November 22, 2005
SINGAPORE is a serial killer. In recent years, hundreds of its citizens and quite a few foreigners have been executed. When it comes to state murder, on a per capita basis, the sterile, claustrophobic Singapore exceeds the dubious records of China, Russia and governor George W. Bush's Texas.
Recently China has started to rein in regional magistrates, bringing the decision-making on the death penalty back to Beijing. Those accounts of instant executions - of prisoners being dragged from the dock to be shot behind the ear and their families being charged for the bullets - have become too embarrassing.
The US is also losing enthusiasm for the death penalty. Too many cases have displayed the gross inequities of the system. Too often DNA evidence has belatedly proven the verdicts unsafe. How many victims have been proven innocent after the switch has been thrown, the pellets dropped, the needles shoved in the veins?
But despite the sales pitch that it's the Switzerland of Asia, Singapore keeps its hangman very busy. The incumbent holds the world record for executions; he is proud to have killed more than 500 of his fellow human beings. His portrait on the front page of this newspaper last month (see inset) was unforgettable: so gross, so boastful, so cheerful of grin and philosophy. "I send them to a better place."
He may be right about that. For all its glitz, Singapore is a harsh, authoritarian society. Yet of all our near neighbours, Singapore is the least criticised. Malaysia is recalcitrant, Indonesia corrupt. But we like Harry Lee's airline, the airport, the duty-free shopping. (Better than Dubai, say the frequent fliers.) Few Australians look behind the glamour of Singapore's airport at the grim realities of neighbouring Changi prison, to the fact that sophisticated, squeaky-clean Singapore is a parody of democracy. As in Mahathir Mohamad's Malaysia, it takes bravery to express dissent, while formal political opposition can lead to prison.
To a very crowded prison, for Singapore has among the highest levels of incarceration on earth. Yet my last column on this city-state, with its overworked hangman, provoked a flurry of letters to the editor defending the place, saying we must respect Singapore's system of laws.
No thanks, and to hell with Harry Lee's line on Asian values.
Singapore's death penalty is overwhelmingly applied to drug couriers and is clearly a total failure, as it is wherever the penalty is used as a strategy in that lost cause called the war on drugs. Nothing stops the trafficking. Singapore could hang thousands - it probably will in due course - and there will be just as many poor fools ready to risk their lives for big money or a pittance. Despite all the publicity about Indonesia's firing squads, you can still recruit Australian teenagers for $500 and a free holiday.
In this form of capitalism, capital punishment doesn't count. Thanks to free market forces, it just ups the ante and the price.
But let's be fair; Singapore is rethinking the death penalty. It's going to abandon the noose and trapdoor, replacing them with the needle and gurney. That's progress.
For just as it matters little how many drug couriers you kill, it hardly matters how much heroin you intercept. Seize 100 tonnes instead of 100g and there'd be little more than a hiccup in the distribution system. The street price would rise and the warlords we've returned to power in Afghanistan would simply increase the poppy crop to protect their 80per cent world market share. Drug seizures are like dipping buckets in the ocean.
Australian Federal Police chief Mick Keelty's appalling contribution to the death penalty debate has been to talk of thousands of young Australians who'd have died had the Bali nine smuggled all that heroin into Australia. This is specious. Keelty should admit that, were heroin legally available to addicts, there'd be a hope of controlling quantity and quality. That would save lives. And if he were really worried about young Australians dying of drugs, we'd hear him attack what's responsible for more than 90per cent of drug-related deaths: grog and tobacco. Far more Australian lives are destroyed by petrol sniffing than heroin.
I despise drugs and, jazz notwithstanding, have little enthusiasm for the drug culture so enthusiastically marketed by everyone from those nice Beatles to the thugs of hip-hop. (Half the pop songs in the past 30 years have been advertising jingles for the drug de jour, from LSD to crack cocaine.) But equally I despise the hypocrisy of this war on drugs. Add the moral horror of the death penalty or the monstrous nonsense of an Australian girl arrested in Denpasar for possessing two ecstasy tablets and we're living in a world gone mad.
Not so along ago, the French saved one of their citizens from the noose - that other version of the Singapore sling - by threatening to break off diplomatic relations. Yet Canberra doesn't dare to criticise Singapore. It's too important to our economy. Singapore's a big shareholder in companies such as Optus. And the PM wants our airlines to merge. And we love the shopping.