“Don’t poke a stick up a tiger’s bum unless you are outside its cage”
Death and discrimination in Singapore
The writer Alan Shadrake has been jailed for exposing the lottery of Singapore’s execution rates. I know Singapore well. I was there as a child and in later life when I visited to talk to members of the legal profession, government and judiciary. I have taught a great many Singaporean lawyers.
I am not at all surprised that the Singaporean judiciary has jailed 75 year old Alan Shadrake for contempt. He knew that he faced the possibility of imprisonment for the offence.
The Guardian reports:
Shadrake has been jailed for six week and fined for “scandalising the judiciary” for remarks in his book Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock. The book includes an interview with Darshan Singh, the former chief executioner at Singapore’s Changi prison, who was said to have executed 1,000 prisoners over half a century.
However, the central theme of the book is Shadrake’s claim that Singapore’s legal system does not accord equal treatment to those suspected of capital offences. The death penalty is mandatory for a number of offences including murder and possession of drugs over a certain amount. In Singapore, as a result, he asserts that the question of who lives and who dies is an arbitrary lottery.
Singapore employs the death penalty for a range of offences. It also uses corporal punishment. Singapore, it has to be said, is an economic powerhouse but it also has a fairly repressive penal system and, it would seem, a judiciary incapable of tolerating criticism. To be a judge in one’s own cause raises interesting issues of legal principle. It is inconceivable that a court in our country would (in these days) convict a journalist or lawyer, or anyone, for reasoned, rational, objective criticism of a judgment. The judiciary here are subjected to reasoned and unreasoned criticism on a daily basis. It goes with the territory. It is part of the rough and tumble of democracy and freedom of speech. The convention is that the judges are not swayed by public opinion. Contempt of Court is a quite different issue and need not be addressed here.
It won’t affect tourism. It won’t affect business dealings with Singapore – and it probably won’t ‘trend’ on twitter because few will care about what Singapore judges do – but those who are interested in human rights, who are interested in the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, can express surprise that a sophisticated City state in the 21st Century is so unsure of itself judicially – or perhaps repression is just a default setting – that it can’t hack a reasoned and analytical criticism of judicial power. The Guardian writers said it is scandalous. I agree but would add…that it is tragic.
It is unlikely that I shall ever return to Singapore. I probably won’t be able to after writing this piece. I do not flatter myself that the Singaporean judges will read this. They won’t. But I am fairly certain that Singapore’s highly sophisticated communication systems will pick it up and flag it up on a database. Many Singaporeans are quite happy to live with a regime of strict laws. That is their right and prerogative. It doesn’t stop writers and commentators, however, from commenting adversely on Singapore’s continuing use of the death penalty or the jailing of a 75 year old man who wished to shine a light on their judicial system. Shadrake had the courage to poke a stick up a tiger’s bum… inside the cage…and now…he is in the cage…for six weeks.
Now.. I can’t hang about… there are more windmills to tilt at!