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As admissions of mistakes go, 2005 is turning out to be a fine year. Mr Lee Kuan Yew made not one, not two, but three admissions of policy errors. The first was that he had overestimated the ability of Singaporeans to learn two languages with equal proficiency, the second was that he had banned Formula One racing, and finally that he had not allowed casinos to operate in Singapore earlier.
In each of these episodes of enlightenment, policies once considered sacrosanct were given the 180-degree treatment so much so that Singaporeans can now fritter away their money in gambling joints dressed up as Integrated Resorts; may yet get to hear the exhilarating roar of Grand Prix engines (not to mention the pungent fumes of burning rubber and petrol); and needn’t kill themselves trying to master the second language in order to qualify for varsity.
What rankles, however, is not so much that these policies turned out to be mistakes but rather how they were arrived at in the first place. The Minister Mentor tells us that they were his mistakes. Of course, these policies were put in place when he was the prime minister, and as gatekeeper of the government that responsibility falls squarely on his shoulders, as it would with any other prime minister in any other country.
The problem in Singapore’s case is that the political system doesn’t allow the PM to be contradicted. Party colleagues and fellow ministers who disagree and offer (tepid) resistance, often find themselves marginalized and sometimes removed from the corridors of power. In this regard legislation in Singapore takes on a more personal bent than is case with other more democratic polities. National debates on this island are as common as people on the moon. A few indignant letters to the Straits Times and a press statement or two by opposition political parties usually pass off as intense debate. Like water off a ducks back, the puny protestations hardly get a look-in when the time comes for the decision to be made. With nary a squeak from the Opposition, the minister strides into the chambers, reads the bill and with a resounding Aye! from backbenchers, decrees that ABC bill or XYZ policy has become law. Those who oppose the legislation (and usually the same ones to suffer the repercussions) are left to accept the consequences with the stoicism of cows standing in the rain.
When mistakes are suddenly realized, or more accurately when the Government feels that the law no longer serves the ruling party’s interests, policy-reversals are abruptly announced. No matter how much disruption the U-turns cause and how intensely the masses are affected by the social dislocation, it is the common folk who must adjust or bid adieu to society.
All this raises one disturbing question. If Mr Lee Kuan Yew has made these mistakes, and the ones I mentioned above are only those that he will admit to (think Stop-At-Two, foreign talent, asset enhancement, etc), is he also mistaken about the application of the death penalty to drug peddlers? As usual, there is no public debate and a meeting of minds on this issue. Civil society is beginning to stir on the subject and members of the public are slowly coming to learn more about it. This, however, is a far cry from what should be a raging national debate – lives are stake; the unwarranted killing of a human being is done in the name of the people.
But the media is in the hands of the Executioner. This means that the issue cannot get the attention and scrutiny of the public. The gagging gets more excruciating with each hanging. The editors who control what gets onto the pages of the newspapers and nightly news are all responsible for the unconscionable silence on this issue as are the legislators whose responsibility are to debate policy. Of the 80-odd MPs, does not a single one of them have any view on the hanging of individuals like Mr Shanmugam?
The SDP does not claim to have a monopoly on the wisdom of the State executing hard-core criminals. The same, however, can be said of the PAP when it comes to taking the lives of felons who may be perfectly corrigible. It is for this very reason that there should be a proper debate about the death penalty as it is current applied. The Singapore Democrats are willing to subject its stand and arguments to public scrutiny and let the people decide if they will support us or not. The arguments against this law are humane as they are compelling. Unfortunately, the PAP is unwilling to do the same.
Will this Government look back one day and rue that executing small-time drug peddlers was wrong, as it admitted to being wrong on the race car ban? The difference here is not just the missing out of some excitement and revenue; it is the cold-blooded and cruel infliction of pain and death to a fellow human being. The day will come when we will look back on the death penalty with mortification and feel how egregiously wrong we were. In the meantime, God help us.