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Death Penalty

Singapore government bans book that delves into its use of the Death Penalty

July 19, 2010 update: See my post here on Alan Shadrake’s arrest and photos of launch of his book

July 17, 2010 update: See my post here on how this book is “not banned”

This is a report by The Online Citizen on the banning of the book Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock by Alan Shadrake. Read also Shadrake’s 2005 article Nguyen executioner revealed below.

Breaking News: Death penalty book banned by MDA, The Online Citizen, 8 July 2010

“Once A Jolly Hangman – Singapore Justice In The Dock” has been “banned” in Singapore, The Online Citizen (TOC) has learned.

The book by renowned investigative journalist, Alan Shadrake, delves into and exposes the lesser-known aspects of Singapore’s criminal justice system. The book focuses on death penalty cases in Singapore – and it gives readers a more intimate look into some of the high profile cases, especially those of recent years.

Spanning three years of work by the author and journalist, the book includes information from his 2005 interview with Singapore’s hangman, Darshan Singh. That interview was published in Australian newspapers and caused an outrage around the world, in particular Australia at that time. That was when the case of Australian-Vietnamese Nguyen Van Tuong was in the headlines. Van Tuong had been sentenced to hang in S’pore for trafficking drugs into the country.

The book, with its meticulous research by Shadrake, includes rare interviews with Central Narcotics Bureau officers, lawyers, activists, and information gleaned from archives, court documents and news reports. It pieces together each of the story by filling in the blanks which are left out by news reports and throws up serious questions about Singapore’s criminal justice system itself.

Undoubtedly, the book will ruffle some feathers – as it apparently has.

Once A Jolly Hangman had been on sale at Kinokuniya bookstore for “several weeks”, TOC has learned, before the bookstore was asked by the Media Development Authority (MDA) to remove it from the shelves “a few days ago.”

Kino has also confirmed that the book is now “banned” by the MDA. No reason was given to the bookstore for the ban but Kino expects to receive “written” confirmation from the MDA soon.

Last month, the book was successfully launched in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. (See here)

Shadrake’s first major book The Yellow Pimpernels told the escape stories across the Berlin Wall and was the subject of a BBC documentary. Subsequent publications have delved into a variety of subjects including an expose of life in a Soviet gulag, the story of the boy poisoner Graham Young and, with Linda Lee, The Life and Tragic Death of Bruce Lee. (Gerakbudaya.)

PS: TOC is trying to get confirmation from MDA that the book has indeed been banned.

Nguyen executioner revealed
Alan Shadrake, The Australian, 28 Oct 2005

The hangman who will execute Australian drug trafficker Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore has been revealed as a semi-retired 73-year-old grandfather.

In a matter of weeks, Darshan Singh will place a rope around the 25-year-old’s neck and say the words he has spoken to more than 850 condemned prisoners during his 46 years as Singapore’s chief executioner.

“I am going to send you to a better place than this. God bless you.”

Nguyen’s hopes of escaping the gallows receded further yesterday when the Singaporean Government confirmed that it would not make an exception for the Australian.

Mr Singh has officially retired from the prison service but is called upon to carry out executions, for which he receives a fee of $S400 ($312).

Until now, his indentity has been a closely guarded secret in Singapore.

Officials rarely comment on capital punishment, which is carried out without publicity behind the walls of Changi prison.

But The Australian can reveal today that the 73-year-old grandfather, who lives in a modest, government-owned apartment near the border with Malaysia, has been asked to execute Nguyen unless the Singapore Government gives an unprecedented last-minute reprieve.

Mr Singh told The Australian yesterday that under the Official Secrets Act he was forbidden from speaking about his work.

A colleague and close friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Australian that Mr Singh wanted to give up his hangman’s responsibilities and live quietly in retirement but the authorities were having trouble finding anyone to replace him.

“He tried to train two would-be hangmen to replace him, a Malaysian and a Chinese, both in the prison service,” the colleague said.

“But when it came to pulling the lever for the real thing, they both froze and could not do it.

“The Chinese guy, a prison officer, became so distraught he walked out immediately and resigned from the prison service altogether.”

Nguyen will meet Mr Singh a few days before he is executed and will be asked if he would like to donate his organs.

On the day before his execution, Mr Singh will lead him to a set of scales close to his death-row cell to weigh him.

Mr Singh will use the Official Table of Drops, published by the British Home Office in 1913, to calculate the correct length of rope for the hanging.

On the day of Nguyen’s execution, Mr Singh will be picked up by a government vehicle and driven to the prison, arriving at 2am local time (0400 AEST) to prepare the gallows.

Shortly before 6am, he will handcuff Nguyen’s hands behind his back and lead him on his final short walk to the gallows, just a few metres from the cell.

Mr Singh joined the British colonial prison service in the mid-1950s after arriving from Malaysia. When the long-established British hangman Mr Seymour retired, Singh, then 27, volunteered for the job. He was attracted by the bonus payment for executions.

Mr Singh is credited with being the only executioner in the world to single-handedly hang 18 men in one day — three at a time.

They had been convicted of murdering four prison officers during a riot on the penal island of Pulau Senang in 1963.

He also hanged seven condemned men within 90 minutes a few years later. They had been convicted in what became known as the “gold bars murders”, in which a merchant and two employees were killed during a robbery.

One of the most controversial executions in his career was the 1991 hanging of a young Filipina maid, Flor Contemplacion, who was convicted of the murder of a co-worker, Delia Maga, and her four-year-old son, on what many believed was shaky evidence.

He carries out the executions wearing simple casual clothes, often just a T-shirt, shorts, sports shoes and knee-length socks.

To mark his 500th hanging four years ago, four of his former colleagues turned up at his home to celebrate the event with a couple of bottles of Chivas Regal.

Mr Singh boasts that he has never botched an execution.

“Mr Seymour taught him just how long the drop should be according to weight and height and exactly where the knot should be placed at the back of the neck,” his colleague said.

“Death has always come instantaneously and painlessly. In that split second, at precisely 6am, it’s all over.”

Mr Singh was an accomplished cricketer in his youth and was often opening bat.

“He is a keen soccer fan,” his colleague said. “His favourite team is Manchester United. He watches all the English Premier League matches he can.”

When his colleague asked him why he had stayed so long in such a gruesome job, he replied: “It’s all I know. It has become my bread and butter.”

“He also used to cane convicted criminals after training in this field,” the colleague said.

“The pay then was 50cents per stroke. He could wield a cane as well as he could wield a cricket bat.”

Mr Singh lives happily with his second wife and is close to their three adult adopted children.

His first wife left him years earlier because she could not accept what he did. He had kept it a secret from her for years.

Mr Singh reportedly spends time getting to know the condemned prisoners, especially those who do not receive visitors or religious support.

“He is a very kindly man and although it’s his job to end their lives he does feel for them,” his friend said. “Mr Singh tries to comfort them if they are completely alone in the world at such a horrible time.”

Jacob 69er: Reuters reported on 28 Nov 2005 that he was sacked. The next day, the Straits Times reported that the Singapore Prison Service, in an email response, said that he was not sacked and continued to be a contract officer engaged by the prisons department.

From Yawning Bread’s post which you can read in full here.

With the release of this book, we cannot now say we can’t take in the bigger picture. Once a Jolly Hangman allows us to compare how one case was handled with another that had similar circumstances or gravity. What emerges is a very unflattering pattern of inconsistent “justice”, the dispensation of which is compromised in three important ways:

1. When foreign governments have clout over our economic interests and are willing to use that clout, their citizens will not face the death penalty;

2. When local citizens come from rich, well-connected families, or when a case threatens to involve others from this stratum of society, a way is found to avoid having them face the death penalty or even severe penalties;

3. When the state is convinced that an accused who is poor and “low-class” is guilty, and provided that exception no. 1 above does not apply, due process is less important than putting him on the fast-track to the noose.


23 thoughts on “Singapore government bans book that delves into its use of the Death Penalty

  1. Awesome posting.. It’s sad when we turn a blind eye to injustice.. but it’s folks like you who need to continue to educate other ignorant citizens of Singapore.. Keep up the good fight and all the best mate

    Posted by Paul Ang Patrick S.P.Y | July 19, 2010, 10:58
  2. Will i get into trouble with the law if I were to buy the book from Malaysia and bring it back to Singapore? I actually find it weird to be worried about such thing…

    Posted by Sagebaka | July 20, 2010, 18:39
  3. Thanks P.A.P for those kind and encouraging words. I don’t pretend to know everything but I hope more and more people get to read the issues in my posts and see what ‘lies beneath’ and do something about it. 🙂

    Sagebaka, its not officially banned and so I don’t think you’ll have to be worried. In any case, i suspect you’ll not be the only one who’ll get it from across the causeway and bring it back! 🙂

    Posted by Jacob 69er | July 20, 2010, 19:00


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