Letter by former AWARE president on death penalty

May 27, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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At the time I wrote this, I was still working out my own position on the issue. I wasnt sure we were doing right, you know, rushing in on Shanmugam and his family. I hung back and hung back. But I felt that unless I actually do something, I will never know what this “interference/help” means – for the family and for those of us (I should perhaps use “those of you”) who were committing your energies to it. Once I found the meaning for myself (which I hope is clear in this piece) I felt a responsibility to share it especially to others who may have also hung back. Otherwise, I would feel like I have been exploitative? So here it is…

Dana Lam
16 May 2005

The sun will not shine brighter, the street will not be safer.

On Friday, 13 May 2005, Shanmugam Murugesu was hanged for trafficking 1,029.8 grams of cannabis, the marijuana hemp that has been hailed both as demon weed and nectar from the Gods depending on inclinations.

At the last count, an Amnesty International report reveals 400 executions in Singapore since 1991. Shanmugam was 38 when he became the latest to be hanged by the State. Sympathizers had taken care to stress – Shanmugam had been a soldier, a sportsman (representing Singapore in the 1995 World Championship Jetski Finals in Lake Havasu, Arizona, USA). He was a sole-bread winner, a single-parent, an uncle, a son, a brother, a friend. He was Sam to those who knew and came to mourn him.

He should have known better.

The letter of the law is unwavering. You have more than 500 grams of Cannabis on you, You Die. Its mandatory sentence. And so, in the words of Justice Lai Kew Chai who presided over the appeal: Its a regret that a death has to take place but if it has to take place, what are we to do?

We should be paranoid.

Anyone in possession of more than 15 grams of heroin, 30 grams of morphine or cocaine, or 500 grams of cannabis is deemed to be trafficking. It matters not how the stuff got there. The onus is on you to prove your innocence – produce evidence, witnesses or, nail someone else. More than half the executions here have been convictions for drug trafficking.

The Death Penalty was made mandatory for murder and trafficking in controlled drugs in 1975. Singapore is among 64 countries to decline a 2004 UN Resolution calling on countries to abolish the death penalty completely and to establish a moratorium on executions in the meantime. Of the world, 130 countries are abolitionists.

According to a Home Affairs statement to the Agence France Presse earlier in the week: We weigh the right to life of the convicted against the rights of victims and the rights of the community to live and work in peace and security. As a result, Singapore is one of the safest places in the world to live and work in.

However, most convicted offenders are poor, unemployed, disenfranchised, desperate individuals who are themselves, victims of a larger reality. Shanmugam had worked as a taxi driver, a free-lance window cleaner to support his sons and mother and, had contributed income to his sister and her three children. In mitigating on his behalf, his lawyer had presented Shanmugam as brokenhearted and beleaguered when he first succumbed to drug use. Photographs from family albums show up a happier time, with warmth and life.

Block 519 in Jurong West bore all the mundane dressing of low end HDB housing. Inside the flat, the floor tile is patterned. An arched wall delineated the space. Shanmugam was laid out on a mattress on the floor in what must be the living room. There were no furniture. The garlands of red roses that were later laid over him were the only riches in sight. Drug traffickers dont live like this. was a comment I heard at least twice in that day.

In the corridor the sun beat down on the few who had come out to escape the scene in the flat. It was no less hot nor was it any brighter than all the other days of the year when the sun is out.

Among the grieving family and the few blond streaked and tattooed surfer bods were the usual suspects whose names we know well. These were people who have put aside personal interests in the past weeks to be with the family of a stranger on death row; people who organized a forum to background the issue, a vigil. They prodded us, urged us to take agency, write appeals to the President, letters to Shanmugam. They asked us to bring garlands.

I was unconvinced and not alone in my ambivalence. What difference was this going to make? More than that, what business of mine was this? The issues of agency, honesty, motivations fuelled heated exchanges on the arts community e-group.

Back in the flat, the mother, the father, Shanmugams twins, Shanmugam, formed a tableau of stunned, uncomprehending faces and figures. The mothers cries welled and broke from her throat intermittently punctuating the sedative drone of prayers. I recognised the few established visual artists, the theatre practitioners, a couple of academics. Suddenly I saw. From the start, there was no saving Shanmugam. But the expressed sympathy of strangers saved the dignity of the man condemned by circumstance and a harsh law. This must surely be important, especially, to Shanmugams teenage sons who will have to learn to walk tall in spite of their tragedy. I finally found meaning in the past weeks noise and exertions.

The late Former President Wee Kim Wee was pained every time that he had had to deny clemency to the convicted. Knowing his magnanimity it is easy to understand why it was the one call of duty that rubbed. We have been reminded recently that the authority to grant clemency is wrested with the Cabinet and not the President. Meanwhile, Justice Lai Kew Chai, in refuting Shanmugams lawyer, had explained thus: the prerogative to pardon a prisoner and commute a judicial sentence is a prerogative of mercy and not a right vested in any prisoner. Mercy is precisely what is asked for, for cases like Shanmugams. Just when and how will that Mercy be free to flow?