By Andrew Loh
I have been wondering why the Singapore government has been reluctant to abolish the mandatory death penalty, or at least impose a moratorium on it. It is obvious to anyone familiar with how the MDP is practised in Singapore that there are serious flaws in it.
Lawyers have said so. The Law Society has said so. The international community has said so. (Most countries do not have or have abolished the MDP, including almost all Asian countries.) Even judges have implicitly express reservations about it.
So, why isn't the government taking heed?
One reason is that of "face". It is quite clear that in almost all of its public defence of the MDP, the government has adopted the "we are sovereign and we do not kow tow to pressure from others" attitude. Yet, this is not about national sovereignty for that is not in question. No country would stand for external pressure from others. Yet, many countries have abolished or imposed moratoriums on the MDP. Heck, even a draconian state like China has given its judges discretionary powers when it comes to the death penalty.
The issue is about fairness, mercy and humane-ness.
While we may want criminals to be punished and punished severely, we must not forget that the punishment must fit the crime - and the criminal. It is the same reason and principle why we have separate courts for minors - the juvenile courts. If the justice system does not have room for fairness and mercy, then we're looking for revenge and not justice. We're looking for vengeance and not punishment. And revenge and vengeance have no place in our laws or in our justice system.
If they do, then we'd be nothing more than beasts.
As for the deterrent argument, it is quite clear that the goverment has nothing to stand on. There are no studies which support such a claim.
And so, we are left with one thing - public opinion. As recently as Jan 2009, Law Minister Shanmugam has cited this as a reason why the government retains the MDP - that Singaporeans support it. But the minister misses the woods altogether. The issue is not the death penalty but the mandatory death penalty and how it is carried out in S'pore.
And there have been NO surveys or studies or research about whether Singaporeans support the mandatory death penalty.
All we have at the moment are assertions - assertions which are not substantiated in any concrete or meaningful way, data or studies.
So, why is the government burying its head in the sand?
My guess is pride - political pride. That we came from nothing, managed ourselves and brought ourselves to "first world" and no one is going to tell us how to run our country. Indeed, Lee Kuan Yew has said this several times.
But pride leads one to a fall, has it not been said?
When the world moves in one direction, we should pay heed and ask why and see if there is something there we could learn. It is fatal to hold on to pride and make up excuses to justify that pride.
Many countries have reversed their positions on the MDP. And all countries have pride. Yet, these countries perhaps placed a higher value on human life than national pride - especially when there are compelling reasons to do so.
And with the MDP in Singapore, there are indeed compelling reasons for us to re-look the legislation.
At the end of the day, are we a society which leaves no room for remorse, repentence and conversion? Are we so filled with pride and "face" that we are unable to have a heart as well?
Yes, Yong Vui Kong smuggled drugs. Yes, he is guilty.
Yet, now that he has been in jail for almost 3 years, he has changed. He now realises his failings. He asks for mercy. He wants to turn his life around.
He has been frightened. Nah, terrified.
He has turned to his god. He has turned to the Buddha. He reads the scriptures. He prays. He counsels his fellow death row friends. He lives and adheres to prison rules.
The guards are amazed. His counselor is amazed. His lawyer is amazed. His sisters and brothers are all amazed at the transformation.
"Being in his presence is like being in the presence of an enlightened being," one of them says.
Remorse, repentence, conversion. Aren't these the things we teach our children when they have done serious wrongs?
Is there no value in these?
Is there no room for these?
If the Singapore government is holding on to the MDP because of national pride, then I say I do not want to be a Singaporean.
For that is not me. It should not be us.
For when I see someone being remorseful and repents for what he has done, there must be room in my heart for forgiveness.
And that is how I want my country to be.
Especially when the person in question is a boy.