Once A Jolly Hangman (2010)

Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock
: Alan Shadrake

219 pp

: 9789-6758-3200-0
Avaialable at
: MPH Bookstores Johot Bahru City Square (Malaysia), Online

Reivew I: Prisoners are fit to drop in Singapore
by Megawati Wijaya (Asia Times Online, 7 Aug 10)

A recently published book in Malaysia describes in detail how Singapore hangs its drug traffickers and convicted murderers. Near the execution date, the prisoner is weighed to determine the length of rope necessary to ensure a quick death.

On the eve of the execution, a prison doctor may prescribe a relaxant to help the condemned person to stay calm. The drug is usually slipped into a last drink. In the morning, an assistant or guard usually stands by while preparations are completed. The prisoner’s arms are pinioned behind the back with handcuffs and straps. The executioner than hastens the person into the execution chamber via a connecting door, where there are twin trapdoors under the noose.

When the executioner places the noose around the neck, he must ensure that the knot is in the correct position behind the right ear so the spinal cord is broken instantly at the drop. A white cap is then placed over the head. The trapdoor that is mechanically connected to one lever will open at precisely 6.00 am, give or take a second or two. The body will plunge down a distance gauged by his or her weight, height and muscularity, and the length of the rope.

Veteran British journalist Alan Shadrake details the grotesque administration of capital punishment by hanging in his 219-page book, Once a Jolly Hangman. It is not the easiest book to read, given the subject matter and the uncompromising writing style, which is brutally honest and hard-hitting.

However, it provides a rare insight into Singapore’s highly secretive death penalty cases. Shadrake pores over court documents and library archives, and counts among his sources retired officers of the Central Narcotic Bureau (CNB) who have to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. It also interviews high-profile lawyers such as M Ravi and Subhas Anandan.

The “jolly hangman” in the book title is Darshan Singh, who has been Singapore’s chief executioner inside Changi prison for nearly 50 years. Shadrake scooped an interview with him in 2005, leading Singh to innocently talk about his job and break Singapore’s rigorous Official Secrets Act, which forbids him to talk or write about what he does. Singh started his job in 1959 when he was only 26. His fees for hanging earned him S$30 (US$22) per head in his early days. He tells Shadrake that he has hung “over 1,000, can be under”. His fees have increased to S$400 per hanging.

Shadrake’s portrayal of Singh is never in a bad taste or sensational. He describes Singh not as “a grim reaper of fantasy but a very likeable, down-to-earth man – like any other kindly father and grandfather”. He reminds readers how Singh sincerely repeats the words “I am sending you to a better place than this” to each of the prisoners, because he totally means it.

Singh told Shadrake that he would always support the death penalty in Singapore. “It has helped to keep Singapore one of the safest places on Earth,” he said. “These drug traffickers know what will happen to them if they get caught. People who sympathize with them have nothing to say about the thousands who suffer because of drugs. They destroy their lives as well as their families – and society as a whole suffers.”

While the interview with Singh, strategically placed in the early chapters of the book, is a fascinating read, it is merely the lead to Shadrake’s serious and uncompromising critique on the death penalty in the following chapters.

Shadrake’s abolitionist stance against capital punishment rings loud and clear. Never one to mince words in his narratives, he says the death penalty has outlived his usefulness. The risk of error in applying the death penalty is inescapable, yet irrevocable, he says. He also quotes Tim Parritt of Amnesty International who said: “The death penalty is an inherently unjust and arbitrary punishment, however heinous the crime for which it is provided. Studies have shown that it is more likely to be imposed on those who are poorer, less educated and more vulnerable than average.”

He draws attention to high-profile drug trafficking and murder cases, asserting serious allegations that some accused people (for example, a case involving a German citizen, Julia Bohl, mentioned in chapter 10) managed to escape the gallows through foreign government intervention or connection to government elites, while the poor and disadvantaged (such as the Filipino maid, Flor Contemplacion, mentioned in chapter 13) have no chance to be pardoned.

The author also highlights the weakness of mandatory death penalties that take no account of any mitigating factors. Under Singapore’s strict laws, anyone aged 18 or over who is convicted of carrying more than 15 grams of hard drugs such as heroin or 500 grams of marijuana receives a mandatory death sentence.

In the case of Vignes Mourthi mentioned in chapter 18, Shadrake described what the defense lawyer called a miscarriage of justice in sending the convicted to the gallows. A recorded conversation between Mourthi and police officer Sergeant S Rajkumar – who posed as a buyer – that recorded that Mourthi knew he was handling drugs and not incense stones as he claimed was produced as evidence in court.

However, the conversation bore no date and could have been written up at any time. Mourthi was convicted mainly based on this evidence and was hanged on September 26, 2003.

The day after Rajkumar arrested Mourthi, a woman accused Rajkumar of sodomizing and raping her. Two days later, on September 23, 2001, Rajkumar was arrested on these charges. However, he was not suspended from work and continued to be part of the prosecution’s case against Mourthi.

Only after Mourthi was hung two years later did prosecution against Rajkumar start. He was later found guilty of trying to bribe the woman to drop the charges against him and sentenced to 15 months in jail on corruption charges.

If the trial of Vignes Mourthi had been delayed until after the case against Rajkumar was thoroughly investigated and his trial completed, and if Rajkumar was then found guilty of corruption, “the courts would have known exactly what kind of man Rajkumar really as and would have had the chance to prevent a potential travesty taking place. It would have shown that Rajkumar was a bad, corrupt cop and that the questionable evidence he brought against Vignes Mourthi would have had to be thrown out,” argues Shadrake.

Grey area

A study carried out by the United Nations in 2001 concluded that Singapore had by far the highest per capita execution rate in the world, triple that of Saudi Arabia, the next highest. Amnesty International estimates that 400 people were hanged from 1991 to 2001, mostly for drug offences and murder. Shadrake estimates based on his interviews with Singh that the total is actually closer to 1,000 or even more. Singapore does not publish these statistics.

Singapore’s strict laws and governance have helped maintain law and order and have kept the city state among the safest in the world. Its low crime rate is a main factor in it being ranked number as the best city in Asia for expatriates to live in. Singapore’s judicial and police forces are well known and well respected for their efficiency and constantly ranked among the top in the world for transparency and low levels of corruption.

It is also seems naive for a foreign national or international bodies to simply tell Singapore how to run its legal and judicial system. In a letter addressed to the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and circulated in 2001, the permanent representative of Singapore to the United Nations stated that “the death penalty is primarily a criminal justice issue, and therefore is a question for the sovereign jurisdiction of each country. The right of life is not the only right, and it is the duty of societies and governments to decide how to balance competing rights against each other.”

Despite the UN’s 2008 resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions as a step towards total abolition, Singapore continues to keep the death penalty. “The basic difference in our approach springs from our traditional Asian value system which places the interests of the community over and above that of the individual,” Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said in a speech as quoted in the book.

“Our priority is the security and well being of law-abiding citizens rather than the rights of the criminal to be protected from incriminating evidence.” This is a fair statement.

Shadrake’s allegations on the discrepancy on judicial application in Singapore on deciding on death penalty cases are very serious ones, and Singapore’s government and citizens have every right to take offence if such allegations are indeed unfounded and malicious.

Readers of the book, mostly perhaps ordinary citizens of Singapore, are not in the position to confirm or deny the allegations, given their lack of information or access to information. Singapore’s Official Secrets Act prohibits the making or receiving of any photographs, drawings, sketches, designs, models of any military installations, military vehicles, weapons, etc, so as to protect the safety and vital interests of Singapore and all those living here.

Violation of the Act is punishable by a S$2,000 fine, and can bring a two-year jail term. As pointed out in Hung at Dawn, an earlier book on capital punishment by human-rights lawyer M Ravi, published in 2005, there is a broad interpretation of the term “safety and interest of Singapore”.

“[T]alking to certain police officers about the arrests and interrogations or to prison officials or the hangmen about the details of the incarceration, the specific executions or the demeanor and attitudes of the prisoners in their last moments could be declared ‘against the interests of Singapore’ and thus a criminal offence. Not only would [a person doing this] be guilty of violating the law for soliciting and publishing such information, but those on the inside who provided the information to us would also be guilty of a similar crime,” Ravi wrote.

Singapore’s government itself has every duty to prove to its citizens that such allegations are indeed untrue. As Singaporean social worker Dr Vincent Wijeysingha wrote (read Wijeysingha’s review below) in the independent news site, The Online Citizen, “If the government is able to refute all, or even some, of Shadrake’s data, let it do so. [Singaporeans] would welcome it if he were found to be wrong. Because we could not sit by if these things were happening in our name.”

Given the potentially constructive debates it may spin off, it is indeed sad that this book is not available for purchase in Singapore. Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) said that it had not banned it in Singapore. A report by state-owned newspaper Straits Times, however, reports that the book had been withdrawn from a major bookstore’s shelves at the MDA’s request. The purported controversy surrounding the book has helped drum up sales elsewhere. A bookstore in neighboring Johor Bahru in Malaysia said that it had enjoyed brisk sales.

Shadrake is not smiling yet. Last week, the 75-year-old journalist found himself hauled out of his hotel bed early on uly 17, a night after his book launch in Singapore. He was held for questioning for 39 hours before being bailed out for S$10,000. His passport has been confiscated and he cannot leave the country. Singapore’s Home Affairs Ministry has said that Shadrake’s “anti-death penalty views are not the issue in these investigations; it is his violation of the laws of Singapore which are”.

“The Singapore government’s position on the issue of capital punishment is not new. Those who disagree with our position have presented their arguments and as a matter of principle we respect their right to hold such opposing views, as we hope they do ours. The problem was not his views but his alleged criminality. Anyone, Singaporean or otherwise, who breaks the law regardless of the cause he touts, will be taken to task. Shadrake is no exception – he cannot expect to commit offences and then assume that he will be exempted from being held accountable under the law,” said the ministry.

Shadrake faced trial on July 30 for alleged criminal defamation and contempt of court, charges raised by the attorney-general’s office which claims statements in the book allegedly impugn the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judiciary. The trial was adjourned, and he still faces up to two years in jail. Speaking outside the court, however, he told the BBC he would never apologize. “I will not grovel to them,” he said. “I will carry on this fight.”

Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based journalist.



Book Review II
by Ben Bland (Asia Sentinel, 13 Aug 10)

Singapore goes after an author for exposing the country’s capital punishment misuses.

When a small Malaysian academic publisher printed a book on the death penalty in Singapore by a little-known British freelance journalist, neither could seriously have expected it to make much of a splash in the tightly-controlled city-state or beyond.

That all changed when, in the early hours of July 18, the Singapore police arrested the author, Alan Shadrake, in his hotel room, shortly before he was to meet reporters about the content of his book.

Shadrake was subsequently charged with contempt of court, with government prosecutors alleging that his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, impugns the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judiciary. A criminal defamation complaint filed by the Media Development Authority, Singapore’s censorship body, is still under investigation.

Singapore’s government insists that its draconian laws, including the mandatory death penalty for the trafficking of even small amounts of illegal drugs, help keep crime and social disorder down, ensuring that the city-state remains a popular center for international business and tourism.

Although the arrest of the 75-year-old writer once again thrust Singapore’s strict limits on freedom of speech into the international limelight, the global media interest has quickly, and predictably, faded.

It remains to be seen whether Shadrake’s book, which argues that Singapore’s use of the death penalty is uneven and unjust, will have any lasting impact in a city-state where there is little public debate on sensitive issues such as capital punishment because of a combination of government secrecy, repression and self-censorship.

Having re-examined a wide range of drug trafficking cases over the last two decades, Shadrake claims that the likelihood of offenders being sent to the gallows is dependent on their socio-economic background and, in the case of foreigners, Singapore’s economic and political relationship with their government.

Compare the fates of Julia Bohl, a German student believed to be part of a high-society drug-dealing ring in Singapore, and Amara Tochi, a young Nigerian hoping to carve out a career in football who unwittingly became a drug mule. Bohl was arrested in 2002 in possession of 687 grams of cannabis, well over the 500 gram limit above which a sentence of death by hanging is mandatory. Her predicament generated a lot of press coverage in Germany, an important trading partner for Singapore, and her government came under pressure to try to save her from the gallows. Fortunately for Bohl, before her trial began, further laboratory testing revealed that the drugs in her possession only weighed 281 grams. She was eventually sentenced to five years in jail and released after three years because of good behavior.

Tochi was not so lucky. He was arrested at Changi Airport in possession of more than 700 grams of heroin but insisted that he thought he was carrying African herbs. Tochi did not attempt to flee when told by airport staff that the police were coming to talk to him and the trial judge accepted that there was no evidence that he knew he was carrying drugs. But he was executed nevertheless in 2007.

Shadrake argues that the judiciary and the police offer a sympathetic ear to members of the domestic elite or overseas citizens from key economic and political allies while showing a disturbing eagerness to expedite the execution of suspected drug mules from poor or marginalized backgrounds, sometimes in highly questionable circumstances.

The author quotes an anonymous former officer from Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau, who says that zealous undercover police often encourage traffickers to transport larger amounts of drugs so that they cross the mandatory execution threshold.

Undercover officers also played a key role in the demise of Vignes Mourthi, a young Indian Malaysian hanged in 2003 for trafficking 27.65 grams of heroin despite his insistence that he believed he was carrying incense stones. One key piece of evidence against him was an unsigned, undated statement from an undercover officer who claimed that Mourthi had admitted to him that he was carrying drugs.

Yet just two days after Mourthi’s arrest, the same undercover officer was arrested on suspicion of rape and was subsequently convicted of corruption for attempting to bribe the alleged rape victim to withdraw her complaint against him. Although such behavior ought to have cast serious doubt on the quality of his testimony, the officer was not tried until a year after Mourthi’s execution and no mention was ever made at Mourthi’s trial of the severe question marks surrounding the officer’s conduct.

Shadrake argues that Mourthi’s execution is “arguably one of the most appalling miscarriages of justice in Singapore’s history” and the publication of his book has provided new impetus to the Mourthi family’s campaign to clear his name posthumously.

In what is a polemical and sometimes repetitive book, Shadrake makes no secret of the fact that he is opposed to the death penalty on principle. But, using a mixture of publicly available legal material and interviews with sources from different parts of Singapore’s justice system, including extensive interviews with the former chief executioner, he seemingly does enough to convince even proponents of the death penalty that it is time to reassess the way Singapore handles capital cases.

Furthermore, Shadrake argues that “the egregious record of Singapore in relation to the death penalty cannot be separated from its deeply-embedded structures of authoritarianism and political illiberalism”.

In countries where genuine free speech is allowed, local journalists often lead the way in holding the judiciary and the police to account. But Singapore’s leaders have always insisted that the city-state’s reporters eschew “Western-style” confrontational, investigative journalism in favor of a pliant, nation-building “Asian” approach.

Little wonder then that they are pursuing Shadrake through the courts, the ruling People’s Action Party’s preferred means of silencing dissenting voices.

When his trial opened on July 30, those journalists present, both local and foreign, were warned by the prosecutor that they too could be charged with contempt if they republished any of Shadrake’s “contemptuous” claims.

Yet despite the government’s insistence that Shadrake’s book “scandalizes the judiciary”, the Media Development Authority says it has not banned the book, although it admits sending a letter to some bookshops warning them about the legal implications of selling it. The book no longer appears to be on sale in Singapore but it is available in the reference section of Singapore’s National Library.

The government’s response has generated much-needed publicity for the book, which the publishers said has sold 4,000 copies so far, making it one of the better selling socio-political works about Singapore.

But while the government’s latest act of repression may appear at first sight to have backfired, all the attention generated by Shadrake’s arrest sends a clear message to Singaporeans: delve into sensitive issues such as the death penalty at your peril.

Ben Bland is a freelance journalist who was formerly based in Singapore.



Review III: Once a Jolly Hangman
by Vincent Wijeysingha (TheOnelineCitizen.com, 24 July 10)

Abolitionism conjures up images of bewigged nineteenth century reformists campaigning against the evil mercantilist phenomenon of slavery, thankfully long a thing of the past. Today it evokes a different picture: the activist, armed with an array of facts, quantitative and anecdotal, and equally insistent that we should consign the death penalty to the past.

Alan Shadrake’s fairly innocuous thesis should come as no innovation and reading it might cause the reader to wonder at the level of official opprobrium it has attracted this last week. Meticulously researched, it adds a further body of research to why we should no longer be looking to the death penalty as a medium of social order. A comparatively balanced assessment, some may say. With the expanding corpus of recent writings critical of government action one might have expected the authorities to have let it alone.

The style and content of the book might offer some clue to why it has given offence. Shadrake’s is an uncompromising critique of the death penalty, and particularly the mandatory death penalty – that leaves judges with no latitude to take account of mitigating factors. It widens the debate from social utility to efficacy, asking whether it actually achieve what it sets out to do. Shadrake thinks not. But in trying to penetrate the arguments that surround this debate, in asking us to look again at something not tending to enter our workaday consciousness, he raises important questions about whether the death penalty has not outlived its usefulness and come to act against the very notions of justice and security it seeks to support.

His arguments are characteristic of the abolitionist perspective. His premise is that the law seeks to achieve one or more of several things for the proper functioning of society – obtain retribution; deter further crime or other criminals; incapacitate the offender; attempt to rehabilitate; and/or seek restitution. By all accounts, in his view, the death penalty achieves few of these things in a meaningful way. It does not deter crime since our crime statistics have shown no substantial downward trend; it does not rehabilitate since the offender is now dead; and it cannot restore anything to the victim. So, in fact, the death penalty only achieves incapacitation and obtains retribution. And in fact, Helen Prejean, the American abolitionist of Dead Man Walking fame, says in the vast majority of cases she has been involved in the family of the victim opposes the death penalty.

I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me the whole point of the rule of law is that we ask judges, on behalf of society, to demand that they are satisfied the perpetrator acted willingly, and with full knowledge, and was not coerced, nor unduly influenced. We ask our judges to inquire into the circumstances of the perpetrator to establish if anything might mitigate guilt or increase the potential for rehabilitation. We expect our judges to be alert to state coercion or entrapment since they are the ordinary citizen’s safeguard against public agencies that may be tempted by whatever inducement to fabricate, conceal or otherwise tamper with evidence. And we would also like our judges to deal with offenders in an equal way to all others who come before them. Shadrake’s research posits that this is not always so.

He documents worrying instances of judges actually calling into doubt the culpability of the accused in their judgments and then going on to impose capital punishment. He tells of cases where differential sentences are handed down relative to the wealth or power of the perpetrator or their family. In one case involving a non-citizen, he suggested that her government’s threat to create economic discomfort for Singapore swayed the trial. In another case, he wrote, compelling evidence was heard from a policeman himself under investigation, and later convicted, of monstrous corruption. He also relates further cases where the mandatory nature of the death penalty binds the hands of the judges regardless of the perpetrator’s youth or clear potential for reform.

Unsurprisingly, Shadrake also draws attention to Flor Contemplation, the Filipina domestic worker hanged for double murder in 1995 and asks whether the terrible stresses and strains she experienced from a demanding and exacting employer who expected 18-hour workdays and plagued her for the slightest mistake might have convinced a judge not to hang her.

The death penalty abolition campaign has gained ground in recent years bolstered by the tremendous and, in Shadrake’s view irrevocable, upsurge of people, communities and nations holding the death penalty in revulsion. The abolitionists say that at a very basic level of abstraction, since no human being is infallible, therefore no tribunal could never be wrong, imprecise, or just plain prejudiced. The finality of the death sentence means that the victim is denied once and for all the possibility that the counsel of time will exonerate or mitigate him or her.

Shadrake documents the human dimension to the debate, and in this his format is unusual but compelling. He describes the tireless efforts of Singaporean campaigners such as lawyer M Ravi and the many unsung individuals who have campaigned, demonstrated, petitioned, held vigils, organised forums and arts actions and continue, in their quiet ways, to express their revulsion at state-sanctioned killing. He tells the story of Singapore’s death penalty from very personal perspectives: that of the executioner himself, the families, the apparent enthusiasm of the police to obtain convictions, the judges themselves who are fettered in their discretion because Parliament has made the death penalty compulsory for certain crimes. And the hanged, many of whom are victims at several levels, including poverty, desperation, and sheer stupidity.

Finally, Shadrake raises a question. If Singapore is bent on eradicating drugs, why does it continue to do business with Burma (officially Myanmar), provide it with infrastructural support, speak up for it in regional and international forums and, he speculates, enable its more well-known drug barons to do business in Singapore. Why indeed. The thrust of his thesis is this: the individual is not the priority. The priority is the economic viability of the state that sees these individuals as mere cogs in a vast commercial framework.

Have we become complacent when asked to measure the worth of human life? Do our national goals and administrative procedures determine the conduct of justice?  In one case, for example, he cites a previous Chief Justice who, in open court, is alleged to have said that procedural considerations outweigh new evidence in determining whether an innocent man should be hanged. Of course I am in no position to verify whether the Chief Justice actually said that, but I suppose a quick look at the records of the Supreme Court might clarify.

Shadrake has opened up a debate on an issue most of us have either not thought of at all or, if we have, tend to gloss over as a necessary price to pay for our safety. A price that he suggests has not really delivered the goods – after years of being the country with the highest rate of judicial executions per capita of population, the rate of hangings has not decreased.

Whether or not the evidence he presents is defensible, and this review does not take a position either way – as a reviewer, I merely report, neither confirming nor denying – it is a book that must open up a debate. We must ask our government to look again at the death penalty. If the government is able to refute all, or even some, of Shadrake’s data, let it do so. We would welcome it if he were found to be wrong. Because we could not sit by if these things were happening in our name.

Dr Wijeysingha is a Singaporean social worker who recently returned from the UK after many years. He is the Executive Director of a local NGO and holds a doctorate in social policy. He writes in his personal capacity.


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