Why we don’t chop off hands

Shanmuganathan Dillidurai, 41, came from Tamil Nadu, India, to Singapore to work in the hope of giving a better life to his wife and two sons he left behind. He was sent home in a box earlier this month, accompanied by all his worldy possessions: five sets of clothing, a rice cooker, a curry pot and a photo album.

He had been set upon by a gang of vicious robbers, slashed on his head, arms and upper body and left to die in pain and agony. His loved ones will never be the same again.

Within about a week of his murder, three Malaysians were arrested and charged with the heinous crime. Police are seeking a fourth man. The three caught so far are Michael Garing, 22, Tony Imba, 31 and Hairee Landak, 19. Donny Melluda is still at large.

The police also allege that three other men were involved in similar robberies with severe knife injuries. Two other migrant workers from India were critically hurt around the same time as Shanmuganathan was killed. One Singaporean, Ang Jun Heng was also attacked and had half his palm hacked off. Apparently, the victims had all been randomly chosen.

These three other men were also Malaysians: Sylvester Barogok, 25, Shahman Milak, 21 and Peter Usit Musa, 22. They have been arrested and charged for the assaults.

The first three, who have been charged with murder, face the death penalty. It will be mandatory for the court to impose such a  sentence if they are found guilty in a trial, which has not yet been scheduled.

* * * * *

The tiny abolitionist lobby in Singapore that has been trying to stop capital punishment tends to focus on cases wherein the accused are caught with small amounts of drugs. This is understandable because the public may be a little bit more amenable to rethinking the issue when they see the death penalty as disproportionate to the crimes these persons have committed, often acting as no more than drug mules for kingpins who stay outside the reach of the law, than it is in cases of truly vicious crimes.

M Ravi, the foremost lawyer who takes a personal interest in drug-related cases is anyway too busy (and stressed out) trying to save the lives of the drug mules to even begin addressing another use of the death penalty – that for murder. I know though, that he feels just as strongly over all uses of the death penalty.

It’s already an uphill battle trying to change public opinion over capital punishment for drug cases, it would seem mad to try to speak out against capital punishment for murder.

But I am going to. Here and now.

The arguments are exactly the same whether we are arguing against capital punishment in drug-related cases or in murder cases, for example: irreversibility even in the light of new evidence or in the light of future discovery that the investigation or judicial process was flawed. Another argument: capital punishment is a premeditated act of violence; just because the state is doing it does not absolve us of moral responsibility because we determine what the state does.

What about proportionality? you may ask. Perhaps taking a life is too heavy a sentence for a drug crime, but what if someone has committed murder and it can be shown that there is absolutely no doubt about his culpability? Wouldn’t the death sentence be quite proportionate?  I’m sure lots of people think that way — that proportionality should be a big part of the argument. In fact proportionality is not part of the case against hanging at all.

The argument for proportionality ultimately reduces to ‘a life for a life’. That’s why some would believe that it is justified in cases of murder even when they don’t agree with it in drug cases. However, the principle of ‘a life for a life’  is in reality a retributive reaction. We’re just rationalising our revenge instinct by speaking of it as forfeiture. We’re putting lipgloss on our atavistic instincts through the choice of words. It is still cruel and barbaric.

Let me put it this way: Would you say that those who knifed the other victims, causing them to be hospitalised in the intensive care wards, should receive knife wounds from our prison officers as just punishment? Do you think that they should have a hand axed off from each in return for hurting the Singaporean?

I think most of us would recoil at the thought of such punishments. We would not want to put our prison officers in the position of having to inflict the same. Indeed, we would use words such as “barbaric”, “vengeful”, “medieval” or “uncivilised” to describe such a response. But they are also based on the same forfeiture principle, which as I explained above, is really a retributive reaction.

So, far from being a strong argument in favour of the death penalty for murder, the forfeiture principle is a self-defeating argument. Most of the time, we react with horror and indignation, recognising most forms of state violence as cruel and barbaric. The problem is that as a society we are not yet able to see capital punishment as barbaric too, even when hanging belongs to the same basket as chopping off a hand, putting out an eye, or being forcibly raped as a form of punishment.

I know right now I am a voice in the wilderness. But we really need to start this conversation, not because we should get “soft”on crime — a life sentence for murder is hardly soft — but because we need to be more enlightened as a society.

21 Responses to “Why we don’t chop off hands”

  1. 1 Charles 13 June 2010 at 22:25

    I am there with you
    But it will be an uphill battle in Singapore (and even more now that both Singapore and PRC are both fighting the same battle: “economic growth at the cost of freedom is good”

  2. 2 sk 13 June 2010 at 22:54

    but what should we do? Putting a murderer behind bars for the rest of his life is as meaningless as hanging him.

    Are we supposed to reform him and give him a new lease of life? I’m sure that suggestion would make as many people recoil as does the suggestion that prison officers should inflict the same harm on the offenders that they did to their victims.

    Many are of the opinion that drug traffickers should not face the mandatory death penalty, partly because these traffickers are rarely more than runners, and partly because drug dealing can be considered a victimless crime. (sure, there are drug addicts, but rarely does anybody force them to take drugs in the first place)

    What would be a punishment befitting murder?

  3. 3 yeokh 14 June 2010 at 08:26

    You seemed to have overlooked the most oft-cited reason for keeping the death penalty for serious crimes — the deterrence factor.

    Of course it is not a watertight reason in support of capital punishment, but neither can it be dismissed out of hand because it seems to accord with common sense: we ought to make the punishment heavy enough so that would-be criminals will be deterred from committing the crime.

    • 4 ST 14 June 2010 at 12:24

      Well, clearly it didn’t deter these hand-hacking robbers.

      • 5 Bernie 19 June 2010 at 03:39

        Yes, you didn’t consider the deterrent factor of capital punishment.
        Someone who has been in and out of prisons for most of his or her life is unlikely to see a life sentence as a deterrent, just another visit to where he has lived.

        This begs the question, what stops a hardened criminal from committing murder?

        For petty criminals, why they don’t commit crimes again is the fear of prison, with beatings and prison rapes rampant.

        On another topic, I know most people consider “a hand for a hand” difficult to stomach.

        But honestly, I think if people knew they had to live with the consequences of their actions, inflicted in turn upon themselves, they would be much less inclined to commit crimes. I would not judge such a society as barbaric. What society allows its free citizens to have their hands hacked off, while their prisoners relax in a humane system? I call *that* a barbaric society. All the lawful people might as well band together in prison then.
        The punishment must fit the crime. I would rather live in a fair system were people are free, then in one in which I face the fear of being attacked in daily life.

        What the prison system merely does now is take the responsibility of harsh punishment from the jailors, and let the prisoners unleash it on each other.

  4. 6 Kai Khiun 14 June 2010 at 13:06

    Hi YB,

    Once again, a thoughtful suggestion.

    Like most governments, the Singapore state would ideally like to hold the monopoly of violence. Hence any unathorised violation of the body becomes not just an individual injustice, but more importantly for those in government, a challenge to the legitimacy of the state or in other words, law and order, a challenge that has to be swiftly, and increasingly systematically addressed with a systematically calibrated extent of punishments; Be it hard labour, amputation of hands for stealing or psychiatric treatment for sexual crimes, all these measures do have some degree of violence and forfeiture in restricting and reforming the convicted. Hence, it would be culturally complacent for us to think that only capital punishment is inherently more “barbaric” that the seemingly “enlightened” reformative detention that may leave you living like a zombie.

    I see the trouble with the Singapore judicial system lies not so much in its belief in capital punishment per se. Sentences are formally passed and punishments like caning and executions are clinically administered behind closed door instead of being made public spectacles for a vengeful mob of a previous era. Aside from deterrence, the issue here to debate is whether a convicted murderer deserves and is capable of not being re-integrated into mainstream society, but deserves to be treated as a human being. Apparently, many are not as seen in the cases of recidivist crimes like sexual assaults by those who have shortly been released. What is the limit to our assessment, patience and resources before we (or some people decide) that enough is enough.

    What is disturbing here is its rather liberal and clumsy application of physical punishments like caning for illegal male workers and death for drug traffickers who are mostly mules. It is also disturbing that the time gap between the conviction and sentencing is too short, leaving little hope for new evidence to surface.

  5. 7 EL 14 June 2010 at 13:12

    I agree with you. I would suggest the murderers (after found guilty and sentenced) be put to some work (not forced labour, but something like making handicraft, assembling hardware/furniture etc) and that most of their earnings go toward supporting the widow and children of their deceased victim (for the rest of her life) and the medical expenses and other expenses (counseling, outpatient charges etc) of their other victims.

  6. 8 T 14 June 2010 at 16:17

    /// ST 14 June 2010 at 12:24

    Well, clearly it didn’t deter these hand-hacking robbers. ///

    I doubt those Sarawakians knew the penalty for murder in Singapore. And no, you cannot use ignorance as a plea. But what this case, more foreign workers will be aware and be deterred.

  7. 9 Francis 14 June 2010 at 17:23

    I agree with YB. Each time a man is hanged, it diminishes us as a society.

    Each man’s death diminishes me,
    For I am involved in mankind.
    Therefore, send not to know
    For whom the bell tolls,
    It tolls for thee.

    John Donne

  8. 10 yawningbread 14 June 2010 at 18:51

    sk (13 June, 22:54) I don’t know what you mean by “meaningless”. Meaningless for whom? And what is the appropriate sentence for murder? Something like 20 years to life, subject to case specifics.

    yeokh (14 June, 08:26) people who like the death penalty for murder also like to cite deterrence, but they never cite empirical data to support this. Why? Because the data does not support it. But consider this also: For some crimes, a harsh enough punishment could be a deterrent, e.g. if we made the sentence for shoplifting one of cutting off hands, I think we will reduce the incidence of shoplifting, so in that sense, it will have partially succeeded in deterring people. But we see this response as so unthinkable that we will not even consider such a sentence, we will not even consider whether it has a deterrent effect. Why? Because we first consider cutting off hands barbaric. In other words, the barbarism consideration is a higher order consideration. The deterrence argument is subordinate to it and will not be worthy of consideration once we see barbarism.

    EL (14 June, 13:12) your suggestion is very good.

    T (14 June, 16:17) you doubt the Malaysians who have been ALLEGED to have committed the murder, knew about the death penalty, when in Malaysia it is also the sentence? I hope you are being mordant.

  9. 11 Saint Splattergut 14 June 2010 at 18:57

    I saw this really awesome bit on Penn & Teller, where they did the Death Penalty episode. They interviewed this Professor of Philosophy who escaped from Auschwitz. Her Dad didn’t make it. She said the Death Penalty for murder is absurd because murder is committed for three different reasons. Passion, Compulsion or Profit. None of which can be deterred…

    • 12 Robox 14 June 2010 at 22:23

      Saint Splattergut, you have provided us with a gem: “…the Death Penalty for murder is absurd because murder is committed for three different reasons. Passion, Compulsion or Profit. None of which can be deterred…”

      While I’m also going to google for the info, would you happen to have a link (or links) to more such info from this source?

    • 13 yawningbread 14 June 2010 at 22:35

      Hang on… aren’t all crimes committed for the same three reasons?

      • 14 Robox 14 June 2010 at 23:48

        Hi Alex, you read my mind: “Hang on… aren’t all crimes committed for the same three reasons?”

        It’s exactly why I was so excited when I read what Saint wrote. I think it’s a powerful challenge to the proponents of death-as-a-deterrent argument to re-think what they are really saying, as well as a powerful comeback for abolitionists who have been hitherto been largely dumbstruck by it.

        Yes, all crimes are committed for the same three reasons, so why are there are there different sentencing procedures for crimes on trial?

        No, you will no longer be that lone voice in the wilderness!

      • 15 Saint Splattergut 20 June 2010 at 19:28

        Hello Robox,

        I’m sorry for the late reply.


        You can see this in Season 4 of their Showtime series, called Bullshit! 😉

      • 16 Robox 21 June 2010 at 23:49

        Hi SS, thanks. I have already viewed half of the video and will complete viewing the rest later.

  10. 17 yeokh 14 June 2010 at 23:33


    Good laws do not just deter, but they also ought to be just. As such, cutting off hands for shoplifting may deter but they would be seen as excessive by most people and therefore does not satisfy the just criterion of a good law.

    In the case of murder, imposing the death penalty may arguably deter as well as seeming to be just — a life for a life, as you put it.

    As for statistics about whether capital punishment does deter, I believe the evidence is somewhat inconclusive. It does not support deterrence, but it also does not rule it out entirely as far as I know from studies done in the US.

    Still, regardless of the statistical evidence elsewhere, the fact that there are few murders in Singapore would seem to lend some support to the idea that capital punishment does have a deterrent effect.

  11. 18 Cymric 16 June 2010 at 11:34

    Firstly, why is the death penalty barbaric? Is barbaric measurable such that we can say “This action’s barbaric is 9.53, higher than the criteria of 7. It IS barbaric!”. Of course not, there is no such measurement. Everyone has their own opinion of what is barbaric and what is not. Condemning an action on subjective basis such as uncivilized or barbaric is meaningless.

    I think the deciding factor for or against the death penalty should be which method will benefit society as a whole more? With two identical societies, one implements death penalty and the other one does not, which will prosper more? Unfortunately, there is no easy way to find out.

    Pragmatically I will prefer the death penalty to be changed into a sentenced of a life of hard labor that generates enough income to support his own and his jailers’ upkeep, with the surplus going to the victims of his/her crime. Not that this is more civilized, but that the criminal can pay back for his/her crime.

  12. 19 Ernest 18 June 2010 at 02:18

    I think the driving force behind keeping capital punishment is two-fold: (1) a misplaced sense of justice and equity (2) belief in the invincibility of the justice system (and because of the overwhelming number of court cases ruling in favour of the incumbent party, this may really be a reflection of blind trust in authority in general).

    I think people will agree that a wrong judgment may be overruled, but killing a person is rather hard to reverse. And they might actually think twice about the death penalty if they realise that their loved ones might actually be on the stand.

  13. 20 yeokh 18 June 2010 at 03:21

    I would agree that the possibility of wrongful conviction may be the most practical argument against the death penalty.

    That the ultimate fate of an accused lies in the hand of a single judge or even a panel of three judges (in the case of an appeal) increases the possibility of judicial error.

    At the very least, capital punishment should not be made mandatory but left to the discretion of the judges, depending on the unique circumstances of each case.

  14. 21 baller 28 June 2010 at 15:34

    My problem with the death penalty is that it is mandatory. There is always room for discretion, especially where a human life is concerned.

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