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Home arrow Society arrow Singapore arrow Book Review: Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock
Book Review: Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ben Bland   
Friday, 13 August 2010
ImageSingapore goes after an author for exposing the country's capital punishment misuses. Alan Shadrake, Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 219 pp., available through Gerakbudaya.com.

When a small Malaysian academic publisher printed a book on the death penalty in Singapore by a little-known British freelance journalist, neither could seriously have expected it to make much of a splash in the tightly-controlled city-state or beyond.

That all changed when, in the early hours of July 18, the Singapore police arrested the author, Alan Shadrake, in his hotel room, shortly before he was to meet reporters about the content of his book.
Shadrake was subsequently charged with contempt of court, with government prosecutors alleging that his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, impugns the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judiciary. A criminal defamation complaint filed by the Media Development Authority, Singapore's censorship body, is still under investigation.

Singapore's government insists that its draconian laws, including the mandatory death penalty for the trafficking of even small amounts of illegal drugs, help keep crime and social disorder down, ensuring that the city-state remains a popular center for international business and tourism.

Although the arrest of the 75-year-old writer once again thrust Singapore's strict limits on freedom of speech into the international limelight, the global media interest has quickly, and predictably, faded.

It remains to be seen whether Shadrake's book, which argues that Singapore's use of the death penalty is uneven and unjust, will have any lasting impact in a city-state where there is little public debate on sensitive issues such as capital punishment because of a combination of government secrecy, repression and self-censorship.

Having re-examined a wide range of drug trafficking cases over the last two decades, Shadrake claims that the likelihood of offenders being sent to the gallows is dependent on their socio-economic background and, in the case of foreigners, Singapore's economic and political relationship with their government.

Compare the fates of Julia Bohl, a German student believed to be part of a high-society drug-dealing ring in Singapore, and Amara Tochi, a young Nigerian hoping to carve out a career in football who unwittingly became a drug mule. Bohl was arrested in 2002 in possession of 687 grams of cannabis, well over the 500 gram limit above which a sentence of death by hanging is mandatory. Her predicament generated a lot of press coverage in Germany, an important trading partner for Singapore, and her government came under pressure to try to save her from the gallows. Fortunately for Bohl, before her trial began, further laboratory testing revealed that the drugs in her possession only weighed 281 grams. She was eventually sentenced to five years in jail and released after three years because of good behavior.

Tochi was not so lucky. He was arrested at Changi Airport in possession of more than 700 grams of heroin but insisted that he thought he was carrying African herbs. Tochi did not attempt to flee when told by airport staff that the police were coming to talk to him and the trial judge accepted that there was no evidence that he knew he was carrying drugs. But he was executed nevertheless in 2007.

Shadrake argues that the judiciary and the police offer a sympathetic ear to members of the domestic elite or overseas citizens from key economic and political allies while showing a disturbing eagerness to expedite the execution of suspected drug mules from poor or marginalized backgrounds, sometimes in highly questionable circumstances.

The author quotes an anonymous former officer from Singapore's Central Narcotics Bureau, who says that zealous undercover police often encourage traffickers to transport larger amounts of drugs so that they cross the mandatory execution threshold.

Undercover officers also played a key role in the demise of Vignes Mourthi, a young Indian Malaysian hanged in 2003 for trafficking 27.65 grams of heroin despite his insistence that he believed he was carrying incense stones. One key piece of evidence against him was an unsigned, undated statement from an undercover officer who claimed that Mourthi had admitted to him that he was carrying drugs.

Yet just two days after Mourthi's arrest, the same undercover officer was arrested on suspicion of rape and was subsequently convicted of corruption for attempting to bribe the alleged rape victim to withdraw her complaint against him. Although such behavior ought to have cast serious doubt on the quality of his testimony, the officer was not tried until a year after Mourthi's execution and no mention was ever made at Mourthi's trial of the severe question marks surrounding the officer's conduct.

Shadrake argues that Mourthi's execution is "arguably one of the most appalling miscarriages of justice in Singapore's history" and the publication of his book has provided new impetus to the Mourthi family's campaign to clear his name posthumously.

In what is a polemical and sometimes repetitive book, Shadrake makes no secret of the fact that he is opposed to the death penalty on principle. But, using a mixture of publicly available legal material and interviews with sources from different parts of Singapore's justice system, including extensive interviews with the former chief executioner, he seemingly does enough to convince even proponents of the death penalty that it is time to reassess the way Singapore handles capital cases.

Furthermore, Shadrake argues that "the egregious record of Singapore in relation to the death penalty cannot be separated from its deeply-embedded structures of authoritarianism and political illiberalism".

In countries where genuine free speech is allowed, local journalists often lead the way in holding the judiciary and the police to account. But Singapore's leaders have always insisted that the city-state's reporters eschew "Western-style" confrontational, investigative journalism in favor of a pliant, nation-building "Asian" approach.

Little wonder then that they are pursuing Shadrake through the courts, the ruling People's Action Party's preferred means of silencing dissenting voices.

When his trial opened on July 30, those journalists present, both local and foreign, were warned by the prosecutor that they too could be charged with contempt if they republished any of Shadrake's "contemptuous" claims.

Yet despite the government's insistence that Shadrake's book "scandalizes the judiciary", the Media Development Authority says it has not banned the book, although it admits sending a letter to some bookshops warning them about the legal implications of selling it. The book no longer appears to be on sale in Singapore but it is available in the reference section of Singapore's National Library.

The government's response has generated much-needed publicity for the book, which the publishers said has sold 4,000 copies so far, making it one of the better selling socio-political works about Singapore.

But while the government's latest act of repression may appear at first sight to have backfired, all the attention generated by Shadrake's arrest sends a clear message to Singaporeans: delve into sensitive issues such as the death penalty at your peril.

Ben Bland is a freelance journalist who was formerly based in Singapore. He blogs at http://uk.asiancorrespondent.com/the-asia-file.
Comments (18)Add Comment
Embarrassed to be a Singaporean
written by Singslinger, August 13, 2010
Yes its wealthy and yes its clean relative to most other cities in Southeast Asia, but here is yet another example of why Singapore is viewed so derisively by many citizens from its Asian neighbours, not to mention the rest of the world. Shame on you Singapore, and shame on those Singaporeans who are too cowed and apathetic to stand up to the self proclaimed Lion state's 'legal' thuggery.
written by AAA, August 13, 2010
Nothing can excuse the practice of baiting and stinging potential criminals by undercover officers. Such tactics are reminiscent of other methods of coercion such as torture-because they influence an outcome which might not have necessarily transpired.

Mr Shadrake should, however, perhaps temper some of his other arguments. Mr Nguyen, an Australian national, was hanged despite Australia being a major trading partner of Singapore. And despite a national outcry over the issue in Australia.

Kangaroo court
written by Captain, August 13, 2010
The difference between the Australian case and the German case is that the Germans talked Singapore's language in that they got to the point of it before sentencing threatening to hit Singapore hard economically. The evidence was then miraculously altered before sentencing. Australia on the other hand appealed to Singapore for leniency on moral grounds after Mr Nguyen was sentenced. Thats the difference and actually highlights with great effect what Mr Shadrake is saying about the inconsistancies. If Australia had threatened economic sanctions before Mr Nguyen was sentenced he would probably be alive today.
Racist Australia
written by captain blackbeard, August 13, 2010
The real difference between the Australian Vietnamese and the Europeans is that Nguyen WAS a Vietnamese. Mr Rudd merely made a motion of objecting to PM Lee. He did NOT try hard enough as in the other cases involving WHITE Australians in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. ALL the WHITES got away or had their sentences reduced - definitely NOT death. Even the Australian newspapers accused Mr Rudd of racism. If Mr Nguyen had been Mr Blake, things would have been very different - see how the White journalist got away? These are not new developments. I have seen them even in the late sixties. Evidence suddenly changes eg. 500gm becomes 0.5 mg. That is how all these WHITES get away with murder, literally. Now you know why even Suharto called Singapore an outpost for the Whites.
Will Vui Kong Enjoy Same Fate as the German Girl?
written by Simon Hosanna, August 14, 2010
I am afraid that the Yong Vui Kong from Sabah, East Malaysia, aged 23 convicted of drug trafficking will face the same fate as those before him come December because his skin is not as white as the German girl and because of inactions and disinterests by the Malaysian government. If Vui Kong's skin is darker, perhaps, the Malaysian government may put some pressure on the Singaporean government. On the other hand, one would expect Singaporean government to show some mercy towards one of its own kind (being of Chinese ancestry), but the truth of the matter is that Singapore worships only money!!! For a small country, Singapore is one of the most inhumane and cruel nations on earth. They have done a lot of wrong against innocent people in the past, and that's why the first family and the likes are eternally cursed.
written by Alan Wong, August 14, 2010
I am still puzzled as to how the privileged son of a Judicial Commissioner and Nominated MP can escape the MDP sentence when he was charged with only 14.99g of heroin, thus escaping the MDP by 0.01g of heroin.

Is it a pure coincidence ?
Is it that impurities also happen to be found in it ?
Is it that the impurities amount shall be the deciding factor to decide who can be pardoned or not ?
Or the accused was really clever and cunning enough to ensure it really weighed 14.99g when he caught ?

So many questions are left unanswered in this case that it makes one wonder whether the allegations of foul play is indeed true ?

What is justice if it is not seen to be done in so many of these cases ?
Cisco, Oracle, Microsoft Study Guide,Question Answers & Audio training
written by certnetworks, August 14, 2010
The author quotes an anonymous former officer from Singapore's Central Narcotics Bureau, who says that zealous undercover police often encourage traffickers to transport larger amounts of drugs so that they cross the mandatory execution threshold.
Justice be damned
written by local pirate, August 14, 2010
Now we are told that all along it is the cabinet that decides the fate of appeals to the President! Holy cow! Hundreds of appeals for the last 45 years have gone to the president on the assumption that it is he that decides. Now we are told by the appeals judge that that is WRONG. It is actually the CABINET that decides. Wow, what an injustice, what deceitfulness, what hypocricy! And LKY is so proud to tell the world he has a first class judiciary. Now we know. They will twist and turn just to win an argument. That is the classic criminal lawyer LKY's style. Death sentences are flippantly dished out to satisfy his psychopathic desire to be feared (not admired or respected). Now the Youth Olympic Games is getting the snub by the people of Singapore. This is the way to show the arrogant Persecutors And Prosecutors(PAP) what the people think of them. Perhaps it is time for LKY to kowtow to the people(like the emperor of old China) and apologise for his deficiences and crimes against the people.
Stand Up for SIngapore
written by Two Cents worth, August 15, 2010
I am against the death penalty and I am quite convinced that the injustices highlighted by Shadrake had taken place. Having said that, the Singapore Constitution is quite clear; the Singapore President has to (even though the legal word is "may") act on the advice of the Cabinet when it comes to granting of pardon.

So it boils down to the dominance of Parliament by the PAP that enables it to amend any laws (including the Constitution) at will. By controlling its Party MPs with its Party Whip, any proposed laws by the Executive is guaranteed to be passed by Parliament comprising of the very same party MPs that must vote according to Party line, never mind the "wayang kulit" (shadow play) that its state-controlled press charitably refers to as vigorous debates. Some legal scholars have called such situation as the tyranny of the majority over the minority. Thus the breakdown of the system known as Separation of Powers that was devised by painful human history to check the exercise of power by a person or group of persons.

Putting aside the horrifying spectre of a revolution, this can only change through elections (in which the rules and electoral boundaries are changed every 5 years or so) or, in the most unlikely event of a majority of the Party MPs acquiring a conscience and, as Shakespeare would have Lady Macbeth say, when the MPs are prepared to screw their courage to their sticking place.

What is happening is a grand show; but not of the Youth Olympic Games. Singapore is an outward display of democracy and subscription to the rule of law. In truth and in fact, in effect it has perfected the art of abuse of the law and its concepts. One can only wonder how long such deceit can be managed before the majority of its citizens will wake up and say enough is enough.
Murder most foul
written by 7th son, August 15, 2010
The spider at the centre of the People's Action Party of Singapore has a long and inglorious history of ruthlessness and cruelty worthy of the worst excesses of the old rulers of China. From being first to rush to resupply the Burmese junta with arms and equipment before the blood of dissidents has dried to insisting that that monstrous regime be given legitimacy with membership of ASEAN, no action has ever been too immoral to consider provided that the price was right.

Is it any wonder that the contempt shown for the human rights of others extends to the nation's own citizens? Any government that has the impudence to pay the pipsqueak ministers of a flyspeck country five times as much as the US President would not hesitate to rush all objectors straight into its prisons and the gallows, and so it has proven since that black day in 1959 when it came to power.

To paraphrase what another poster has said, the Singapore government has perfected the art of legalised corruption by turning the law upon its head. It's all for 'the security and well-being of law-abiding citizens rather than the rights of the criminal to be protected from incriminating evidence', didn't you know? Shadrake's exposè of what can only be described as legalised murder was long overdue.
..., Lowly rated comment [Show]
Another pariah country in my sheet list
written by John Hopkin, August 15, 2010
Hello... this is a moron country like Malaysia. The rich and the powerful can do anything they want and get away with it. What a pariah country. I even regret I been to that pariah island. To my dead body will I ever step into that hell.
Bland again?, Lowly rated comment [Show]
Justice, Singapore Styler
written by Alan Shadrake, October 31, 2010

I am being prosecuted and facing jail for exposing prosecutorial scandals in Singapore – scandals this PAP dictatorship doesn’t want decent Singaporean citizens to know about. One particular heinous scandal concerns Guiga Lyes Ben Laroussi, a Tunisian and valuable ‘foreign talent’ who was the main drug supplier to Singapore’s so-called High Society Drug Circle in 2004.

This destroyer of lives was allowed to escape Singapore after facing a mandatory death penalty charge. The charge was then ‘negotiated down so he would receive a jail sentence of between 20 and 30 years in prison instead.
Then another miracle happened: He was allowed bail in the sum of $280,000, given his passport back and allowed to leave Singapore. This could only have been done with the connivance of top government officials because they feared he would expose bigger names if he were to be sent to the gallows.

I exposed this and other prosecutorial scandals in my book Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, because I hate injustice. While this evil drug baron – friend of the rich and privileged in Singapore - is enjoying his life of luxury in his mansion on his family estate in Le Bardo, Tunisia, Singapore is preparing to hang more pitiful drug mules – perhaps some who helped Guiga get rich.

How is it that this evil drug trader managed to escape justice? I cannot get my passport back and be allowed to leave Singapore. They are determined to punish me first!

I am facing a six months prison sentence for exposing this and many other prosecutorial scandals. There are two other charges hanging over me arising from my book one of which carries as two year prison sentence. My medical and mental problems have been horrendous. I almost bled to death in the street six weeks ago from internal haemorrhage. Had I not been rushed to hospital I would have collapsed and died without anyone knowing the cause until it was too late.

Where is the justice in what they are now doing to me? Did anyone notice that Guiga Lyes Ben Laroussi had escaped justice? Did the Straits Times publish this scandal and demand with massive headlines that Guiga should be extradited back? It did not. Why not? The answer is in my book. But what happened when a Romanian diplomat ran away in March 2010 following a fatal traffic accident? Screaming headlines in the Straits Times and all the local media for him to be brought back and tried.

Guiga Lyes Ben Laroussi, big time destroyer of lives – including his own Singaporean girlfriend, Mariana Abdullah – has been on Interpol’s wanted list for five years. The head of Interpol is Singapore’s very own former police chief Khoo Boon Hui! No attempt has been made to bring him back. His lawyer, Subhas Anandan, has said his powerful family will tell the Tunisian police to ‘go fly a kite’ if they attempt to arrest and have him extradited.

This is yet another scandal in this saga. Perhaps I would have been better treated had I been a major drug syndicate boss.
Amazingly, Law Minister, Mr. K. Shanmugam recently told TODAY that the death penalty for drug offences here is a “trade-off” the government must make to protect “thousands of lives” if drugs became freely available. He further explained that if Yong Vui Kong (now on death row with 36 others) escapes the death penalty, drug lords will see it as a sign that young traffickers will be spared and will then use more of them as drug mules. “You save one life here, but 10 other lives will be gone. What will your choice be?” he added.
My choice, Mr. Shanmugam? If anyone has to be hanged, start with drug barons like Guiga Ben Laroussi!
Here are some of those young people Mr. Shanmugam believes should have been hanged: Flor Contemplacion, Angel Mou Pui-Peng, Vignes Mourthi, Shangmugam Murugesu, Amara Tochi, Thiru Selvam, Zulfikar bin Mustaffah, Rozman Jusoh, Chuek Mei-mei, Nguyen Van Tuong, Tsang Kai Mong Elke, Poon Yuen-chung. I will continue my fight to get justice for all of the above and those who are bound to follow and I will remain a thorn in Singapore’s side regarding the death penalty and injustice until the day I die!

Alan Shadrake
A Prisoner of Singapore
October 29, 2010

written by Worzil Gummidge, November 27, 2010
The author is correct to point out the mis carries of justice that have led to offenders of much more heinous (drug) offences to get much lighter sentences than the 'little fish'.
However this argument in no way provides even a resemblance of reason as to why ANY offenders should be held fully accountable by the law. In other words in simple speak for people like the author of this book (and I use that term very loosely) just because you make one mistake, that dosn't give you a reason to keep on making the mistake.
The reasons why the author has been imprisoned are complicated but there is one simple reason that everyone should understand. He (Shandrake) knowingly and willfully broke the law. Right there in the opening pages he tells us he knew of the Official Secrets Act, he knew breaking it is punishable by law but he still went ahead and broke it (the law) anyway.
Whether people agree with them or not is a personal choice but they are bound to abide by them if they choose to be a part of that society, no one can expect to be treated differently under those laws.
I will say this, the book highlighted some of Singapore's recent history which I was not previously so good on. For that I thank him as I love Singapore (I am British) and I love to increase my knowledge on my favorite subject.
But to call this an informed/knowledgable novel is a travesty.
Van Nguyen vs.Bohl
written by GermanJournalist, December 06, 2010
I am a German journalist and I was stationed in SGP in those days so both stories were covered by me, although it's not necessary to mention, that the Bohl case drew much more attention in Germany.
Scince World War II only 2 Germans have been put to death (1999-LaGrand brothers in Arizona/USA). The German government will never compromise on the issue of capital punishment - what is basicly due to history. Germany would pay "any" price to save the life of a German and would probably use it's economical power not only for building up pressure but also for punishment.
Germany's papers were full with the obvious fact that Bohl's boyfriend "Ben" was a CNB-officer. Singapore's denial really insulted my intellect!
After 5 weeks 24/7 observation of the whole ring, the "main suspect" is the only one of them who is not at home at the time CNB raids the appartment, then - out of the blue - he just leaves the country like nothing has happened. And as this fairy-tale hasn't been absurd enough yet, "Ben" HAS NO LAST NAME. Throughout all police- and court-files (about 700 pages) the "main suspect" is only "one Ben".
I can't believe they thought someone would believe this!!! :-)))
Even local colleagues confirmed this CNB-procedure to us (only by whispering of course).

When I think of it today it was a mistake to discount the "value" of the Nguyen-story.
What the Australian government did - or better said, did not - is a high-profile scandal (with racist smell). The world will probably never know why Van Nguyen was not charged in Melbourne. This would have given at least a minor chance to bargain with the Singaporean authorities about extradition. Remember? SIA was very keen on the Pacific routes! John Howard and Alexander Downer totally failed!

Btw: Nguyen was charged in Australia on Dec, 2nd, 2005, at about midnight...6 hours before his execution. If it wasn't so sad one could laugh nonstop....
written by Juanito, July 09, 2011
How can any country call itself progressive and "modern" when it puts people to death for possessing pot!
written by megarich, July 16, 2011
Western countries need to stop trading with SG. Start by placing your regional officers elsewhere. People have to stop visiting SG for holidays. Bangkok is much more fun. Hurt those kiasus' in the pockets where it hurts.

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