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.
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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.