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Review : Once A Jolly Hangman

A review of  “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock” by British author/journalist Alan Shadrake

Dr Vincent Wijeysingha

Abolitionism conjures up images of bewigged nineteenth century reformists campaigning against the evil mercantilist phenomenon of slavery, thankfully long a thing of the past. Today it evokes a different picture: the activist, armed with an array of facts, quantitative and anecdotal, and equally insistent that we should consign the death penalty to the past.

Alan Shadrake’s fairly innocuous thesis should come as no innovation and reading it might cause the reader to wonder at the level of official opprobrium it has attracted this last week. Meticulously researched, it adds a further body of research to why we should no longer be looking to the death penalty as a medium of social order. A comparatively balanced assessment, some may say. With the expanding corpus of recent writings critical of government action one might have expected the authorities to have let it alone.

The style and content of the book might offer some clue to why it has given offence. Shadrake’s is an uncompromising critique of the death penalty, and particularly the mandatory death penalty – that leaves judges with no latitude to take account of mitigating factors. It widens the debate from social utility to efficacy, asking whether it actually achieve what it sets out to do. Shadrake thinks not. But in trying to penetrate the arguments that surround this debate, in asking us to look again at something not tending to enter our workaday consciousness, he raises important questions about whether the death penalty has not outlived its usefulness and come to act against the very notions of justice and security it seeks to support.

His arguments are characteristic of the abolitionist perspective. His premise is that the law seeks to achieve one or more of several things for the proper functioning of society – obtain retribution; deter further crime or other criminals; incapacitate the offender; attempt to rehabilitate; and/or seek restitution. By all accounts, in his view, the death penalty achieves few of these things in a meaningful way. It does not deter crime since our crime statistics have shown no substantial downward trend; it does not rehabilitate since the offender is now dead; and it cannot restore anything to the victim. So, in fact, the death penalty only achieves incapacitation and obtains retribution. And in fact, Helen Prejean, the American abolitionist of Dead Man Walking fame, says in the vast majority of cases she has been involved in the family of the victim opposes the death penalty.

I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me the whole point of the rule of law is that we ask judges, on behalf of society, to demand that they are satisfied the perpetrator acted willingly, and with full knowledge, and was not coerced, nor unduly influenced. We ask our judges to inquire into the circumstances of the perpetrator to establish if anything might mitigate guilt or increase the potential for rehabilitation. We expect our judges to be alert to state coercion or entrapment since they are the ordinary citizen’s safeguard against public agencies that may be tempted by whatever inducement to fabricate, conceal or otherwise tamper with evidence. And we would also like our judges to deal with offenders in an equal way to all others who come before them. Shadrake’s research posits that this is not always so.

He documents worrying instances of judges actually calling into doubt the culpability of the accused in their judgments and then going on to impose capital punishment. He tells of cases where differential sentences are handed down relative to the wealth or power of the perpetrator or their family. In one case involving a non-citizen, he suggested that her government’s threat to create economic discomfort for Singapore swayed the trial. In another case, he wrote, compelling evidence was heard from a policeman himself under investigation, and later convicted, of monstrous corruption. He also relates further cases where the mandatory nature of the death penalty binds the hands of the judges regardless of the perpetrator’s youth or clear potential for reform.

Unsurprisingly, Shadrake also draws attention to Flor Contemplation, the Filipina domestic worker hanged for double murder in 1995 and asks whether the terrible stresses and strains she experienced from a demanding and exacting employer who expected 18-hour workdays and plagued her for the slightest mistake might have convinced a judge not to hang her.

The death penalty abolition campaign has gained ground in recent years bolstered by the tremendous and, in Shadrake’s view irrevocable, upsurge of people, communities and nations holding the death penalty in revulsion. The abolitionists say that at a very basic level of abstraction, since no human being is infallible, therefore no tribunal could never be wrong, imprecise, or just plain prejudiced. The finality of the death sentence means that the victim is denied once and for all the possibility that the counsel of time will exonerate or mitigate him or her.

Shadrake documents the human dimension to the debate, and in this his format is unusual but compelling. He describes the tireless efforts of Singaporean campaigners such as lawyer M Ravi and the many unsung individuals who have campaigned, demonstrated, petitioned, held vigils, organised forums and arts actions and continue, in their quiet ways, to express their revulsion at state-sanctioned killing. He tells the story of Singapore’s death penalty from very personal perspectives: that of the executioner himself, the families, the apparent enthusiasm of the police to obtain convictions, the judges themselves who are fettered in their discretion because Parliament has made the death penalty compulsory for certain crimes. And the hanged, many of whom are victims at several levels, including poverty, desperation, and sheer stupidity.

Finally, Shadrake raises a question. If Singapore is bent on eradicating drugs, why does it continue to do business with Burma (officially Myanmar), provide it with infrastructural support, speak up for it in regional and international forums and, he speculates, enable its more well-known drug barons to do business in Singapore. Why indeed. The thrust of his thesis is this: the individual is not the priority. The priority is the economic viability of the state that sees these individuals as mere cogs in a vast commercial framework.

Have we become complacent when asked to measure the worth of human life? Do our national goals and administrative procedures determine the conduct of justice?  In one case, for example, he cites a previous Chief Justice who, in open court, is alleged to have said that procedural considerations outweigh new evidence in determining whether an innocent man should be hanged. Of course I am in no position to verify whether the Chief Justice actually said that, but I suppose a quick look at the records of the Supreme Court might clarify.

Shadrake has opened up a debate on an issue most of us have either not thought of at all or, if we have, tend to gloss over as a necessary price to pay for our safety. A price that he suggests has not really delivered the goods – after years of being the country with the highest rate of judicial executions per capita of population, the rate of hangings has not decreased.

Whether or not the evidence he presents is defensible, and this review does not take a position either way – as a reviewer, I merely report, neither confirming nor denying – it is a book that must open up a debate. We must ask our government to look again at the death penalty. If the government is able to refute all, or even some, of Shadrake’s data, let it do so. We would welcome it if he were found to be wrong. Because we could not sit by if these things were happening in our name.

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Dr Wijeysingha is a Singaporean social worker who recently returned from the UK after many years. He is the Executive Director of a local NGO and holds a doctorate in social policy. He writes in his personal capacity.

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For information on where to buy the book, click here.

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Picture from Yawning Bread.

Read also: New book puts death penalty on trial by Alex Au.