The price of being rich?

“This is something that is supported by the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans.”

Joseph Koh, Singapore’s High Commissioner to Australia

In the seemingly endless debate about Singapore’s mandatory death penalty, Mr. Koh’s statement caught me by surprise. But on hindsight, maybe I should have expected it.

(I won’t bother getting into the death penalty. There has been enough comment on it, on this blog and all over the web. Just Google ‘Australia’, ‘Singapore’, ‘Death Penalty’ and lots should come up.)

I have mentioned how Singaporeans generally outsource most thinking vis-à-vis policy issues to the Government. We stay focused on the important things in life – making money and watching movies.

However, we have also outsourced final opinion to the Government. Frequently, a Singaporean Government official or civil servant will make a sweeping statement about ‘The opinions of Singaporeans’ that he/she really has no way of knowing.

Mr. Koh is an intelligent person. His cogent argument in yesterday’s papers, “Separating Fact from Fiction’ succinctly highlights why Singapore will go ahead and execute Australian Nguyen.

But I really wonder how he knows that the death penalty ‘is supported by the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans’.

Was a poll done? I never took nor heard of one.

Does he assume that because we voted in the PAP that we support the death penalty? That would be an enormous intellectual and representative leap. Even if our elections were over specific issues, the death penalty has never been tabled.

All said and done, he is probably right. But we will never know. Because public opinion here in Singapore is brewed in a sacred chalice. We know what it tastes likes, but not where its ingredients are from.

“Most Singaporeans are against homosexuality”

“Most Singaporeans would like a Casino”

“[Death penalty] is something that is supported by the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans.”

You will frequently hear these declarations, booming from one beacon of authority to another – Diplomat, Minister, The Straits Times, yet you never see the hard statistical evidence that backs them up. There are neither polls nor referendums.

Even if the above statements are correct, you then have to wonder how Singaporeans arrive at these opinions. And you will sadly conclude that we are prone to opinion inbreeding, pack mentality and circular reasoning.

Let me explain. Our opinions are driven by the Powers that be. We have been told that the death penalty is essential to maintain safety and security in Singapore, and that’s all we need to know. Our parents tell us that. Our teachers tell us that. The local media outfits tell us that. Anybody who detracts is a looney tune. There is no organic, independent thinking on an issue. We only have opinion inbreeding.

Next, let’s suppose I decide to be very un-Singaporean and question a policy in my head: “Can a mandatory life sentence serve the same deterrence function as a mandatory death penalty?”

(Note: For those who care, very cursory Googling on the Internet suggests that the answer is YES)

If I dare arrive at an answer that differs from Government (and hence popular) opinion, the pack mentality pulls me back to sense and sensibility. There is no such thing as a different opinion here. Only a wrong opinion.

Circular reasoning: every time a Government official speaks on behalf of ‘the majority of Singaporeans’, there is an element of circular reasoning.

So, I would agree (although I would never know for sure) with Mr. Joseph Koh that the death penalty ‘is supported by the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans’.

However! However, this hides the fact that our opinions are wholly formed by the Government and the Government controlled media. A classic chicken and egg. Sure, perhaps you could say that every Government tries to shape (and later reflect) public opinion. But ours does so to a much greater degree than any other democratically elected one.

But you know what? This is just how our country functions. The Government thinks for us, and we work hard (for those who’ve read a few of my postings, you’ve heard this ad nauseum, sorry). It is no secret formula, we haven’t been hoodwinked for generations. Our dear architect Lee Kuan Yew has openly admitted that our people can’t think for ourselves, and thus he and his cadres have to.

What do we Singaporeans think about all this? There is a great commentary from Alkman Granitsas in today’s Straits Times, republished from Yale Global. You should really read it. It’s about Americans, but he rounds off with a De Tocqueville quote:

“There is indeed, a most dangerous passage in the history of a democratic people. When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education and their experience of free institutions…the discharge of political duties appears to them to be a troublesome impediment which diverts them from their occupations and business.”

Bit more on Australian Nguyen and the death penalty

Connie Levett, an Australian journalist based in Bangkok, read this blog last week and then called me up in Singapore to interview for a piece she was writing, “Fighting against the tide of opinion”
Hopefully there’ll be more discussion of the death penalty soon. Like I told Connie, if Singaporeans want the death penalty, then fine, so be it, we should be allowed to live how we want.

But I just don’t think enough people are actually taking time off to think about the issue properly. Which is a real shame.

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?