From The Bulletin.
By Eric Ellis
Singapore seems determined to hang Melbourne man Nguyen Tuong Van as an act of defiance in the face of international criticism. Eric Ellis reports.
Everyone loves Singapore, don’t they? It’s just so easy, so clean, so ... well, so not like Asia at all.
The superlatives flow easily as you fly into this real-life version of The Truman Show on one of the world’s best airlines, your every inflight whim met by impossibly gorgeous women; Asia’s beauty, promise and mysticism neatly compacted into a sarong kebaya.
Getting through the idiot-proof airport, naturally one of the world’s best, is an efficient breeze. Then it’s into a gleaming white limo – many taxis are Mercs of course – to stay in some of the world’s best hotels and sup on some of the planet’s best cuisine.
Easily understandable, then, why Big Business so readily reaches for its investment chequebook to keep costs down, profits up and Lee Kuan Yew’s “economic miracle” ticking along in Singapore Inc’s masterful selling of itself as “Asia Lite”. But as the typical global investor towels down after a post-flight shower, consider that the fluffy white gown they don while catching up on emails using some of the world’s fastest broadband may have been laundered by people like Prisoner C856, the 25-year-old Melburnian Nguyen Tuong Van, soon to be one of an average 70 to 80 people, as former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong estimated in 2003, that the Singaporean state executes every year, with barely a whiff of the due process Australians would expect of a transparent legal system.
Changi prison, restored partly with Australian dollars and where part of the iconic Australian character was shaped in such grim conditions during World War II, is where, on December 2, Singapore will kill Nguyen for trafficking heroin through airport transit from Cambodia en route to Melbourne. He is the first Australian to be executed by a government anywhere for 12 years.
Changi boasts one of Asia’s biggest laundries, a much-favoured source of cheap labour for Singapore’s hotel sector. Changi officials happily explained this last week while hosting a prison open day, an event not so coincidentally convened on World Kindness Day as Singapore’s justice was being assaulted by – as the ruling Lee family sees them – interfering western liberals demanding that Nguyen’s sentence be commuted.
“The excursion proved to be a bonding session for residents,” gushed the state-controlled Straits Times, the paper having an uncanny knack of publishing sweetness-and-light articles about Singapore when the nation is under attack from abroad. “Three households from Jalan Pernama ... they didn’t know one another very well, but began chatting merrily at the reception, over refreshments prepared by inmates. Yesterday’s visitors felt comforted and relieved that life was not too bad for the inmates.”
Changi’s charnel house might be a fun day out for the good burghers of Jalan Pernama. But to Lex Lasry, QC, Nguyen’s Melbourne-based lawyer, “Singapore is Australia’s Texas”. Lasry is beyond wit’s end at what he regards as the sheer bastardry brought to his client’s case. “Indeed it’s worse than that ... it’s almost as if Singapore prides themselves on it, that they derive some perverse pleasure from it. They have to understand this type of thing is not acceptable in today’s society, anywhere. It’s not stopping with this case.”
Prime Minister John Howard would seem to agree, after his shabby treatment by a country Australia has long regarded as its diplomatic best friend in South-East Asia. Last week at the APEC summit in Busan, South Korea, as he was making yet another plea on Nguyen’s behalf to Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee’s prison apparatus was handing Nguyen’s family the letter advising they will kill him on Friday week. The Australian government is now reported to be considering an appeal to the International Court of Justice.
Lee, whose year-long pre-ordained leadership was flagged as ushering in a gentler Singapore, didn’t tell Howard of the letter during their meeting. Howard, learning later, was furious. Howard has pledged to carry that fury this week to Malta when he will again see Lee, at the CHOGM conference in Valetta. It will be Nguyen’s last chance to have his death sentence commuted, if what the Singaporeans have offered him could be described as a chance.
“The Singaporeans say it was all done in due process, in a clear and transparent way,” says Lasry. “But there was no trial before a jury. We argued his case with 70 pages that I doubt they even read, and they responded with one paragraph to deny it, and not even debate it. There was no legal analysis, no reasons given ... it has always been an executive process, an executive decision.
“We asked them to tell us why, what was the problem? We got nothing,” he says. “To call it due process is an insult to the term.”
Singapore sells itself as oh-so- efficient. But despite so much practice at judicial murder – Amnesty International ranks it alongside Iran and China as the world’s most enthusiastic executioner – Singapore’s system still needs tweaking, according to local human rights lawyer M. Ravi.
Singapore proudly say it has “humanised” the hanging process – weighing the condemned and carefully calibrating bodyweight with a “drop” system so as to deliver a swift, clean kill when the platform gives way.
Ravi says Malaysian drug addict Vigmes Murthi wasn’t so lucky. When he was hanged at Changi in September 2003, Ravi says, his head was nearly torn off by the force of the 500kg-plus drop, about seven times his bodyweight. “They got it horribly wrong,” Ravi says, “his mother was screaming, screaming ... there was so much blood in the coffin, it was overflowing.”
By 1pm, the family – delayed coming in from Malaysia – hadn’t yet collected the corpse so Singapore summoned the state cremator to dispose of it. The family got there by 2pm and Ravi was called from chambers to have a most unseemly brawl over Vigmes’ bloodied corpse with the contracted cremator, who was banking on a nice little earner. In the end, Ravi and Vigmes’ family prevailed, “but with no help from the government”.
By this year, Ravi says, the famous Singaporean efficiency corrected itself; too much so. On May 13, Singapore’s only hangman, a corpulent 72-year-old locally born Indian called Darshan Singh, roused another Ravi client, Shanmugam Murugesu, convicted in 2003 of trafficking 1kg of cannabis, at 2am on the morning of his execution.
In a procedure that awaits Nguyen, he was served a light breakfast before being led to the gallows chamber where he waited and waited – “and one can only imagine his torment”, says Ravi – until dawn to die.
Two days earlier, Ravi says, after asking Shanmugam’s mother to send in her boy’s best clothes, the state had taken him from his cell and photographed him in 14 different poses, including one seated behind a desk. “He looked as if he was the general manager of a big company,” says Ravi.
The photo set was presented to Shanmugam’s mother by the state after it had killed him, Ravi says, suggesting she might wish to hang the picture of him in his suit in the family living room “as a memento of the potential of her boy”. In Singapore, it seems, death comes with interior design advice.
The mere fact of Ravi speaking out places his own career in peril. Like the many opponents who have challenged the government and been bankrupted by libel actions for it, Ravi is now getting a taste of what happens to Singaporeans who speak out.
In May, a profile of 36-year-old Ravi in the Straits Times portrayed him as a grandstanding publicity-seeker, describing an alcoholic father and a mother who had committed suicide. His misdeeds, as the paper saw it, were to hand out leaflets calling for the abolition of the death penalty and – shocking, this – to be quoted in the foreign media.
When United Nations special rapporteur Philip Alston spoke out against Nguyen’s sentence he, too, was pilloried, and told he had exceeded his brief.
Singapore has a typically home-grown dilemma over its steel-trap policy of mandatory death sentencing. But, unfortunately for the western liberals the ruling Lee family so viscerally hate, it’s not about such high-minded notions as human rights.
For the Lees, it’s a manpower issue, one in the same camp as the tiny country’s frequent labour crises. Singapore doesn’t have enough people to do the job. Darshan Singh has reportedly been doing it since the Brits gave up the island in 1965. At $S400 ($320) a kill, he gets coaxed out of retirement every week or so, according to press reports. And he apparently does his job with some gusto. Singh has – by some accounts – killed more than 800 people in his long career, toasting his 500th victim in 2000 with friends at Changi over a bottle of Chivas Regal.
Singapore’s problem is that Singh is long past retirement age and it can’t get anyone to replace him. No one in Singapore’s superstitious – and mostly Buddhist – majority Chinese community will do it, while Malays demur on religious grounds. Singapore could outsource it, as it does for much of the urban pleasantness foreign investors so love, to a guest worker from Sri Lanka or Bangladesh labouring on a fraction of the salary a Singaporean would be offered.
If Singapore can’t be internationally shamed by an Amnesty International, or pressured by Howard, into halting its official barbarism, Nguyen’s campaigners hope a blow to Singapore Inc might.
Singapore companies, in particular the government-owned Temasek Holdings – where Lee’s wife Ho Ching is CEO – are some of Australia’s biggest investors. Big brands facing boycotts include Optus, Singapore Airlines and the Qantas joint venture Jetstar Asia. Singapore’s Australian business network is huge and as anger rises over Nguyen’s treatment, the long-ruling autocracy might discover it is harder to squash dissent in democratic Australia than they have found in Singapore over the past 40 years.
But Nguyen Tuong Van – and too many others, including Australians – will likely die before that happens.