Just one wrench of the wrist, and the wretched man’s life would end.
The whole ordeal was supposed to be over before sunrise. The condemned was not to see the light of another day. But the sun was already up, and Sherry Liew still could not bring herself to pull the lever. She stood at the gallows with her eyes fixed on the hooded man with the noose around his sweaty neck. Her hands trembled with fear; her soul bowed beneath the weight of the power of life and death.
Sherry was wracked with grief for her precious son, who had been bludgeoned to death by the hooded man now standing before her. Sam had been hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting into gang fights and working for ah longs, and would ignore her relentless pleas to come home. But she prayed unceasingly for the prodigal son to return.
On that fateful morning, she leapt for joy when the doorbell rang unexpectedly. But the last flicker of hope in her heart was snuffed out when she opened the door to a policeman bearing tragic news of his death.
Now, she had the power to avenge her son. For many months, she had longed to strangle the evil bastard with her bare hands. But what then of her many years preaching the forgiveness and love of Christ that covers a multitude of sins? The murderer’s mother had fallen on her knees, begging for mercy for her only son. Even that monster – she struggled to see him any other way – had written countless tear-stained letters to her, asking for forgiveness and promising that he had turned his life around in prison.
How then could she spit in God’s face?
Abruptly, she loosened her grip on the lever and walked away. No matter how much this man deserved to die, she couldn’t be the one to kill him. One mother had lost her son – there was no need for another to bear the same anguish.
She walked out of Changi Prison, weary and disoriented, but at peace.
How on earth did a sweet, unassuming school teacher become an executioner?
For years, the debate on Singapore’s death penalty was stale and predictable. The government continued to peddle the hackneyed narrative that death by hanging was an effective deterrent against egregious crimes like murder and drug trafficking. The abolitionists pointed to academic research questioning the effectiveness of the death penalty, and championed a more “merciful and humane” penal system over the country’s “ruthless and primitive” system of retribution. The vast majority of Singaporeans either accepted the government’s rhetoric, or were too busy growing their bank accounts to bother engaging in public debate.
It was clear that the abolitionists needed a new strategy. Whenever they criticised the death penalty as a “barbaric” penal system, they were accused of derisive name-calling. When they called for a more enlightened form of justice, they were ironically caricatured as naive latte liberals, completely out of touch with reality.
Tired of the impasse, one activist devised a new game plan. The government was adamant on keeping the death penalty, and there was no indication that the ruling party was going to lose power any time soon. Singaporeans had grown accustomed to the moniker “Disneyland with the death penalty”. So perhaps the way forward was not to target the substance of the policy, but its implementation instead.
This activist figured that the death penalty was carried out so effectively because the condemned was hanged by a professional executioner who was supposed to be a dispassionate agent of the state, with no emotional investment or psychological inhibitions to deal with. He was just like any other bureaucrat with a job scope and KPIs. Ultimately, this automaton was the linchpin of the entire process. Remove him, and the process would fall apart.
But how could the executioner be removed? To answer this, the activist decided to ask another question – why should the State carry out executions in the first place? Murder is certainly a crime against society in that it violates the moral sanctity of life on which society stands. And the State is supposed to carry out punishments so that there is fair and proportionate justice, not vigilantism. But it is also a crime against the ones who loved and cherished the victim. The State did not give life to the victim – a mother did. Before the victim was a citizen of the State, he was a son first and foremost.
The activist argued then that in the case of first-degree murder, the execution should be carried out by the family of the victim. As for drug trafficking, the trafficker should be hanged by family members of victims of drug abuse. The State would still play the role of a neutral third party, but instead of delegating an agent to carry out the execution, it would merely “set up the venue”.
The Government accepted this proposal because it kept the death penalty intact. And so did the abolitionists. After all, for many years, they had framed capital punishment as nothing more than a clinical, state-sanctioned form of retribution. In their eyes, this new system would clearly demonstrate their point by empowering the victims’ families to exact their revenge.
More importantly though, the new system left room for compassion and mercy to intervene. In the old system, mercy was virtually non-existent because the President (or rather, the Cabinet who advised him) almost never granted clemency. But now that the act of execution was no longer in the hands of a detached, professional hangman, would every hanging be followed through?
In first-century Judea, when an angry mob brought a woman before Jesus and accused her of committing adultery, an act punishable by death, Jesus replied, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The crowd dispersed because none of them believed they had the right to mete out the death sentence.
It was the same with Sherry Liew. She chose to show mercy because she believed mercy had been shown to her. But had she decided to pull the lever, she would have acted legitimately and lawfully as well.
Of course, this scenario is completely hypothetical. But it is worth wondering what the contours of public debate would look like if a proposed system like this really gained traction. I wonder what would change if Singaporeans were no longer detached from the gruesome act of hanging, which today is carried out secretly in the early hours of the morning behind the iron gates of Changi Prison.
Would we be willing to cast the first stone?