The myth of the death penalty

March 25, 2012

A young man from a broken family is caught trafficking drugs and charged in court. To protect his own family from reprisals, he declines to testify against his “boss” but is willing to cooperate with police investigation. His goodwill, however, fails to earn enough sympathy from the legalistic judge and he is sentenced to death.

It is his first offence and, poorly educated as he is, he can barely understand the English language used in court. Still, the judge is bent on denying him a second chance.

Quaintly enough, all the charges – including “abetting one young man in the commission of an offence of trafficking” – against the mastermind are dropped due to “insufficient evidence”.

Now, you may think this is a common scenario in a third-world country such as Malaysia, Nigeria or Zimbabwe but no, it actually happened in Singapore.

Before some of those who extol the island state as a bastion of economic freedom and racial equality go berserk at me for “smearing the good name” of the entrepôt, let me make clear I do not dispute Singapore is a far safer, cleaner and politically more ethical country than Malaysia. But it does have its fair share of flaws.

NONEYong Vui Kong’s case has been going on for quite a while, and it is the sheer fighting spirit of M Ravi, his counsel, and the concerned publics in Malaysia and Singapore that are keeping him alive until now. But the clock is ticking and there is still no guarantee if the poor chap from Sabah will get to celebrate his 25th birthday next January.

The latest twist in the court proceedings reveals the extent of Chia Choon Leng’s culpability. Chia was charged with 26 counts of offences, five of which were directly related to Yong. All the charges were subsequently withdrawn as the attorney-general of Singapore deemed that there was insufficient evidence for these cases to proceed.

On 19 March, Ravi questioned the AG’s decision in Singapore’s Court of Appeal, stating that “it becomes all the more difficult to follow the discretion that the prosecution applied in withdrawing charges against Chia given the judge’s observation that Chia was not only involved in drug trafficking, but that he actively recruited, instructed and supplied drugs to couriers and was at the apex of ‘an organised group that carefully planned and coordinated drug trafficking activities involving diamoprhine and other drugs’.”

To support his argument, Ravi presented two earlier cases that involved Chia:

  1. On 2 April 2007, Chia was charged with giving granular substance containing not less than 17.21g of diamorphine in Serangoon Central;On 4 April 2007, Chia was charged with giving granular substance containing not less than 25.07g of diamorphine, also in Serangoon Central.
  2. On 2 April 2007, Chia was charged with giving granular substance containing not less than 17.21g of diamorphine in Serangoon Central;On 4 April 2007, Chia was charged with giving granular substance containing not less than 25.07g of diamorphine, also in Serangoon Central.

In Singapore, trafficking of 15g and above of diamorphine will result in mandatory penalty death. Instead of prosecution, both charges were withdrawn and the court ordered ‘a discharge not amounting to an acquittal’.

The key phrase here is, of course, ‘not amounting to an acquittal’, which practically means Chia is not entirely innocent. So why is he spared the legal nightmare that Yong is made to go through?

‘Culpability exceeds that of drug mules’

As Ravi has argued, Chia’s culpability certainly exceeds that of drug mules such as Yong. Sad to say, in many instances, it is often the rich and powerful ring-leader who cheats death, and it is this blatantly unequal treatment before the law that Ravi is challenging.

The Malaysian government has refused to lend a helping hand. This is only expected because a raven never finds a moral ground to hide blackness. Between 2007 and 2010, more people have been sentenced to death under dubious circumstances in Malaysia.

But it is in Malaysia’s interest to actually take up the case with the Singapore authorities. Given the globalised drug syndicate networks, more and more young Malaysians fall into the trap and end up in jail in other countries, often in appalling conditions. But the government has done nothing to tackle the root causes: poverty, poor education and consumerist slavery.

The first step is for the government and the public to revive the debate around an abolition of the death penalty, especially the utterly arbitrary and inhumane mandatory aspect of it.

The time has come for Malaysians to ponder on the purpose of a justice system, and question as to whether retribution is the ultimate goal, while in search of an alternative. If justice is not meant to restore social relations and uphold the values of humanity, what good would it serve in the end? Little wonder that crime rates in countries where the death penalty is imposed continue to rise relentlessly: the United States, China and Malaysia, to name but a few.

Please don’t tell me Singapore’s public security is buttressed by the vigorous death penalty that serves as the most effective deterrence. No. If so, the island state would have effectively wiped out the problem of drugs. It has not.

The country is ultra-safe thanks to its highly-professional police force and, needless to say, the at times Orwellian scrutiny by the state, but substance abuse remains a major challenge, mandatory death penalty notwithstanding.

Seeing wrongdoers on death row almost always brings us some vengeful glee, but it does not restore public faith. In the case of the State v Makwanyane, the South African Constitutional Court argues as follows:

“… death is different, and the question is, whether this is acceptable when the difference is between life and death. Unjust imprisonment is a great wrong, but if it is discovered, the prisoner can be released and compensated; but the killing of an innocent person is irremediable. While this court has the power to correct constitutional or other errors retroactively…it cannot, of course, raise the dead.”

And I very much appreciate the succinct comment made by A K Ganguly, a Supreme Court Judge of India: “The death penalty is barbaric, anti-life, undemocratic and irresponsible. But it is legal.”

Should it remain legal? Let’s the debate begin.

JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.


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March 25, 2012

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