports have signs every few metres to remind passengers to Declare it or dump it regarding food stuff, or plant/animal parts, that one may be carrying. Cigarette boxes carry gruesome photos of cancerous growths to warn people about the dangers of smoking.

Why cant we do the same for the drug trafficking? Why dont we show pictures or videos of drug offenders being hanged at our airport or at the causeway when vehicles are piled up to get to the checkpoints? Is it because we dont want the first thing that visitors see when they come to our beautiful island to be that of someone being hanged? Bad for tourism? Or may be its because we want to appear civilized to others? Whatever the reason, we are not maximizing the deterrent effect of the death penalty for drug trafficking.

This goes to the issue of the objectives of punishment. The State imposes penalties on criminals for three purposed: Rehabilitation, retribution, and deterrence. Only the latter two are germane to our discussion on capital punishment. Ive spoken at length about deterrence and made point that the way that we are hiding the execution of drug peddlers greatly compromises the deterrent effect.

What about retribution? Proponents of the death penalty argue that the victims and their families have the right to demand the murderer pay for his crime with his life. In other words, a life for a life. They argue why should mercy be shown to the criminal when he did not show it when he took the life of his victim. Even this argument doesnt apply to people like Shanmugam.

While murderers never gave the people they kill a choice, the victims of drug peddlers are under no such threat. Shanmugam didnt hold a gun to the head of another person and forced him to consume the drug. The drug-taker has to go out buy the drug and consume it all acts of the free will of the so-called victim. Can Shanmugam then be held responsible when someone takes the drug he brings in and dies from an overdose? If the answer is yes, then shouldnt the makers and distributors of cigarettes be executed as well? We know that tobacco and nicotine are addictive and it is a scientific fact that smoking causes cancer the number one killer in society. For that matter, shouldnt we also hang casino operators and people who allow casinos to be built because gambling addicts have killed themselves because of their insurmountable debts?

I am not being facetious. I want to force the logic of the Governments argument through and show how ridiculous it is when we take a closer look. Both factors of deterrence and retribution put forward by the State simply fall apart when scrutinised.

Small-timers fry, big-timers fly

And while we hand small fry like Shanmugam, the real traffickers get away scot-free. Drug peddlers, often called mules, are often used as decoys by drug syndicates. Drug rings often tip their informants off about one courier so that the police at the checkpoints focus their attention on looking out for this one person that fits the given profile, for example, green shirt, blue jeans, short-hair female with a back-pack, etc. While police land their catch, other smugglers get through the customs successfully.

Not only are druglords operating with impunity, we have information that our Government is doing business with some of these drug barons. In particular, there is one man in Burma by the name of Lo Hsing-han. According to Asiaweek (1997) Lo is a celebrated figure in the Asian drug trade…the ethnic Chinese warlord ran a powerful government-backed militia force, as well as convoys of opium from northern Shan State south to heroin refineries along the Thai Border.

The Nation, a US publication, reported that As of 1994, Lo controlled the most heavily armed drug-trafficking activities in Southeast Asia. Today he rules with godfather status over a clan of traffickers, and his organisation controls a substantial amount of the worlds opium production…

Los son, Steven Law, manages Asia World Company set up by his father. A US official said of Law: Laws power and connections are unparalleled. No other domestic investor in Burma can get an audience with a Cabinet member with one phone call. When Law got married eight Cabinet members showed up. He has been denied a visa to enter the US because of his suspected drug-trafficking activities.

So what have Lo and Law anything to do with Singapore?

There was an investment company called the Myanmar Fund that owned 25 percent of Los Asia World Company. The GIC of Singapore of which Mr Lee Kuan Yew chairs, held a 21.5 percent share in the Myanmar Fund, which came up to about $10 million.

In fact Robert Gelbard, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement said: Since 1988over half of [the investments from] Singapore have been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing-han. Another US official said: Singapore is more involved with Lo than any other country, because thats basically where Steven Law is functioning out of when he is not in Burma.

Steven Law has an office in Singapore and freely moves in and out of this country. In fact Law is close to the Singapore Government. Apparently, the Singapore Ambassador to Burma had even attended Laws wedding.

Transparency needed

All this was first documented by the Special Broadcasting Services in Australia and aired in a documentary in 1996 called The Singapore Sling. I had obtained a copy of the tape and called for a press conference to ask if the allegations in the documentary were true. The Government refused to answer my question but instead accused me of the usual stuff about being traitorous and colluding with Australians to tarnish the image of Singapore. The TV station had invited the Ambassador to Australia on the program the following week to rebut or clarify the points that were raised in the documentary. He declined. The station then invited the Singapore Government to do the same. It, too, refused.

When the video was subsequently published in the US, the Singapore Embassy in Washington DC replied that the GIC was just a passive shareholder and that the funds Myanmar Fund had since been dissolved.

The problem with the response was that a document that was released by the Myanmar Fund itself in 1994 had indicated that the GIC was a core shareholder and as such had a representative on the committee that made invest decisions for the Fund.

As for the GIC relinquishing its shares in the Myanmar Fund, there is this whole other question of where the remaining amount of the GIC money has been invested in Burma. Remember that Singapores total investments in Burma amount to more than $1 billion and we know from the US that half of this is tied in with Lo and his family operations. The GIC investment through the Myanmar Fund constitutes only about $10 million. What about the rest of the $490 million?

This is why it is so important for Singaporeans to insist that the Government open up the books of the GIC for the public to inspect and see where the peoples money are being invested and whether they are used for legitimate purposes.

Money laundering through drug trafficking is another problem. If the Singapore Government wants to clamp down on drug trafficking, it must also ensure that our financial system is immune to laundering by drug syndicates. This does not seem to be happening. Bruce Hawke, an expert in this area, wrote:


With all these questions and the hypocrisy, the PAP insists that it is right to hang people like Shanmugam. We need to put a stop to this and review our policy of the death penalty especially as it relates to small-time peddlers. Let our collective conscience not permit such evil and injustice to continue.

Thank you.

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