by Teo Soh Lung
Too many executions have been carried out in our name and without our knowledge. It is not that we don’t care. We trust our government to do what is right. But have we slept too long on such important matters?
It was sometime last year, at a meeting with Ambassador-at-Large Professor Chan Heng Chee and several non governmental organisations that a request to be informed of impending executions and statistics of people hanged was made. Prof Chan was informed that Singapore has always been exceedingly secretive about the executions it carried out in its notorious Changi Prison and do not disclose names of pending executions or even respond to requests for funeral arrangements.
Prof Chan was surprised that this was an issue at all. She said something to the effect that the names of those to be executed should be on the notice board of Changi Prison. Prof Chan did not promise to explore this grave defect in our penal system but the representatives of the anti death penalty organisations were hopeful that she would assist in helping to make such information available to them. After all, Singapore is proud of the death penalty and of the deterrent effect it claims to have on crimes. So why not let every Singaporean know who is to be hanged so that others will heed the danger of ending up in the gallows?
It was thus with shock that I learned last evening, at the press conference held by the Singapore Anti -Death Penalty Campaign and Second Chance that in addition to Kho Jabing who is to be executed this Friday, 20 May, there may be another person who will be hanged with him. No one knows who this person is.
On 27 Jan 2016, Singapore went through its second Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Professor Chan Heng Chee led the Singapore delegation comprising officials from 11 Government ministries and agencies. A total of 30 delegates attended the session at which 113 states spoke. In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs page it is reported:
“Some delegations recommended that Singapore abolish the death penalty, caning, detention without trial, and section 377A of the Penal Code. Several delegations also called on Singapore to consider acceding to more human rights treaties. The Singapore delegation responded to these recommendations by explaining the context and rationale of policies particular to Singapore on these issues…”
The death penalty is definitely an issue which is in the spotlight of the international community. It will not go away. The Singapore Government also cannot afford to take for granted that Singaporeans are in agreement with them on this grave matter. The fact that the majority in parliament have agreed to impose the death penalty on a great number of crimes, including non-violent crimes, have nothing to do with the opinion of the people. They do not know what goes on in parliament and most don’t care.
No referendum has ever been held to ascertain the opinion of the population on the death penalty. While the majority of countries in the world have progressed and abolished this barbaric, cruel and inhumane form of punishment, Singapore has happily taken the reverse trend.
While some countries have stopped execution of those condemned to death, Singapore has resumed executions last year but refused to make public the number of executed persons and impending executions.
The reason, I think, is simple. Singapore is afraid of criticisms by Singaporeans and the international community. Singapore ministers have always suffered from an inferiority complex which regrettably is exhibited as a superiority complex. They detest constructive criticisms because they are not competent in handling such criticisms. And so they resort to deeds, like a child who in order to show his unhappiness and frustrations, becomes destructive. Execute the prisoners just to show the world that they do not care about their opinion and that they have the power to do so, being the elected government.
Singapore cannot continue with this bad attitude, setting a wicked example to other less developed countries.
The Universal Periodic Review is here to stay. Every four years, Singapore’s human rights record will be reviewed by her peers in Geneva. There is now a world trend to abolish capital punishment for very good reasons and Singapore will no longer be able to escape world attention for carrying out execution in private. Singaporeans too, especially the young, are no longer unconcerned about the death penalty.
For a start, the Singapore government has to be answerable to Singaporeans. It has to convince the people that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on crimes. Sadly, no such effort has been made by the government to convince us that the death penalty has its desired effect. We only hear ministers repeating their mantra that the death penalty keeps the people safe as if Singapore was such an unsafe country before the introduction of this penalty to so many offences after the PAP gained full control of parliament in 1966.
At the press conference last evening, the mother of Kho Jabing apologised for the crime her son committed. She begged for a second chance for him. She pleaded that our president exercise his discretion and grant him life.
Kho Jabing is a poor Iban who left Sarawak in search of a living in wealthy Singapore when he was in his early 20s. He worked as a hard labourer carrying oil drums. He has a simple mind and yes, he made a big mistake in committing a robbery after consuming cheap alcohol which contained a great amount of methanol, which is poisonous. His victim died a few days later. He is contrite and he wants to be a good person and follow the teachings of Islam. Before this crime, he has an unblemished record. If he is granted clemency, he will never be able to return to his native Sarawak, at least until such times when the government feels that the law on life imprisonment is absurd and needs a revision. His mother and sister will be happy that he is alive and they can still visit him when they have the money to do so. Meantime, he can be a good Muslim and can be given the opportunity to tell others to avoid crimes and not make the terrible mistake he made.
We can take the defeated and resigned attitude that the plea for clemency like those for Vignes Mourti in 2003 and many others will not succeed. But that does not mean that we do nothing and let the State carry out its heinous deed in our name and without our knowledge. We should do our part and let our ministers and the president know what we think of the death penalty. We have a duty as citizens to do that even if our opinion fall on deaf ears for now. So let us contemplate the words of Albert Camus and do our part:
"But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal's deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”
His Excellency, President of the Republic of Singapore
Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam