Yawning Bread. 11 October 2009

Another teenager caught, set to hang




Most countries across the globe do not have the death penalty, or at least do not use it. Singapore is one of the minority. Different countries impose the death penalty for different offences. 

Singapore uses it liberally -- and  Amnesty International has argued that we're about the worst offender in the world on a per capita basis -- for a wide range of crimes that include kidnapping, robbery while brandishing a firearm (even if it is not discharged) and carrying medium-sized amounts of the soft drug marijuana.

Most hangings, from the occasional press reports we get -- nobody can be confident that all executions are actually reported -- follow from convictions for murder and for carrying over 15 grams of heroin. For these two offences, the death penalty is mandatory, which means the judge has no authority to impose a lesser sentence once someone has been found guilty. (See second box at right.)


This is based on a talk I gave at the forum held on 10 October 2009, organised by the Singapore Anti Death Penalty Campaign. 

Many of my friends who showed up were struck by the growing number of people interested in the issue. "There were faces in the room I've never seen before," was a common reaction. This issue is gaining traction. Not a day too soon.


Ideas valued more than lives

Whatever the list of crimes may be for which a country specifies the death penalty in its laws, there is a common thread, and that is that there are certain ideas valued higher than life. People who clamour for or defend the death penalty hold this as an unspoken assumption.

There is the idea of "an eye for an eye" that justifies capital punishment in cases of murder. You see this most clearly when even in crimes of passion, where the offender is unlikely to repeat it and is no danger to the public (and wouldn't be anyway if he stayed in prison), there is still hankering for the death penalty. Other ideas that are held so highly that they justify killing people who cross them include a deity (in some countries blasphemy against one god merits the death penalty, though often in these same countries, blasphemy against other gods may even be encouraged), the nation-state with arbitrarily-drawn borders (treason), homosexuality, marital fidelity (usually only the wife's adultery, not the other way around) and even family honour. The last may not be codified anywhere (or am I wrong?) but from the way some countries' justice systems turn a blind eye to fathers and brothers killing female members of their family for sullying the family name, it's not hard to say these states condone and effectively outsource punishment for this kind of "crime".

Another belief is that public safety is an idea worth more than life. In the name of public safety, we empower the state to kill. This underlies our government's keenness -- and let it be said too, large numbers of Singaporeans' -- on hanging people for having 15 grams of heroin on them, even if the guilty person is a teenager.

The public safety argument is a seductive one because we all see ourselves as members of the public. It's easy to subscribe to the belief that capital punishment improves public safety because we all benefit from public safety; we become reluctant to question the efforts made on our behalf lest we seem ungrateful.

No doubt, there are good arguments about the need to treat even 15 grams of heroin very seriously, but I won't get into them, because my intention is to put the spotlight on the fact that ultimately, whatever the arguments, it boils down to this formulation: public safety is reason enough to take someone's life.

The shape of the campaign

Hence, if you're an abolitionist like me, it is thus important to see clearly the campaign we must wage. We are up against the belief that there are ideas more important than life. You upturn this, and abolition will be on its way.

We are faced with a value system that treats abstract ideas as superior to our humanity. But an important distinction must be made. We are not up against the ideas; we are up against the high valuation placed on them. We don't say that murder is not vile; we fully recognise the scourge that drug addiction can be. But must our response include the taking of life?

Since it is a question of values, logic can only take us so far in our campaign. More importantly, it has to be fought on the level of the conscience, to tease out from our fellow citizens, their innate humanity that is imprisoned behind all sorts of constructs about right, wrong, good, bad, rewards and penalties. This is not to say that right is not right or wrong is not wrong, but we shouldn't go about in a blunderbuss way assuming that in the pursuit of the right and the good, our own conscience has no further role to play; that communitarian demands should not be leavened by our private or shared humanity.


The prosecutor, however, has discretion to change the charge blatantly against the facts. Some people, mostly from Western countries, have been caught allegedly with well over 15 grams for heroin, but the prosecution can ignore facts and merely charge them for possessing 14.99 grams. Few people here seem to consider this akin to perjury in court.


From the ashes of the killing fields

Let me support my thesis that abolition is arrived at not from logical argument alone, but more generally, from an upending of the value system, by looking around the world.

At the turn of the twentieth century, only three countries had permanently abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, two thirds of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice.

How did that huge change come about? One of the chief reasons must be that the twentieth century was a terribly bloody one. Europe saw the horrors of the Second World War, soon after which many countries stopped capital punishment in practice, followed a couple of decades later by complete abolition in law. Cambodia is one of only two countries in Southeast Asia that has abolished the death penalty, doing so in 1989 after witnessing the mass murders of the Khmer Rouge period. South Africa abolished it in 1991 as soon as the apartheid regime was dismantled. These examples show how entire populations swing against the death penalty when they have seen the horrors of its misuse by the state. It becomes clear to people that there is no idea that should be held more important than human life.

If it's ultimately a battle of values, is there no place for logical argument? There is. Whenever the idea being held aloft is a utilitarian one, logical disputation can undercut it. For example, the idea that capital punishment deters murders can be countered with statistics. Or the idea that victims' families will want the killer hanged can be refuted by plenty of stories of families that did not want to be responsible for another death.

As for the drug trafficking, see the box at right for an argument against our misplaced pride in hanging drug mules.

A strong case can also be made to do away with mandatory sentencing. What are judges for if not to judge?

One can likewise take issue, employing facts and reason, with the standard of proof needed to convict for a capital crime. One can undermine misplaced faith by collecting data about erroneous convictions.

But logical arguments only chip away at specific uses of the death penalty, though every reduction in its use means a life saved. It is hard to see how it can achieve complete abolition; for that requires changing widely held values. 




As reported by Seelan Palay at the forum, a common modus operandi of drug lords is to send three or four of their underlings through the Woodlands Causeway (Singapore's entry-point from Malaysia) on the same day. One of them would be carrying a small amount, much less than the others. 

Then an anonymous call is made to tip off the Customs authorities. For example: Look out for such and such a guy wearing a red shirt and yellow baseball cap. The Customs officers are thus focussed on one task and the other mules have an easier time slipping through. The drug lords calculate that the loss of a small amount of drugs and one foot soldier (whom the chieftain may well wish to punish for some reason) to be a small price to pay to insure overall success.


The importance of stories

Yet, if the main driver for a change in attitudes in many countries is the experience of indiscriminate killing by the state, how can we ever hope to change minds in Singapore without wishing for the same?

We have to create the same disquiet. We have to humanise the convict. This can be done by telling all sides of the story. Of course we wouldn't want to glorify anybody who has done wrong, but if a person has remorse, that remorse needs to be told. In any case, a human story lies behind everyone, no matter how flawed. How many of us can claim to be perfect?

Yes, a crime has been committed. What led to it? From what circumstances did this misguided deed arise? What does the culprit now think of it? What effect on his family and loved ones?

Are you kidding? Some readers might ask. Can we hope to change people's deeply-held views about the death penalty by telling stories? It sounds daunting. Many will want to give up before we even begin. But let me give you hope. Look at the other places that have abolished capital punishment without first suffering state-led mass murders.

Countries don't miss it when they don't have it

There is Hong Kong, a majority-Chinese city like Singapore, sharing many similar cultural traits. The British made sure that it was abolished (in 1993) before handing the colony back to China in 1997. It has remained outlawed since and there is no popular clamour to bring it back.

Take the case of the Philippines. It was abolished in 1987, during President Aquino's time, then reinstated, and finally abolished again in 2006. Evidently, there was an undercurrent of opinion that wanted the death penalty -- that's why it got reinstated -- but leadership is being exercised by the legislature and current President Arroyo in saying No, and the country is getting used to it.

There is Brazil. Its last execution was way back in the middle of the 19th century; the 1998 constitution bans it. Here is a country with a high crime rate in its urban areas, but that does not automatically lead people to want to bring back capital punishment.

What do these examples tell us? It is that when a society doesn't have the death penalty, people do not much clamour for it. They learn to live without it and recognise that it would fundamentally violate our humanity to practise it. This suggests that even in states that have capital punishment and people say they support the death penalty, that support is seldom strong. After a little adjustment, people can accept a new reality of no death penalty. 

Amnesty International says:

The reasons for a seemingly strong public support for the death penalty can be complex and lacking in factual foundation. If the public were fully informed of the reality of the death penalty and how it is applied, many people might be more willing to accept abolition.

Opinion polls which often seem to indicate overwhelming support for the death penalty tend to simplify the complexities of public opinion and the extent to which it is based on an accurate understanding of the crime situation in the country, its causes and the means available for combatting it.

It stands to reason: It is not a bread-and-butter issue. Minds can be changed. Those today who say they are for the death penalty are rarely impassioned about it. So, even if our cause looks daunting today, it is not as impossible as it may first appear.

And here's something even more interesting, as was bruited in the Amnesty passage above: In fact, it is more typical of the countries that keep the death penalty to have a government actively shoring it up as an instrument of so-called public benefit, by denying or manipulating information. It appears that they are almost afraid that without active defence, the natural humanity of people will come through, and capital punishment will fall out of favour.




Join the appeal for Yong Vui Kong

Yong Vui Kong was caught with heroin when he was 19 years old. Originally from Sabah, Malaysia, he comes from a broken family (his parents are divorced) and he dropped out of school at age 10. He went to Kuala Lumpur and Johore to make a living as a kitchen help, but soon fell under the influence and control of a "Big Brother", going about collecting debts. This escalated to drug carrying.

The picture above is of Vui Kong with his mother, who suffers from clinical depression. Vui Kong was visiting her on her birthday, flying from Johore back to Sabah. Two days later, he was caught.

In prison, he is reported to be extremely remorseful, and has become a devout Buddhist and an exclusive vegetarian. The family says he misses his mother the most, but the mother does not even know her son is facing the noose. Family members conceal the truth from her as they are concerned that she would not be able to take such a blow.

With no money, Vui Kong had to rely on a state-provided defence lawyer who had no experience with capital cases. Vui Kong lost his appeal and is now asking the President for clemency.

Please write an email to the President at s_r_nathan@istana.gov.sg 


Another taboo subject in Singapore

The Singapore government refuses to publish in any regular fashion data about capital punishment. How many people do we hang in a year? What crimes did they commit and what are their profiles? Why is the government afraid of people knowing? Don't we as citizens have a right to know if it's done in our name?

There's almost a complete blackout on how death row inmates are treated. What little we know is that they are held in solitary confinement with only a slit in a steel door to the outside of their cells. They are allowed to write only two letters a month, at a time when they must have a million things to say. The letters they receive are censored and there are things friends and family members might want to say that don't get through. For bi-weekly family visits, only three persons can come, and they cannot touch each other; a glass separates them. This, even in the final meeting before they are hanged. They don't have a shower in their cells. They bathe using water from the toilet. In other words, we treat them (and their families) inhumanely well before we kill them. And yet, there is no discussion in Singapore about prison conditions.

A play about the death penalty was banned in 2006 around the time that Nguyen Truong Van, another drug mule, was executed. And while I have no proof, I would not be the least surprised if editors of our mainstream media feel they'd get a slap on their wrists from the authorities if they ever published stories that could potentially arouse sympathy for persons facing the death penalty.

One of these days, someone should try to organise a film festival focussing on the issue of capital punishment and see what sort of reaction they get from the government.

Once again, like so many social issues in Singapore, any attempt to change people's minds about an issue comes up against restrictions on the freedom of speech. Which only goes to show that the government too thinks that discussion would only show them up as defenders of the indefensible. That once the facts are laid out, they would lose the battle for people's hearts and minds. That's why they are afraid.

Like so many other issues, in the long run, Singapore's position will be proven to be wrong. This I am sure. The problem is, the long run is many, many executions away. We have no time to lose. Please speak up now. Start with the case of Yong Vui Kong.

Yawning Bread 





In September 2003, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was asked by the BBC how many people were executed each year. He off-handedly gave a figure of "about 70 or 80" [1].  

His office quickly clarified to the media that up to that point in the year there had been only 10 executions (it would be 12 soon afterwards). 

Not only was Goh all at sea about the figure, but he seemed blithely unaware what impact a figure like "70 or 80" would have on foreign audiences. He seemed not to know that what he and his government considered unremarkable would strike others as symptomatic of callousness. Our government is so wrapped up in themselves, they can be laughably out of touch, if only the tragedy of lives lost was not a result.



  1. Source: AFP, 26 Sept 2003, Malaysian executed in Singapore for drug-trafficking. This news report also said: "According to government figures, 28 people were executed in 2002, 27 in 2001 and 21 in 2000. Amnesty said in its annual report for 2003 that the city-state had one of the highest execution rates in the world, relative to its population of about 4.2 million people."
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