To try or not: S’pore agonises

Maxwell Coopers

Free Malaysia Today

It is too early to say what Singapore may just do with the author of the controversial book “Once A Jolly Hangman. Singapore Justice In the Dock”’ by Alan Shadrake.

Almost instantaneously a case that attracted unprecedented global publicity has had its publicity run ended as soon as it even began.

For observers of the Singapore scene that is not just unusual but absolutely unprecedented for a nanny state which had always prided itself on standing up to detractors; symptomatic as some would say of its typical siege mentality.

If ever there is any proof of that, one only needs to look at how the Republic pursued bitterly the prosecution of Romanian diploma Silvio Ionescu and all others who have had dared the Singapore system in the past.

Something of “mea culpa” is brewing at the moment. Or, appropriately what could be described as a climb-down by Singapore authorities.

From its original, inflexible stance of actually wanting to try Shadrake for criminal defamation allegations, the city-state is resorting to something it has never done in the past: a plea bargain.

In exchange for an apology from Shadrake the authorities would drop charges of criminal defamation against the aged British author.

It is too soon to proclaim a victory for human rights campaigners.

Though the Media Development Authority (MDA) – the body that initially brought those charges to bear – has said the book will not be banned, the truth of the matter is that it is nowhere to be found in the bookstores in the country.

And like every controversial book, the danger or rather irony of trying to insulate it only engenders the very opposite reaction that the actions preceding it actually create.

In other words, what happens is that it becomes popular not because of its Booker or Pulitzer Prize winning material, but because of something largely unexpected: the strident protests it generates to objectionable excerpts.

That perhaps just seems to be what Shadrake’s book has all been about.

For way too long, many in the country and beyond have come to view Singapore’s judicial system as something bordering on being “perfect”.

There naturally is a world of difference between what is perfect and what is poetic!

Poetic justice

But for a state that provides the mandatory death penalty without the benefit of doubt of allowing for a discretionary element in sentencing, the concept of poetic justice hardly, if ever, qualifies

Crime and punishment are very complex social issues mirrored by the uniquely, extraordinary circumstances within which they are perpetrated.

To corroborate that are the appeal courts. Their existence in democratic societies is nothing but a tacit acknowledgement that justice is rarely poetic. And because it is so, errors in judgment resulting in sentencing can find the recourse they need for rectification.

These institutional organs do not just administer justice on what can be called from a “second lease” premise.

They are also to give vent as some of the cases in the Republic in the past have amplified to according recognition to the very social factors triggering that crime.

For instance, convicted drug smuggler Poh Kay Keong had his conviction of death overturned after it emerged that this admission of guilt to Singapore’s drug enforcement agencies was obtained under duress.

And there was a celebrated case in 1994 when two brothers wrongly convicted of a capital offence and just a month away from their deaths won a reprieve when their diligent, hardworking counsel, the late JB Jeyaretnam, produced just the evidence to exonerate both the convicted men on grounds of technicalities.

Without a judicial review board and with absolutely no debate at all in the country of the deterrence utility of the death penalty, Shadrake now stands as the lone voice of conscience in the city-state — something odd as he is not a Singaporean.


What is even incredulous is that it had to take a non-Singaporean to champion the cause of justice in an island-republic. So trying him for a book he wrote and and for which he is well armed with facts may just be a situation the local Singapore authorities will be all too keen to avoid.

Maxwell Coopers is a free-lance writer based in Singapore.

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