S’pore artist’s protest feels the noose

Michael McKenna and Alan Shadrake
The Australian (28 Nov 05)
30 Nov 05

IT was a rare public display of protest against the death penalty that even Singapore’s arts community didn’t want the world to see.

Titled “I am going to send you to a better place”, the now infamous send-off from veteran hangman Darshan Singh, the disturbing artwork is the only act of open
defiance in the city-state during the final days of condemned Australian drug-trafficker Van Tuong Nguyen.

Slovenian art student Matija Milkovic Biloslav had displayed under falling nooses a single standing stool carrying a card with Van’s execution number, C856, a
very deliberate reference to the Melbourne man, scheduled to be hanged at dawn this Friday.

But after the Australian unexpectantly attended last Friday night’s opening of the exhibition at the Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, the self-censorship that pervades the country of four million took hold.

Over the weekend, the Australian newspaper was threatened with legal action by Lasalle directors if it published a picture of the work and all requests for an interview with the artist were denied.

The card carrying Van’s execution number was hastily removed. The college, which receives government funding, said the artwork was about suicide.

The reaction of the art college is typical of the sensitivity in Singapore to the very limited political and social debate allowed by the long-ruling People’s Action Party.

Local coverage of Van’s trial, conviction and sentence has been almost non-existent in the government-owned media, with daily reports only appearing in the past week and limited to the outcry in Australia or a defence of the looming execution.

The apparent controls now seem to be extended to Mr Singh, the 73-year-old grandfather who was set to carry out Van’s execution after a 46-year gallows
career in Singapore’s Changi prison.

Mr Singh, who was first revealed as Van’s hangman in the Australian last month, was reported at the weekend as saying he would not be hanging Van after all. It
would have been his 869th execution. But a close friend of Mr Singh doubts if he is telling the truth.

“Now that he has been exposed as the hangman, the authorities want to deny that he will be the one who will hang Nguyen,” said the friend, who did not wish
to be named.

“Singh is under pressure not to get involved in any more publicity. They know the whole world will be watching.”

Two of Van’s closest friends, Kelly Ng and Bronwyn Lew, have arrived in Singapore to visit him as he awaits his fate.

“Being strong for him is what we need to do,” Ms Lew said. “To smile, that is important.”

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