City state does its death by the book

October 25, 2004
Singapore Democrats

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Kimina Lyall
The Australian
23 October 2004

When it comes to the death penalty, Singapore is unapologetic for its cold-hearted efficiency.

In its official drug education website, the city state publishes the diary of David W, a 21-year-old addict the Government hanged in 2000.

“They weighed me today,” David wrote three months before his death. “Not because they are worried about me putting on weight, no not for that. They need to know how heavy I am to calculate the length of the rope.”

Later, David says one of the reasons he will be wearing a hood at his execution, “is so they don’t have to look at you”.

Australian Nguyen Tuong Van, 24, is likely to know soon how David felt.

In a decision as swift as his expected execution, three judges this week dismissed his appeal against the death sentence without saying a word to the former child refugee.

Not looking at the condemned man might be one way of coming to terms with state-sanctioned murder, but righteousness is another.

Singapore firmly believes its mandatory death sentence for anyone carrying more than 15g of heroin has led to a reduction in drug-trafficking.

Australia, meanwhile, will begin a long and potentially futile attempt to plead for Nguyen’s life by appealing to President SR Nathan for rarely bestowed clemency.

Diplomatically, they will be walking a fine line.

The last thing diplomats want is a repeat of the fallout after then prime minister Bob Hawke called Malaysia “barbaric” when it hanged convicted drug traffickers Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers in 1986.

Seven years later, behind-the-scenes diplomatic negotiations failed to gain a reprieve for Australian Michael Denis McAuliffe, who was also hanged in Malaysia for drug trafficking.

Australia had more success in Vietnam last year when quiet representations helped win clemency for condemned woman Le My Linh.

Singapore, however, has shown little interest in its world standing in terms of its human rights record and is traditionally intransigent in the face of external pressure.

While few Australians would sympathise with Nguyen, who attempted to smuggle 396g of heroin from Cambodia to Melbourne, few also would support Singapore’s hardline stance on capital punishment.

Had Nguyen made it to Tullamarine before arrest, he would now be facing a possible 10-year prison sentence.

But Australia’s position is complicated by what appears to be a double standard set by politicians.

“We don’t want to see a young Australian executed,” said Foreign Minister Alexander Downer this week, as he vowed to appeal for clemency based on humanitarian and compassionate considerations.

At the same time, Prime Minister John Howard was urging Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to do what he could to uphold the death sentences for three of the Bali bombers.

At the time of those sentences, Mr Downer said he didn’t support the death penalty but “in these particular circumstances we won’t be making any representations against the sentence”.

For those countries who consider drug-trafficking, like terrorism, to be a threat to the lives of its citizens, these contradictory positions will be noticed.