I had a sense of deja vu when Law Minister K Shanmugam said that allowing migrant workers to challenge deportation orders through the judicial process would mean that “every foreigner is entitled to stay here at taxpayers’ expense, housed here at taxpayers’ expense” (source), while the cases wend their way through the courts.
The same “it costs too much” argument was regularly deployed by supporters of the death penalty in previous years. It goes along these lines: society should not be burdened with having to feed and clothe a prisoner on a life sentence; it’s more economical to hang him. However, the government itself did not, to my knowledge, use this argument. It came from various members of the public.
Shanmugam’s recent comment reminded me of my observation that since the slight roll-back of the death penalty, I haven’t heard this argument again.
In amendments passed by Parliament November 2012, if an accused is convicted of murder but is not found to have intended to cause death, courts would have the discretion to sentence him to death or to life imprisonment with caning where previously courts had no such discretion. Where an accused is convicted of trafficking drugs above the quantity that attracts the mandatory death penalty, he or she can be sentenced to death or to life imprisonment (with caning in certain circumstances) if
(a) the accused is found to be merely a drug courier and
(b) the prosecutor certifies that the accused has “substantively assisted” the Central Narcotics Bureau with information that disrupted trafficking rings, or
(c) accused proves that he was suffering from such abnormality of mind that it substantially impaired his mental responsibility for committing the offence.
These amendments are tiny steps back from the mandatory death penalty.
The government may not wish to admit it, but the obvious intention of these changes is to scale down the number of executions Singapore carries out. The odium attached to us by our record as the country with possibly the highest per capita rate of executions in the world in previous years is now felt to be too embarrassing to bear.
Various theories are circulating as to why this government is making this U-turn. It had long insisted on the propriety and necessity of hanging people, going so far as to lead the pro-death states in opposing a 2007 United Nations resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. The resolution was passed 104 to 54 votes with 29 abstentions — in other words, Singapore lost the fight after antagonising over a hundred other countries. However, this is not the place to discuss these speculations.
Already, a few convicted persons have had their sentences reviewed and spared execution. Yet, as far as I can see, no member of the public has spoken up to demand that we stop this nonsense and go back to hanging. It costs too much to keep people in life imprisonment!
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Sometimes activists campaigning for a better world fear “conservatives” too much. Our opponents look too numerous, their views too strongly held, we despairingly think.
What our opponents’ silence after the law amendments shows is that we may be overestimating them. I reckon that it may be because there are really two different groups whom we lump together as “conservatives”. As working labels, let me call these two groups “critical (or principled) conservatives” and “authority-echoing conservatives”. They are quite different beasts.
Critical conservatives really do have strongly-held beliefs, arrived at through their own critical reasoning processes. My guess is that they are no more numerous than critical liberals or critical socialists.
The size of the “conservative” group is largely buffed up by echoers of authority. They are conservative in the sense that their default preference is for the status quo, and naturally there is a link between the status quo and the powers currently in control. The latter, after all, are the ones who would have created the status quo. The echoers therefore tend to defend the status quo and the existing system or policies. That does not mean they are completely passive. They come up with defences — often rationalisations — for the status quo which those in power do not deploy.
I mentioned above how defenders of the death penalty used the economic cost argument, when (I don’t think) the Singapore ever did. In the same way, you see Calvin Cheng defending the garrotting of Breakfast Network using arguments that neither the law nor the Media Development Authority has used (See post on andyxianwong.wordpress.com). Another example would be the way the anti-gay camp reaches quickly for the demographic argument — “the human race will be extinct if we ‘promote’ homosexuality” — when even in their most rabidly homophobic days, our government did not.
But the moment those in charge change their tune, as in the case of the government stepping back from flaunting the death penalty, echoers stop singing the old song. The principled or critical conservatives would stand their ground based on their strongly-held views, but echoers find it very hard to do so. Their emotional need is to stay on the side of the powerful.
On many issues, we can discern a similar pattern. Once powerful people shift their position, large numbers of followers shift with them. When President Obama spoke out in favour of same-sex marriage, there was a sea-change in attitudes among African-Americans. It will be interesting to watch what happens now with Pope Francis signalling a new direction for the Roman Catholic Church away from dogmatic issues.
I have never believed Singapore to be the “conservative” society that the government (when it suits them) characterise this place to be. If at all Singapore is conservative, it is only because our leaders are the backward type; people take the cue from our regressive ministers and stay on the safe side of authority by echoing them. And when our government claims it cannot move ahead of public opinion, such an excuse rings hollow, ignoring as it does the fact that its own moral leadership can be a great mover of public opinion.
We can also cast this same point in another way: Singapore’s social progress is held back not by any defect in Singaporeans — we’re just normal people spread on a spectrum — but by the poor quality and moral misplacements of our leadership.
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In the wake of the 8 December 2013 riot, 53 foreign workers who were issued formal police warnings, and four others whose charges were withdrawn by the prosecution, were deported by the latter part of the same month. These were in addition to the 25 who are being prosecuted for rioting and about 200 more who were given “police advisories” — a rather new thing nobody really knows the significance of.
There were criticisms about the lack of due process for the 57 men deported. Particularly in the case of the four who, after charges had been withdrawn, were given a discharge amounting to an acquittal, critics said it didn’t seem fair that they should then be promptly deported.
In response to these criticisms, the government said,
However, it does not mean that if the courts are not involved in the repatriation decisions, that there is no due process. Investigations were carried out and all factors and findings were considered before any decision was made to cancel the work passes of the foreign workers and repatriate them. The Police had interviewed more than 4,000 workers and investigated 400 in the aftermath of the Little India riot before a decision was made based on culpability that 25 would face charges, 57 would be repatriated and about 200 issued advisories.
For the 4 workers who had their charges dropped, there have been questions if this meant that they were not involved in the riots and if so, why were they still repatriated?
The Prosecution has the discretion as to whether these men should be prosecuted in Court for their actions in the riot. In this case, after further review, the prosecution decided not to proceed with charges against 4 workers, and withdrew the charges against them. When a charge is withdrawn, the usual order made by the court is a discharge amounting to an acquittal. Since the charge is not proceeded with, there is no trial and hence no findings of guilt or innocence in relation to the charge.
However, the decision not to charge these 4 workers for specific offences does not mean that they were not involved in the riot at all. It also does not preclude the government from exercising its powers under the Immigration Act. In this case, the Police identified the 4 workers for failing to disperse despite orders from the Police. Hence, similar to the 53 others, they had threatened public order and this made their continued presence in Singapore undesirable. They were issued warnings and were repatriated.
— Source: Singapore government’s Factually website
The problem here is that other than generalised statements such as the above, the state has not revealed what evidence they had about the 57 men’s involvement. If charged in court, the state would have to provide specific evidence in open court against each specific person.
It might be argued that since these 57 men were not charged, the same standard of evidence need not apply, but on the other hand, a penalty (deportation and possibly permanent disbarment from ever entering Singapore again) is being applied, and in the interest of public confidence in executive/administrative processes, the government should equally disclose what evidence they had that these particular 57 men did not disperse when so ordered.