Singapore Death Book Has a Sympathetic Hearing

Singapore's government may well be regretting the use of a sledgehammer to crack a small nut, in this case prosecuting the British author of a hitherto obscure, Malaysia-published book critical of the injustices present in the Lion City's eager use of capital punishment. The case has brought international attention to Singapore's relatively easy and allegedly discriminatory use of the hangman's noose in a way that casts doubt on its preferred image as a state that is strict but fair.

The Court of Appeal has reserved judgment on the appeal by author Alan Shadrake against a six-week prison term and a S$20,000 fine for contempt of court relating to passages in his book: "Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the dock." It was argued that Shadrake had deliberately impugned the impartiality and integrity of the Singapore judiciary with his book.

This was not, of course, the first time that Singapore's legal system has been used to silence criticism and to maintain the claim that the judiciary is independent of the ruling political powers. There is a litany of cases of contempt of court and libel actions by politicians, all won by the plaintiffs, which speak to this issue. But the norm has been usually to use civil law to suppress criticism or give fines rather than jail for contempt.

So, faced with the publicity that Shadrake's case has, as a result, received, it now seems very possible that, unusually, the Appeals court will determine not to draw further attention to the case, commute his prison sentence and get him out of Singapore where he is currently free on bail and telling everyone within earshot that he is willing to go jail for the principle of free speech.

The book has drawn unwanted attention to both the suspected scale of Singapore's executions, as well as to the standard of justice involved. Hitherto the fact that the country does not publish data on executions and anyway is a tiny state has largely spared it the attacks delivered by Amnesty International and other campaigners against countries, headed by China, which frequently use the death penalty for offences such as corruption as well as murder and drug smuggling.

But relative to the size of its population many believe that Singapore is in the same league as China , and some African countries headed by Libya, when it comes to the ultimate penalty. Those are not the sort of comparisons that reflect well on Singapore's vaunted reputation for the impartial rule of law. This is doubly the case when many executions are of mules used for drug smuggling. Such extreme penalties for drug couriers from poor countries desperate for money can reasonably be regarded as grossly hypocritical given the amount of money that Singapore makes as banker, hotelier and shopping mall to the drug lords of Burma, to cite one example. These are also the sort of executions that may even bring a pang of conscience to the high-flying currency traders and investment bankers – cocaine, anyone? who lead the good expat life in Singapore.

Shadrake's book, poorly written and possibly not entirely accurate as it may be, has also drawn attention to what appears to be race-based discrimination in the application of the law, and a determination to convict regardless of the quality of evidence. Shadrake for example compares the case of a well-connected German student who was saved from the gallows when an uproar in Germany caused the cannabis she was carrying to be re-weighed and determined to be below the limit that requires the mandatory death sentence. She was eventually released after three years in prison. But a young Nigerian with no elite connections or political backing from home was executed despite reasonable doubts that he knew he was carrying heroin. In another case, according to Shadrake, a Malaysian Indian was executed on the evidence of an undercover officer who himself was arrested just two days later and convicted of corruption and attempting to bribe a witness.

Drug taking is far from unknown in Singapore despite the draconian penalties so there are widespread suspicions that the law is implemented as a periodic threat and the mules are sacrificed as exemplars. It seems less vigorously enforced against high society types whether local or expatriate. Shadrake noted the case of a Tunisian believed to be a major supplier to upper crust users who originally was given the death penalty; that was commuted to a long sentence before he was finally given bail and allowed to leave. The obvious implication: he knew too much about the identity of his well-connected clients and would surely sing loud and hard if he felt execution inevitable. No such luck for mules who have no idea of the identity of the end users even if they know they are carrying illegal drugs.