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September 22, 2010

Once A Jolly Hangman

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – Probably most people in the western world don’t think about Singapore. When they do, it’s probably about some dot some place that has something to do with business. If that.


For those who travel into tropical Asia, Singapore is well known as Hang‘em High city. They are very quick with the noose to dispose of people who try to sneak drugs in or deal drugs in this island city-country.


Alan Shadrake in his new book, “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock” proves conclusively that Singapore justice is flawed and they hang only the poor and indigent. The rich and powerful get away with just a slap on the wrist. Although this is not new, poor blacks and whites are the ones executed in the states especially Texas, Shadrake walks us through the unfair trials and resulting execution of several individuals. His research is meticulous.


Shadrake tracked down Singapore’s hangman, the guy who put the noose around the unfortunate’s neck and pulls the lever. With seeming relish and enjoyment, this executioner has disposed of between 900-1000 people, the highest execution rate per capita than any place in the world. He talked freely with the author and revealed grisly details of his job.


The freedoms of speech, press and assembly do not exist in Singapore. The newspaper are muzzled; there is only one place in Singapore where one can express ones views in speeches watched carefully by the police and only three people can get together to protest.


Now Author Shadrake is under arrest, his passport seized and his trial is scheduled during the first week in October. He cannot leave Singapore unless he swims across the Strait of Johor, which is 1056 meters wide and a very deep shipping lane. At 76 with a heart condition, that is not a viable option.


The charges against him include “contempt of court, with government prosecutors alleging that his book, “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock,” impugns the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judiciary. Whatever that means, plus violation of the Secrets Acts. He faces years in jail and fines.


In a telephone conversation and an exchange of emails, I asked him why he didn’t just “get out of Dodge” (Americanism for leave Singapore) when the book was published since he knew about the Singapore government and its reputation. His reply:


“Did you have any sense that the Singapore authorities would arrest you or did your earlier pieces in the Australian, with no reaction, lull you into a false sense of security?”


Yes, when the original was published in 2005, I did expect a knock on the door then. The next day – after Darshan Singh had a visit from government officials – I received a request from a reporter at AFP for his address. At least I think she was with AFP at the time but another interview was published in the Sydney Morning Herald from Reuters. This revealed an even grislier anecdote.... Reuters has an extensive bureau in S'pore and I surmised that if they were to charge me under the official secrets act they would have to charge Reuters also – maybe something they didn’t want to do at such a time – with the Nguyen execution still days or weeks away. It would not have been a good time to do this for obvious reasons – showing their repressive natures even more and in a bid to smother comment on what was going on at the time. Another strange thing was that I was five months from getting my self-employed work pass and it was granted without question. I used to think that one day they might drag it up especially via my book – and I was right although it was only a fleeting thought....being so long ago.”


To be continued… Wednesday…


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