Haven’t you heard? Murderers and drug traffickers have been emboldened by the much-reduced execution rate in recent years. For decades, we have boasted about how our tough stand on capital punishment has kept crime low. With the rope so little used today, serious crimes must be reaching horrific levels. Barricade your doors!
We have our weak-kneed government to blame for this, succumbing to international pressure from foreign governments and pinko commie outfits like Amnesty International. Unable to keep up our hanging rate with impunity, the horrors of life in Western capitals is coming our way — drug dealers at every street corner, bank robbers running down every sidewalk and killers stalking every alley.
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Seriously, we are hanging far fewer people today than in the 1990s. Yet whenever criticised, our government continues to insist that hanging is a necessary deterrent to stop rampant crime. Singapore is a safe place for children to grow up precisely because we hang, hang, hang.
For example, Indranee Rajah, a member of parliament from the ruling People’s Action Party, said in a speech on 22 October 2007, when discussing revisions to the Penal Code, that:
… it always amazes me that when people point to Great Britain and Europe and they talk about the doing away of the death penalty, they never, in the same breath, also talk about their crime rates. They should compare the crime rates in Great Britain and the crime rates of countries in Europe, with the crime rates in Singapore, crime for crime. I think it cannot be disputed that the crime rates in Europe are higher than ours and that the incidences of violent crimes are much more than ours.
The government here is so enamoured of the death penalty that it instructed its ambassador to the United Nations, Vanu Menon, to lead the defence at the UN against a 2007 General Assembly motion for a moratorium on capital punishment (the resolution eventually passed), a move that embarrassed many thinking Singaporeans concerned about our country’s image.
As most people know, data about executions are not published, though once in a while, the government releases a bit of information when pressed. The reluctance to reveal the annual number of executions strongly indicated that the numbers were high and that the government knew it would compound their public relations problem.
There was a widely-reported incident in September 2003 when, in an interview with the BBC, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was questioned about the number of people executed so far that year. According to a report of the incident in Amnesty International’s publication (referred to below), he stated that he believed it was “in the region of about 70 to 80”. When asked why he did not know the precise number, Goh said, “I’ve got more important things to worry about.” While the media made much of that second response, it really was fair enough; one can hardly expect a prime minister to carry in his head such statistics. However, his initial guess that Singapore executed 70 to 80 persons a year was received with great dismay — it represented a huge number for such a small population, giving Amnesty International ample cause to characterise this place as the one with the world’s highest per-capita execution rate.
Two days later, Goh retracted his statement, saying that the death penalty had in fact been carried out on ten occasions so far during 2003.
The Australian newspaper, The Age, reported the same incident with additional figures, citing AFP:
In a rare comment about the death penalty, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told the BBC yesterday that up to 80 people had been executed in the first nine months of this year.
“I think probably it will be in the region of about 70 to 80. I do not know the precise number, I stand to be corrected,” Mr Goh said, according to a transcript of the interview released by the Singapore Government.
The Government attached a note to the transcript saying 28 people had been executed in 2002, 27 in 2001 and 21 in 2000, without giving confirmed figures for this year.
— The Age, 25 Sept 2003, More people executed in Singapore. Link.
In January 2004, Amnesty International published a report Singapore death penalty — A hidden toll of executions, in which it provided several years’ figures compiled from various sources, including patchy numbers revealed by the government. I’ve put them into a table which you can see at right.
Indeed, Goh Chok Tong was not far off. There have been times when we hanged over 70 persons a year. We deserved our ignominy.
Over the years, Singapore was regularly pilloried for our record, particularly in November and December 2005 when the Australian media went after us for hanging Nguyen Trung Van.
And then British journalist and author Alan Shadrake came along and wrote a book Once a Jolly Hangman which I reviewed in New book puts death penalty on trial. For alleging that our judiciary did not meet First-World standards of probity, he was accused of contempt of court, with the prosecution arguing that Shadrake, through his book, impugned the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judiciary. He was found guilty and sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment and a S$20,000 fine. The appeal was heard in early April 2011; the result as yet unknown.
Shadrake’s case was irresistibly newsworthy, at least internationally, for it represented in a nutshell all that was wrong about governance in Singapore. His book sold fabulously and now, “Murdoch Books has just launched the Oz edition — also updated with the post-arrest events,” Shadrake tells me.
On 12 April 2011, the International Herald Tribune published a further story on the case. Perked up by the publicity, Shadrake then penned an open letter to the Law Minister, K Shanmugam, wherein he threw down a new challenge at the minister. Clearly, the man’s fighting spirit is undiminished.
One bit in the International Herald Tribune’s story would prove an interesting lead. This bit said:
The case is the latest in a long line of defamation cases brought by Singapore’s leaders and judiciary against political opponents and foreign publications. Last year, The New York Times Co., which owns the International Herald Tribune, was threatened with a libel suit for an opinion column in the paper about changes in Singapore leadership. The Herald Tribune apologized and paid a settlement.
Singapore’s leaders insist that these suits are necessary to clear their names following unfair criticism or misleading statements. The judge who ruled against Mr. Shadrake last November took this position. “A casual and unwary reader, who does not subject the book to detailed scrutiny, might well believe his claims, and in so doing would have lost confidence in the administration of justice in Singapore,” the judge said.
Human rights groups and other critics say the lawsuits are intended to punish and intimidate critics, causing a widespread climate of self-censorship.
The Singapore government, as is its style, was quick to expose the fact that the international media got it wrong. Our government loves to point out that newspapers not controlled by themselves cannot be trusted to report “accurately”. As reported in the always-accurate Straits Times,
The Law Ministry has written to the International Herald Tribune (IHT) to point out factual inaccuracies in its report on British author Alan Shadrake’s appeal against his conviction for contempt of court.
The newspaper had reported in an article published on April 12 that Shadrake’s case was ‘the latest in a long line of defamation cases’ brought by Singapore’s leaders.
In a letter to the IHT published yesterday, Law Minister K. Shanmugam’s press secretary, Ms Chong Wan Yieng, pointed out that Shadrake, 76, was not being sued for defamation.
Instead, the author was charged with contempt of court for alleging ‘quite baselessly’ that Singapore’s courts conspired with state agencies to suppress material evidence and convict the accused.
‘Such a statement would be in contempt of court in many common law jurisdictions, including England, Australia, Ireland, Canada and Hong Kong,’ the letter said.
The newspaper’s article had also said that Singapore does not disclose statistics on capital punishment. But Ms Chong pointed out that the number of executions is published by the Singapore Prisons and the death penalty is openly and vigorously debated in Singapore. [emphasis added by Yawning Bread]
— Straits Times, 22 April 2011, IHT article on Shadrake inaccurate: Law Ministry
I loved that bit about how “the death penalty is openly and vigorously debated in Singapore,” because on 30 January 2004, the government said the exact opposite. It was buried inside the official response to Amnesty International’s publication Singapore death penalty — A hidden toll of executions, refuting an assertion that Amnesty had made:
AI’s insinuation that there are not greater public discussions on death penalty in Singapore because the Government “imposes controls which curb freedom of expression” is false. Questions have been raised in Parliament on the death penalty, and the Government has released information on the number of persons executed. But the fact is that the death penalty is not a burning issue in Singapore. [emphasis by Yawning bread]
— The Singapore Government’s Response To Amnesty International’s Report “Singapore – The Death Penalty: A Hidden Toll Of Executions”, 30 January 2004. Link.
(If you go to the link and scroll down, you will see it mentioned that in the “last five years”, meaning 1999 – 2003, there were 138 executions, of which 37 were of foreigners. 110 were for drug-related offences, while 28 were for murder or firearms-related offences — these numbers are included in the table below.)
The more useful revelation from the Straits Times story however was that “the number of executions is published by the Singapore Prisons.” Somebody — he shall remain anonymous — then seized upon that clue to see where it would lead. An initial search of the website of the Singapore Prison Service’s website revealed nothing. Their 2008 Annual Report, available on the web, said nothing either. He then requested for the 2009 Annual Report from the Ministry of Law — not available online — and right there on page 70 was this:
The numbers are very significantly lower. Between 2007 and 2009, there were fewer than ten a year, compared to an average of 27 or 28 executions a year between 1999 and 2003, and 76 in 1994.
Don’t believe for a moment that no policy decision was involved. The crime background does not change so dramatically; it is clearly prosecution policy at work. Was it in response to huge domestic pressure? How can that be? Domestic pressure is barely perceptible. Our abolitionist movement is tiny, with us dismissed by most fellow Singaporeans as crazy idealists with no grasp of reality as to how monstrously dangerous overworked maids and drug mules are and how much our safety and security depends on hanging them all.
Life imprisonment is too good for these criminals, our compatriots say. It’s also an utter waste of state resources feeding the low-life. Hang them!
And yet, something changed. It was international pressure wasn’t it? Yeah, it works.