To end mandatory death penalty, develop democracy

Chee Soon Juan
The Australian
24 Nov 05

In the early hours of December 2, Nguyen Van Tuong will be led from his cell to the yard where he will be hanged. He may struggle or he may walk with composure. He may be given relaxants to help him stay calm.

The hangman will place a hood over his head and the noose round his neck. At 6 am, the trap door will open and his body will drop and hang until it stops writhing. When his lifeless being is taken down his face will be purple, engorged with blood, his neck covered with lacerations, his swollen tongue protruding out of his mouth, and his eyes displaced. Involuntary ejections of urine and faeces will stain his clothes.

Such is the gore awaiting Nguyen that no one, not even his family, is allowed to watch the killing. Civility and human decency prohibits us in Singapore from making such executions public. But hanging behind closed doors doesn’t make the violence go away, it merely conceals it.

Make no mistake: Nguyen is neither a hero nor a martyr. He is a felon whose crime could have ruined, ended even, the lives of many. For that, my government says, his life must be taken.

The logic follows that because a drug courier’s deed causes, or has the potential of causing, the death of a fellow human being the State has the right to, in return, take the life the perpetrator.

If such is the reasoning, why then does Singapore continue to allow the sale of cigarettes? Nicotine found in tobacco is a stimulant and its addictive properties have been likened to that of opium and heroin. Its carcinogenic effects have caused the deaths of millions, and caused hundreds of billions of dollars to be spent on healthcare.

If we don’t criminalize the sale of cigarettes, much less hang producers and sellers of nicotine, why do we execute peddlers of other types of drugs?

But executing drug couriers, proponents argue, deters others from doing the same. And if these crimes are reduced, drug abuse will lessen. Unfortunately, the evidence does not support this theory. Drug abuse prevalence rates in countries such as Finland, Japan, Mexico, and Sweden where there is no death penalty (in Japan the death penalty is applied only in murder cases) are not higher than Singapore’s.

In the altercation over Nguyen’s fate, the Singapore Government has assumed the moral high ground: Drugs are a scourge on society and the authorities have the sovereign right to protect its citizens from criminals like Nguyen. Such a stand makes perfect sense. It is also, in the Singapore context, unadulterated hypocrisy.

Singapore is reported to be the biggest business partner of Burma with US$1.5 billion worth of investments. Through a venture called the Myanmar Fund, the Singapore Government invested in projects that involved Lo Hsing Han, an established Burmese druglord.

Former US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gelbard stated “over half of [the investments from] Singapore have been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han” since 1998.

My government has, however, refused to give an account of how and where the Singaporean public’s funds are being invested in Burma, or for that matter anywhere else in the world despite my repeated questioning.

There are reports that Lo Hsing Han now operates a deepwater port in Rangoon, an express bus line into Northern Burma, and a highway from the center of Burma’s poppy –growing region to the China border. He also owns a wharf with freight handling, storage, and a customs yard, facilities well-suited for exporting his drugs.

In addition, Singapore has been fingered in the laundering of Burma’s drug money. Bruce Hawke, a keen observer of narco-trafficking in Burma, wrote: “The entry [of drug money] to the legitimate global banking system is not Burma but Singapore.”

While all this goes on, does anyone expect to stop the drug trade by executing a courier like Nguyen? It doesn’t make sense to keep mopping the floor while leaving the tap running, does it? 

Still, a law is a law and the one in Singapore clearly states that persons carrying certain amounts of certain types of drugs will face the death penalty. But laws are not immutable. In a democracy this would entail citizens being able to freely choose their lawmakers and by extension have a say in the kinds of laws their representatives make or change.

Herein lies the problem. Singapore is not a democracy. Former prime minister and now Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew still wields significant power. His eldest son is now the prime minister. Few expect anything to change as long as the octogenarian Lee is around.

Protests and public gatherings continue to be outlawed.

The broadcast and print media remain completely in the hands of the Government. No surprise therefore that Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 140th out of 167 countries in a global survey on press freedom – two spots above Bhutan.

Elections are anything but free and fair. Our ballot papers are numbered and the Elections Department works from out of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Opposition leaders continue to be sued by ruling party officials for defamation and have to pay crippling sums of money in costs and damages. J B Jeyaretnam and Tang Liang Hong are the latest victims. They were ordered to pay millions of dollars and made bankrupt when they couldn’t. I was likewise sued on two occasions and ordered to pay a total of S$900,000.

Given the circumstances, is it any wonder then that Singaporeans live in a climate of fear? In a survey conducted by the state-run press in 2000, 93 percent of Singaporeans indicated that they were afraid to speak up about government policies they disagreed with.

It is hard to imagine what could be worse for Nguyen come December 2. But there is. Nguyen’s death, as with the deaths of hundreds before him, will be in vain if we in Singapore do not fight to change this law.

His execution must be the start of the long struggle to abolish the law mandating the execution of small-time drug couriers. And the starting point is to build democracy in Singapore.

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