No one outside Singapore’s steel-trap judiciary knows for sure whether Darshan Singh hanged Nguyen Tuong Van, of Melbourne, in Changi on Friday 2 December. A week earlier, Darshan said he’d been sacked as chief hangman after a series of embarrassingly gruesome articles had appeared about him in the Australian press. But his masters insist he wasn’t sacked. The confusion was not what you’d expect in Singapore, a place that is in most things obsessively efficient. But we do know that 72-year-old Darshan has seen off about 850 criminals in his 40 years as hangman. He is something of a world champion at this particular discipline.
One detail about Darshan that especially worried Australians when it was reported down under, was that he had toasted his 500th victim with a bottle of Chivas Regal with jailhouse colleagues. He is clearly a man who takes pride in his job, and sees no reason for sentimentality or false modesty. ‘With me,’ he says, ‘the prisoners don’t struggle. I know the real way. If it’s a raw guy, they will struggle like chickens, like fish out of the water.’
Darshan may well be a monster, but he has been a loyal servant of Harry Lee Kuan Yew, Asia’s self-styled Philosopher-King, across whose autobiography Margaret Thatcher scrawled ‘He Was Never Wrong’. Many Australians would take issue with Lady Thatcher. They certainly do with Lee. For months before the execution of Nguyen, debate raged in Australia about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment. But in Singapore’s state-controlled bubble, the hanging barely registered a blip. Nguyen was one of the 30–40 criminals Singapore admits to killing every year.
No one is suggesting Nguyen wasn’t guilty. In December 2002 the then 22-year-old, born in a Thai refugee camp to a Vietnamese mother fleeing communism, was caught in Changi airport on his way from Cambodia to Australia with 396g, or 14oz, of pure heroin. It was his first trip abroad. He said he was only trying to clear the gangland debts of his twin brother, a heroin addict. The Singapore police said that the heroin, which Nguyen carried strapped to his body, was enough for 26,000 hits, though Australians estimated it was only enough for 6,000 hits. Whatever the case, he had more than 15g of heroin, which is the level at which the death sentence is mandatory in Singapore.
It was all very shocking to those not familiar with Singapore. It’s such a nice, clean, sterile place. When Australians realised that Singapore challenged Iran for the world record in per capita executions, there were calls for boycotts of Singapore Airlines and of Optus, which is Australia’s second-biggest telecom provider and is owned by the Singapore government. Australians were not sufficiently outraged, however, actually to change their mobile subscription from Optus to the lumbering Australian-owned Telstra. That would have involved far too much inconvenience and frustration.
Singapore can survive the outrage, anyway. As prime minister from 1959 to 1990, Lee was a close ally of both Australia and America in the Cold War, and more recently, as Senior Minister, he has earned the admiration of both Canberra and Washington by helping to drive Islamic terrorists from Singapore. In five times seeking clemency for Nguyen, John Howard dogwhistled to the abolitionist half of his electorate, who praised his humanity. Singapore dogwhistled back, praising Howard for his ‘polite’ protest. That’s when Nguyen was doomed.
Not all Australians were against the hanging. Some, especially in the ‘Deep North’, have long wondered why Australian justice can’t be more like Singapore’s. A Darwin pensioner, Keith Sauerwald, offered to fill in for Darshan if the hangman was dismissed.
Darshan himself, meanwhile, has threatened to sue the prison service for wrongful dismissal. If he does sue — and of course he will only be able to sue if he has indeed been sacked — he will be the rare bird who challenges Singapore’s unwritten ‘social contract’ with the Lees, under which compliant Singaporeans essentially agree to eschew high-minded things like democracy and human rights in return for never-ending wealth. Foreign investors like this arrangement too, and love it that mostly Chinese Singapore isn’t Indonesia — sprawling, poor and Islamic. No other nation in ‘difficult’ Asia gives as good an impression of San Diego as Singapore; Singapore Inc delivers skilled labour and superb infrastructure, and its illiberality is among its chief corporate attractions. This is Disneyland with the death penalty, the only shopping centre with a seat in the UN, a real-life Truman Show, Asia Lite — the clichés about Singapore tend to ring true.
Still, this hanging has undoubtedly tarnished Singapore’s glossy veneer. For one thing, it was conducted with almost unbelievable cruelty. Nguyen’s mother pleaded with the Lees for a last hug of her boy. They refused, but on the day before he died they relented somewhat and, as a favour to Howard, she was allowed to squeeze her condemned son’s hand and ruffle his hair through his cell bars. And Singapore is hypocritical as well as cruel. The city state hangs wretched first offenders like Nguyen but then plays Switzerland to Burma’s money-laundering druglords and mollycoddles big business: the chairman of the government committee convened to oversee corporate governance sat on more than 50 company boards.
Singapore insists, meanwhile, that it’s Asia’s ‘arts hub’, but what kind of arts hub insists that playwrights — and there aren’t many in Singapore — must submit their scripts for approval to an Orwellian ‘media development authority’? Free speech is as badly treated on the street as it is in the theatre. Those who take their soap boxes to Singapore’s ‘Speakers’ Corner’ must pre-register with the state, and gatherings of concerned citizens — the few that actually take place — are photographed by government spooks.
True, there are elections in Singapore, but ballots are numbered and votes can be traced. The last two parliamentary polls were won by Lee’s People’s Action Party long before polling day because more than half the seats weren’t contested, and the PAP controls all but two of Singapore’s 84 parliamentary seats. President S.R. Nathan secured his second term in August when the government-appointed presidential elections committee ruled his three opponents ineligible. The Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son. Members of the Lee family run Singapore’s biggest public company, its two leading government investment agencies and the finance ministry.
The press is tame. The Straits Times, started long before Somerset Maugham went out East, rivals Pravda for its obsequious adherence to the party line. I once asked the editor-in-chief, Cheong Yip Seng, about rumours that his newsroom was studded with former members of Singapore’s secret police. He gleefully named them. ‘Why not?’ Cheong beamed. ‘These guys have good analytical minds ...they are all kindred spirits.’
When the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders recently placed Singapore 140th of 167 on the world press freedom index, it was Cheong’s paper they were reading and quite possibly the columnist Andy Ho, who a week before Nguyen was hanged wrote a long-winded essay supporting capital punishment. When one enterprising Aussie television hack asked Ho for an on-camera hug in lieu of the one his government had denied Nguyen’s mother, Ho uncomfortably provided one, with the qualifier that ‘Asians don’t hug’.
Eric Ellis is South East Asia correspondent of Fortune and of the Australian weekly The Bulletin.