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Radio Australia speaks to James Gomez on Shadrake

From Radio Australia:

[Listen to the podcast on the website]

A British author arrested in Singapore while promoting his book on executions in the island republic, is out on bail pending police investigations.

Alan Shadrake, aged 75, was freed after local activists posted the 10,000 dollar bail - just over 7,000 dollars US. He faces charges of criminal defamation, after Singapore's Media Development Authority lodged a police report. Shadrake's book, "Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice on the Dock" was published in neighbouring Malaysia. It contained allegations of double standards in Singapore's use of the death penalty, including interviews with the former longtime chief executioner at Changi prison, Darshan Singh.

Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Dr James Gomez, a former candidate in Singapore's 2006 election and now head of public relations at Monash University in Melbourne

LAM: Dr Gomez, Amnesty International says the Singapore government uses criminal defamation as a way of silencing critics. Now you've read the book, did you find much in it that Singapore authorities might take exception to?

GOMEZ: Well I think essentially it is a criticism of the Singapore court system as it pertains to the death penalty, and I think the government is very prickly about what is said in the book. And while the government and its politicians have been known to use civil defamation, the case is interesting this time where the resources of the state are brought to bear through the use of criminal defamation investigations.

LAM: So the book I take it doesn't put a very good light on the judiciary in Singapore?

GOMEZ: And the death penalty issue in particular, it is a global issue and Singapore like many countries is way behind in terms of how the death penalty is implemented and should be reviewed, and therefore it is very sensitive in terms of how it is portrayed internationally. And the book is just one example.

LAM: So who exactly has brought on this charge of criminal defamation?

GOMEZ: Well it's the Media Development Authority that has filed the complaint. But understanding Singapore politics usually bureaucrats may not be the ones initiating this of their own accord. So there would certainly be some behind the scenes movements in terms of why this particular agency became literally the fall guy to file the complaint with the police.

LAM: And this Media Development Authority, I take it this is the authority that grants licenses or keeps an eye on the media in general?

Gomez: Yes a censorship board by a difference name nonetheless.

LAM: Well Singapore aspires to be not just a regional but indeed a global media and information hub. Do you find its censorship laws surprising, and do you think those laws are holding it back?

GOMEZ: Well I think there are two issues here; one is in terms of what you just touched on, the attempt by the Peoples Action Party administration to project Singapore in a positive light. Millions of dollars have been spent in international marketing and some of it very effectively, and people around the globe have a particular image of Singapore. Now at the same time, without spending that amount of money, it continues to damage the reputation of Singapore through actions like this, censorship actions. And this I think irks Singaporeans and friends of Singapore because they do want, any national would want a positive image of the place that he or she comes from, but consistently there is a negative image.

LAM: So you're saying that the Singapore government would do well to be a little bit more thick-skinned?

GOMEZ: Well I think it can handle its reputation better, but since we have thin-skinned administration, so these are some of the actions. But I think what is interesting also for listeners of your program to bear in mind is Singapore's human rights record is under review by the United Nations under a mechanism called the Universal Periodic Review. Now I would not be surprised if governments such as the British government would take issue with Singapore's human rights record during the scrutiny at the UN Assembly when Singapore's human rights record comes under review later next year.

LAM: And just very briefly James, what's the role of the former chief executioner Darshan Singh, that was given so much prominence in the book, what's his role in the book?

GOMEZ: Well essentially he's the hangman of Singapore, and because Alan had great access to Darshan, that's why we get some of those troves of information.

LAM: So it's almost like an insider's look?

GOMEZ: That's right, but however I think since it was exposed a couple of years back that Darshan was unveiled as the chief executioner, Darshan is very much kept out of the limelight. I guess he would have been reminded of the Official Secrets Act that he had signed with the Singapore government.

LAM: James we'll have to leave it there unfortunately, but yes I'm sure Darshan Singh would be very mindful of the Official Secrets Act in Singapore. Thanks very much for your time.

GOMEZ: Thank you Sen.