Asia Times Online
Book Review: Once a Jolly Hangman by Alan Shadrake
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.
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 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.