Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Singapore, Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign
Many people have congratulated me and my fellow colleagues in our work against the death penalty ever since the proposed amendments to the mandatory death penalty was announced in the recent Parliamentary seating.
As I humbly thank everyone for the notes of encouragement, I would like to also express that whatever I have done is not enough to have caused this to happen. There are other international and regional events or even domestic reasons (i.e., within the Parliament) that might have contributed to this proposal and we will discuss these possibilities perhaps in another blog post or in the discussion that might emerge after this post. But whatever work that anti-death penalty advocates have done, we must recognise the tremendous amount of effort put in by M Ravi on the legal platform. Without Ravi’s efforts in bringing the issue up in Court while representing Yong Vui Kong and many others before him, I do not think that we will see this day coming. Ravi deserves all the credit, more than anyone of us.
Anyway, although I do recognise and am grateful for the moratorium on executions held since last July, there are a few things about the proposal that has been bothering me. Let us first look at the two conditions that will enable judicial discretion on drug traffickers:
1. The trafficker only played the role of courier and had no involvement in any other part of the distribution process.
2. The courier cooperates with the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) in all investigations and substantially assists in dismantling the syndicates OR, is proven to have a mental disability preventing the her/ him from appreciating the gravity of her/ his crime.
Now, in fulfilling these conditions, drug related criminals and homicidal criminals proven to be suffering from mental disability, will not be sentenced to the mandatory death penalty. Instead, judges will be granted the discretion to sentence them to life imprisonment with caning – a supposedly “lighter” sentence.
Yes granting judicial discretion is a teeny weeny step and given the rigidity of this government we have here in Singapore, it is worth being cheerful about. That is, if you take all of these at face value.
So what’s my problem, you may ask…
First of all, how does the CNB define “substantial assistance” and “cooperation”? In many of the past cases, drug mules who have been executed and who are currently on death row have assisted in the investigations. Let’s look at the following examples:
1. In the case of Amara Tochi, he claimed that the capsules he carried were African herbs and even swallowed one during his interrogation to prove his point. He also related his account, saying that he agreed to help “Mr Smith” in the task as “Mr Smith” promised to help him in his career in soccer. His arrest also led to the arrest of another African drug figure Okeke Nelson Malachy.
2. In the case of Cheong Chun Yin, he cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) officers and gave them the name, physical description and phone numbers of his contact, a man who had gone by the name of Lau De. However, the CNB did not make any effort to investigate which according to Judge Choo Han Teck, was immaterial.
3. In the case of Yong Vui Kong, his cooperation led to the arrest of Chia Choon Leng but although Vui Kong gave the evidence through his statement during his interrogation, he was not willing to testify publicly fearing that his family will come to harm.
In my opinion, the above individuals cooperated with the investigations but even so, Amara Tochi was executed while Chun Yin’s and Vui Kong’s willingness to provide information was not appreciated. I wonder if the amendments will penalise investigating officers who do not make effort in using information provided by the accused during interrogation. I wonder too, if the amendments will take into account, witness safety or anonymity because in the case of Vui Kong, he feared for his family. I feel that these things must be made very clear, and those who are cooperative and willing to testify (along with their family), MUST be guaranteed maximum protection from harm.
Secondly, I am troubled by the indication that life imprisonment with caning will be meted out to the mentally disabled as well as the perception that this is a lighter sentence. Such a cruel punishment (life imprisonment with caning) do not seek to provide rehabilitation and assistance to help criminals back into becoming safe and positively contributing members of the society. In fact given my knowledge of human psychology, I am rather sure that caning will prove to be an extremely traumatic experience for the mentally disabled (same goes for those who are not), that it might well cause a deterioration in their mental conditions.
In order to build a compassionate society, having a system of legal punishment so violent in the name of “justice” only sends a clear message to society that violence is necessary, rather than forgiveness and rehabilitation. The value of human life and humanity diminishes if one makes a mistake (no matter how light or grave), that they are instantly condemned to violence and cruelty. Such a message passed down from one generation to the next, creates a society that cheers at “legal revenge” (can’t find a better way to term it). Doesn’t this make our society no different from one that has criminals mauled to death by lions, witnessed and cheered by a spiteful audience?
Last but not least, preventing crimes through the fear of punishment has not been proven effective. As a society, we should find ways to prevent a crime through education, community support and search for the root causes of crimes and work towards solving the problems rather than rely on prevention through fear. Fear, I believe, can be easily forgotten whereas good values about our shared responsibility in respecting and upholding the safety and humanity of every single member of the society will not, once instilled deeply within the social construct and at a very young age.
So with that, I do not see this wee step as a victory. We still have a long way to go and hopefully one day, the government will be willing to engage with us in discussions and research on other methods of legal punishment. I am against the death penalty in totality and as long as it stays, my work continues. However I am glad that there exists a hope for death row inmates like Chun Yin, Vui Kong and hopefully, Roslan bin Bakar as well. I also hope that Fabian Adiu Edwin, with an IQ of between 77 and 85, will qualify for a retrial where judicial discretion is possible.
Hope is all I have for all those that we know about, and I await the official details released by the government about how the two conditions are defined.
May this post clarify my reluctance to declare this a victory.
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