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das capital

August 28, 2005

Took Leng How was recently sentenced to death for the murder of Huang Na. I find this hardly surprising, since Singapore courts have pronounced capital punishment upon offenders for much less. While I shall not extrapolate if Took was really guilty, I do have a certain contempt for the death penalty, with which I disagree in all circumstances (but that will require more time and another post). I especially object to the way local courts treat the death penalty.

Two thoughts immediately come to my mind. First, the mandatory death penalty for drug-traffickers. I strongly object to this: it serves no purpose whatsoever, and clear, lucid thinking will immediately demonstrate this. Most obviously, I cannot think of a rational reason why drug use is wrong – it harms no one but the abuser; alcohol and cigarettes are legal; addiction manifests itself in various forms, for example, gambling. Yet cigarettes, which generate externalities and cause harm to third-parties in the form of second-hand smoke, are allowed; alcohol and tobacco importers are not equivalently hanged; the government is building two integrated resorts with casinos to feed off the urge to gamble. Therefore, in the first place, no logical explanation exists as to why taking drugs is wrong. Hence, no such severe punishment should exist for the drug traffickers.

Even if we relax the logical premise that drug consumption is not wrong, no rational mind could conclude that the death penalty for drug-trafficking is sensible. The ‘deterrent effect’ argument is both silly and hypocritical – silly because it does not work, and has been shown not to work, since most drug traffickers are driven to their vocation by desperation (as in the recent case of Shanmugan Murugesu), not by a self-serving interest to make it big and strike it rich; hypocritical because sentencing drug traffickers to death in no way deters drug lords from operating their businesses, since they may always pay traffickers more and pass the labour costs on to the consumer. The ‘deterrent’ argument is also morally repugnant – to my mind the ‘kill one warn hundreds’ proverb from the Chinese is not only a trite, untrue banality, it also betrays a cavalier attitude towards human life, which is reduced to a tool meant for ‘deterrence’, a life we sacrifice so others may no better. This argument is dangerous, of course: what stops us, then, from conducting public caning on Orchard road for rapists, or chopping off the hands of thieves, or public executions (aside from the fact that it would be too Iran for the tastes of the US?). In other words, the death sentence for drug trafficking is a bunch of bollocks.

The second thought is that death sentences may be, in Singapore, pronounced on purely circumstantial evidence. The case I have in mind is the one recently featured in the newspapers, where a bus driver was first (and rightly) acquitted because no evidence was found that could prove his culpability beyond the shadow of a doubt, i.e. no motive was established, the murder weapon not found, no eye-witnesses came forth with statements, and, if I am not mistaken, the body was not even recovered and therefore no autopsy could be conducted. The case was appealed and the accused was found guilty; this time the damning piece of evidence was that someone had seen the victim board the bus of the accused. So much for ‘without a shred of doubt’. This seems to me intensely illegal (or at least without much legal ground). Thus when I encounter a capital case, I do not immediately think ‘justice has been served’, rather, I tend to distrust the final decision of the courts. The bias of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ (as opposed to the contrary) must do more harm than good.

That is why, in a not-so-nutshell, Singapore is really quite a rubbish place to live in. When people tell me that I’m so lucky to be a beneficiary of the Singapore system and its stable government, decent education, good healthcare et cetera et cetera et cetera, the proper response is not ‘I agree!’, the proper response is: ‘But here you may be sentenced to death if you traffic drugs, or for a murder you did not commit.’

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