Does the hangman cry?

I would like to thank Maureen Tee, charming SMU student I recently had the pleasure of working with, for giving me the procrastinating-blogger kick up the butt I needed. It has indeed been too long since my last post.

In my last post, I spoke about people whose job incentivizes them to bring sadness to others – the parking ticket auntie, in that case. And then I thought of another thankless Singaporean profession – the hangman. Given that our country kills more than 50 people each year (mostly for drug related crimes), each Singaporean hangman might kill more people than a Republican GI in downtown Fallujah.

Is the hangman incentivized as well? I.e. Is it a fixed monthly salary or do they get paid per killing? If there’s a commission, do they cheer when another one bites the dust? And cry if it’s a particularly dry month at border control? Scary thoughts. But we should always bear in mind the effects our system has on individual psyches.

The Editorial of The Australian today highlights the case of Aussie Vietnamese Mr. Nguyen Tuong Van, who will soon die in Singapore. He was desperate and stupid enough to be in possession of 400g of Heroin in our spick and span Singapore Changi Airport.

Now that I think of it, it is quite chilling that the manicured, pristine environment of Changi is where so many people every year first realize that they are going to be hung. Can you imagine their ‘Singaporean Tour’? Off the plane, heavenly Changi Airport and then the Gallows. There is perhaps no emotional journey as traumatic, as roller-coastery.

Because every other crime that warrants the death penalty leaves a scar and fills the perpetrator with guilt. Think of a murderer – they are filled with an intense emotion (hate, jealousy, whatever) and then they see the suffering in their victim. They spend the remainder of their lives as either guilt-ridden fugitives or convicted criminals – there is no simple after-life. (There are some exceptions I suppose, like those who kill in the name of God, whether it’s a Jihad, an Inquisition or Lord Ram’s Birthplace – they might actually feel really good about themselves post-homicide. Another scary thought.)

But not the drug trafficker. The drug trafficker never sees the pain his actions cause. The ODed Heroin addict. The death by dehydration E popper. The obese, overeating stoner. Drug trafficking leaves almost no moral blemish inside a person. While commiting the crime, it seems at worst like an adult version of hide-and-seek.

So, when the drug trafficker first realizes that he is going to die. Wow. That is one cataclysmic downer.

Anyways, back to our unfortunate Australian. Mr. Nguyen was in transit. Many drug mules transit in Singapore because of the belief – not unfounded – that final destination countries’ customs will be more lax with passengers from Singapore, given our draconian security. But the mules don’t realize one thing – our policemen scour transit passengers as if they were all wearing ski masks and “I love Arafat” t-shirts in downtown New York.

Mr. Nguyen admits to the crime, and claims he did it to drag his brother out of debt. Well, the law really doesn’t care why he did it. He almost certainly will die. Quite soon, actually – in Singapore, we don’t keep people hanging around on death row.

His case has raised a number of important issues:

1)The Death Penalty itself

A well-flushed out for/against debate can be found in many places.

On Deterrence:

Liberals argue that statistics prove it doesn’t really act as a deterrent. I think it may not in a country like the US, where nothing really seems to deter criminals.

But, in a socially controlled and micromanaged society like Singapore, I think it does in fact act as a deterrent. Does anybody want to do a controlled test?

I am against The Death Penalty for one simple reason – the possibility that we might kill an innocent:

All judicial systems are prone to human error.

If human error wrongfully puts somebody in prison for life, we can make up for it.

If human error wrongfully kills somebody, that’s it. Finito. The person is gone.

I cannot support any system that may erroneously kill innocent people.

Some also say that having the death penalty brings added economic costs to society (lawyers, death row etc.). It’s cheaper to keep them incarcerated.

Once again, probably not true in Singapore. Here, we kill the sentenced very quickly. If we suddenly abolished the death penalty and had life-long sentences, then there’d be an added economic burden.

That’s precisely the problem. We measure everything in $ and cents here. We have to stop putting a price on human life. I’m in favour of life-long sentences, even if it does mean an extra 0.1% on our ridiculously low tax rate.


Apparently, the Australian anti-death penalty squadron has not been as vociferous over Mr. Nguyen as they were for a Ms. Schapelle Corby, recently sentenced to 20 years in prison (later reduced to 15) for smuggling 4kg of Marijuana into Bali, and the ‘Bali 9’ – 8 Australian men and one woman – currently being tried for smuggling 8 kilograms of heroin into Bali.

Why not? The anti-racist lobby thinks it’s because poor old Mr. Nguyen is an Asian, while the others are white.

Still others disagree, claiming that race has nothing to do with it, but rather the fact that Mr. Nguyen has pleaded guilty, while the others claim they’re innocent.

Probably a bit of both.

One thing’s for sure, as far as the ‘race is not an issue’ people go. Hippy, neo-liberal humanists in the West always underestimate the level of xenophobia in their own countries. Many I’ve met are painfully ignorant of racist sentiments that the more insular folk in their country harbour.

In reality, it’s probably no safer for a Turbaned Punjabi to drive through middle Australia than it is for a White Couple to go skinny dipping in the Tehran Public Pool.

3)Neo-colonial Interference

The Australian Government, public and media have been trying to pressure the Indonesian and Singaporean Governments into letting their citizens off with a little slap on the wrists.

This is probably what riles us Asians the most – when a Western Government and Public try to tell us how to run our country. Few things get our blood boiling as much as this re-enactment of the good old colonial days. (remember Michael Fay?)

(Anyway, Americans have lost their right to preach about human rights to anybody. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc. etc. have knocked them well off their moral high ground.)

The facts of the matter are always clear – they knew about the death penalty and they were caught in possession. Why should they get off while our criminals die?

Do Asian countries ever ask Western countries to give our citizens special judicial treatment?

The bloody cheek of it all.

4)Singaporean Apathy

For those who’ve read this far, some might have been perturbed by my flippant description of Mr. Nguyen’s plight and the death penalty. Well, I’m mimicking the average Singaporean’s take on these issues.

(Actually, that’s not true. The average Singaporean probably would never hear about ‘Mr. Nguyen on death row’. Too busy, either eating Chicken Rice or trying to make more money.)

Anyway, this is an extremely grave matter that we must start thinking about. It is most tragic that Mr. Nguyen is going to lose his life. We must start thinking about what kind of a country we want to be.

Thinking? Hah, that’s a good one. Sometime in the past forty years, as we were shedding our rags and kissing our riches, we decided to outsource all thinking to our dear Gahmen (Singlish, for Government). The Gahmen thinks for us, and we vote for them. It’s a symbiotic relationship that has made us rich.

And that’s all there is to life after all, isn’t it?

8 thoughts on “Does the hangman cry?

  1. Seek the LORD while you can find Him. Call on Him now while He is near. Let the people turn from their wicked deeds. Let them banish from their minds the very thought of doing wrong! Let them turn to the LORD that he may have mercy on them. Yes, turn to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. “My thoughts are completely different from yours,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts. “The rain and snow come down from the heavens and stay on the ground to water the earth. They cause the grain to grow, producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry. It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it. You will live in joy and peace. The mountains and hills will burst into song, and the trees of the field will clap their hands! Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow. Where briers grew, myrtles will sprout up. This miracle will bring great honor to the LORD’s name; it will be an everlasting sign of his power and love.

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  4. I think the whole situation is deeply deeply sad. I have no doubt that the poor boy knew what he was doing, but he was desperate enough to risk it anyway. His fate does not fit the crime. The older I get the more upsetting I find our ability as a species to be unspeakably cruel to each other whilst dressing that cruelty up as justice or national security. Your government is prepared to tie a cord around some young mans neck and use it to snap his spine. At times like this I am deeply thankful that I live in the Europe.

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