Deadly Silence

How can it be that the death penalty receives such scant public attention in Singapore?

The recent hanging of Mr Kho Jabing has thrust the topic of capital punishment into the limelight in Singapore once again. The controversy surrounding the facts of the case and the multiple attempts to save Mr Kho’s life has elicited much discussion, including reactions from Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan and The Middle Ground journalist Daniel Yap, not to mention the passionate arguments put forth by activist groups like We Believe in Second Chances (WBISC) and the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC).

Before this, the last public discussion about the death penalty that I can recall was back in 2011-2012, when the book Once a Jolly Hangman was released (and then censored) in Singapore and the author, Alan Shadrake, was jailed for six weeks for “scandalising the judiciary” in his book.  Soon after that, in 2012, the government completed its review of the Mandatory Death Penalty (MDP) and introduced some reforms to the policy.

Besides these two instances, I have no personal recollection of any other public discussion about Singapore’s death penalty – and I don’t think this has to do with my young age or ignorance. Of course, through my research for this article, I’ve learned about the numerous efforts of local activists to encourage greater public engagement with this issue. But questions about the morality, desirability and effectiveness of capital punishment still receive a paltry amount of attention from Singaporeans.

The government itself admitted in its response to a 2004 Amnesty International report on capital punishment in Singapore that the death penalty is “not a burning issue in Singapore”. Seven years later, in a response to an International Herald Tribune article on Shadrake’s imprisonment, the Law Ministry claimed that “the death penalty is openly and vigorously debated in Singapore”. Moreover, a recent ST article claimed that “the death penalty is nevertheless a hot political issue in Singapore”. But I just cannot see the evidence of this. Instead of stimulating discussion, there’s deafening silence. Either that or the argument bounces back and forth between “He deserved to die” and “An eye for an eye makes the world blind” – followed by more silence.

This needs to change. Capital punishment has serious and irreversible consequences that warrant more frequent discussion about its place in our penal system. I do not intend to evaluate pro- or anti-death penalty arguments in this article. My main concern is with the paucity and imbalance of discussion about the death penalty in Singapore. We have all grown up hearing the same refrain – the death penalty deters serious crime and saves lives. Most Singaporeans imbibe this argument without seriously questioning it – including myself, until a few weeks ago. But how can we be sure of the deterrence value of capital punishment if we don’t question it? And how long can we keep sweeping this issue under the carpet?


“Hot political issue?”

How often do Singaporeans discuss this issue? Granted, this is a difficult topic to discuss in private settings because it isn’t polite dinner conversation. But in public forums and the media, this issue receives a lot less attention than COE prices and CPF policy. It is hardly discussed in Parliament, sidelined in General Elections, and completely ignored in Presidential Elections. It is neglected at all stages of education. Singaporeans are not regularly asked for their opinion on the death penalty. My guess is that capital punishment is never discussed in any religious community at all. And although there are NGOs dedicated to tackling this issue, their reach is still limited.

As mentioned earlier, the last time the death penalty was discussed in Parliament was in 2012 after the review of the MDP. But this amounted to ministerial statements about the decisions made by the review commission, followed by 9 parliamentary questions, only 3 of which questioned the need for the MDP at all. Before that, it was discussed in Parliament in 2007, when then-Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee claimed that a survey reported in the Straits Times in 2005 – which I have been unable to find – showed that 95% of Singaporeans feel that the death penalty should stay. In 2001, the late JB Jeyaratnam brought the case of death-row inmate Zulfikar Mustaffah to Parliament, and Mr Ho Peng Kee claimed that “it is not for us in Parliament to discuss cases”. Besides these instances, I am not aware of other times when the death penalty was discussed across the despatch box.

Does the death penalty feature as an election issue in Singapore? Unsurprisingly, the PAP manifestos of 2011 and 2015 did not mention the issue. The Workers’ Party proposed reforming the MDP to allow greater discretion to judges in their 2011 manifesto (p.8) and their 2015 manifesto (p.39). The Reform Party manifesto in 2015 called for a moratorium on the death penalty and its eventual repeal. As far as I’m aware, the Singapore Democratic Party has never discussed the death penalty in their manifesto, but they criticised Singapore’s use of the death penalty back in 2004. But other than these brief mentions, the death penalty has always taken the backseat to more salient concerns about the cost of housing and healthcare, the quality of education and infrastructure upgrading projects.

Students in Singapore hardly discuss the issue of capital punishment. Perhaps it is discussed in certain philosophy classes or Knowledge Inquiry classes in JC. But it is not discussed in Social Studies lessons. While issues like the Little India Riot in 2013, the usefulness of a poverty line, and the relationship between foreigners and citizens are now being discussed in the new SS syllabus, the death penalty is not being debated despite its supposed importance in keeping our society safe.

If not in schools, how about in institutions of higher learning? I don’t know how often capital punishment is discussed amongst university students, though I imagine that law students frequently deliberate over Singapore’s MDP. I know from experience that Singaporean overseas students are often challenged by their contemporaries on this issue. But looking beyond university students, I have not found any research by policy institutes or think tanks on Singapore’s death penalty. The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) held a debate on whether the death penalty should be kept or abolished, but I have not found any policy research about the effectiveness of the death penalty. I also have not found any research on Singaporeans’ attitudes towards the death penalty. A recent ST article repeated the claim that “an estimated 95 per cent of the population still support the death penalty”, but it is unclear where that information is from.

Besides schools and universities, NGOs play an important role in public education. I am aware of three NGOs that focus specifically on the death penalty in Singapore and/or Southeast Asia – WBISC, SADPC, and the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) – as well as other NGOs that focus on human rights more generally. These groups provide support to the families of death row inmates, organise educational seminars, and formulate policy recommendations, some of which have been submitted in the 2015 Universal Periodic Review to the UN. But despite the fervent efforts of these groups to change people’s mindsets about the death penalty, my impression is that the vast majority of Singaporeans are either uninterested in engaging with the positions argued by these NGOs, or simply unaware of the existence of these groups.

The overall picture is one of a generally unengaged and uninterested population. I am slightly perturbed by the fact that foreign journalists like Alan Shadrake and international NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are discussing Singapore’s death penalty more than we are. We need to reclaim primary responsibility for this discussion.


What needs to be done

The situation as it stands is untenable. There are at least three changes that need to be implemented in order to facilitate greater public engagement with this issue.

Firstly and most importantly, we need more transparency and openness from the government. Public data on the use of the death penalty in Singapore is notoriously patchy. This data has been released in responses to parliamentary questions and in annual reports of the Singapore Prison Service. Without complete data, it is difficult to discuss the effectiveness and societal impact of the death penalty. Moreover, Singaporeans need to have the space to discuss this sensitive issue with greater openness if we are to have an effective and honest discussion. Actions like the censorship of Once a Jolly Hangman and the incarceration of Alan Shadrake stifle constructive debate and evaluation of the limitations and dangers of the MDP.

Secondly, we need to realise that capital punishment is a complex issue with far-reaching consequences. In other words, we need to acknowledge that there is much to discuss. It is not simply a matter of arguing that a person deserves to die because he took another person’s life – which is often the furthest point that many people reach in their argument. There are other important questions to be asked. Does the death penalty really act as a deterrent? Should it be mandatory for certain cases? What is the impact of the death penalty on the family of the executed prisoner? Since the death penalty is irreversible, is it right to impose such a harsh punishment on the innocent family of the perpetrator?

Finally, we need to focus on the substance of arguments for and against the death penalty. We should not allow ourselves to be swayed by personal labels. Unflattering characterisations of opponents of the death penalty as “political opportunists” and “bleeding-heart liberals” are not helpful. Harsh portrayals of proponents of capital punishment as “revenge-seeking barbarians” only inflame tensions that distract from the real debate. We also need to jettison the belief that challenging the death penalty is illegitimate because it is a callous rejection of the grief of the murder victim’s family or a careless dismissal of the destructiveness of drug addiction. I’m sure that both pro- and anti-death penalty camps have the same goal of minimising death, grief and pain in society – this common ground should be our point of departure.


Ultimately, the issue of capital punishment is not just about the life and death of inmates but about our fundamental societal values about justice, security and the sanctity of life. Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in a speech in 2002, “The basic difference in our approach springs from our traditional Asian value system which places the interests of the community over and above that of the individual.” But these values cannot be described or prescribed from above. They are moulded in a constant national conversation. It is imperative that we have a conversation about this matter of life and death.


Do you remember, the 17th night of September?

After months of stagnation, a rapid series of high-level political statements and diplomatic exchanges appears to have breathed some life into the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process once again. But of course, looks can be deceiving, and even if the peace train really is building up steam, no one knows which way the train is heading.

In April, the French government announced that they would host an international meeting of foreign ministers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the end of May, to which neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were invited – presumably to allow the participating countries to formulate a solution that the rest of the world could throw its weight behind so as to place greater pressure on the two sides to accept it. This ministerial meeting is meant to lay the groundwork for an international peace summit that will be held later in the summer, this time with the participation of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The idea of a French initiative was first mooted by the former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in January this year. Since then, President Abbas has shown consistent support for the initiative, while PM Netanyahu has remained sceptical about the effectiveness of an international peace conference and argued that such a conference would hinder the only path to peace, which is bilateral negotiations between Israel and the PA.

This past week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault met Netanyahu and Abbas to discuss the French peace initiative. Netanyahu expressed his objection once again, while Abbas warned that the failure of another peace initiative would spur more acts of terrorism. In an apparent setback, the French government postponed the international ministerial meeting, allegedly to allow the US to participate.

All hope is not lost for the French though. Two days ago, Egyptian President al-Sisi made an impromptu speech in which he expressed support for the French peace initiative and called upon Israeli and Palestinian leaders to seize this “realistic” and “great” opportunity to reach a solution. Interestingly, he claimed that the animosity between the Israelis and Palestinians is similar to that between Israelis and Egyptians just before they signed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.

What a coincidence that al-Sisi compared the Israeli-Palestinian relationship to the Egyptian-Israeli relationship just two weeks after I finished reading “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David” by Lawrence Wright. There is a lot to learn from the Camp David process about the challenges and rewards of diplomacy and conflict resolution – lessons which are especially relevant in light of this renewed effort to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This book presents an account of the Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt in 1978 in a captivating narrative that keeps the reader at the edge of his seat. But it’s more than just an account of the proceedings. Wright expertly presents the conference in its larger geopolitical context by weaving into the narrative key events in the history of the Middle East, extending all the way back to Biblical times.

What I found most intriguing, however, was the writer’s analysis of how the personal experiences of the key negotiators shaped their psychology, which influenced not only their negotiating positions but also their behaviour during the conference. I liked the description of the personal dynamics between the negotiators because it makes the entire episode more relatable to the reader. In the book, he links Begin’s personal hardship in Poland and Siberia to his stubborn distrust of Sadat, and his legal training to his meticulous attention to detail. Wright describes how Sadat’s penchant for audacious risk-taking was strengthened during WWII, especially when he sent a letter to Rommel in 1942 to conspire with the Germans to defeat the British in Egypt (as a 23-year old captain!). The writer also shows how Carter’s perseverance during the negotiations was the fruit of a long journey in politics, and how his strong desire for peace in the Middle East was rooted in his personal faith as a Christian.

Today, we see the famous picture of Begin, Sadat and Carter shaking hands on the lawn of the White House and we regard them as titans of the 20th Century. This book reminds us that they were mere mortals with their own personal flaws, biases, and eccentricities. They were impatient, fearful, rash, but also tenacious and imaginative at times. It’s quite unnerving to think that in the negotiating room, the fate of millions of lives – in this generation and the next – depends on the competence, cunning, and emotional make-up of a few people.

While reading the book, I kept drawing parallels between the Egyptian-Israeli peace process and the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, just like President al-Sisi did. Today, the Israeli-Palestinian situation looks as bleak as ever – there haven’t been talks between the two sides since April 2014, the Gaza Strip is still dealing with the consequences of Operation Protective Edge, and the past few months have seen a wave of violence that has led to many deaths on both sides. But I imagine that the decades of hostility between Israel and Egypt seemed irresolvable at that time too. As hopeless as it seemed after 1967 when the Arab League issued its Three Noes to Israel, or after 1973 when Egypt sprung a deadly surprise on Israel and shattered its illusion of invincibility, the two states did sign a peace treaty that has lasted almost 40 years.

Of course, I realise it is naive to draw similarities without also identifying the many differences as well. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has much deeper roots and has gone on for much longer than the conflict between Israel and Egypt. The negotiations between Israel and Egypt didn’t have to deal with the issue of millions of refugees or the question of sovereignty over holy places. Also, it’s difficult to compare the Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai desert to the idea of a future withdrawal from the Golan Heights – the Egyptian government argued that it could guarantee a secure border between the Sinai and Israel if a peace treaty was signed, but the idea of a Syrian guarantee of security along the Golan Heights is a non-starter. It’s not surprising that the Palestinian issue was practically ignored in the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty – it was seen as an obstacle that could have scuppered the entire deal.

Nonetheless, it is not naive to keep hoping and praying for another opportunity for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, or at the very least, de-escalation of the conflict. Past successes like Israel’s peace with Egypt keep the flame of hope alive. Even on Day 9 of the 13 days of Camp David, Begin still said, “My right eye will fall out, my right hand will fall off, before I ever agree to the dismantling of a single Jewish settlement (in the Sinai desert).” Yet, the settlements were dismantled because Carter and other Israeli negotiators convinced Begin to put the Sinai withdrawal decision to a vote in the Knesset, thus allowing the MKs to overrule Begin’s obstinacy.

Carter learned to use the negotiators’ personal strengths and group dynamics to his advantage. He capitalised on Sadat’s personal admiration for him and his desire for closer US-Egypt ties to persuade him to stay committed to the talks. After realising that Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman were more open to compromise with the Egyptians, he tried to use them to persuade Begin to change his mind. He also sat with Aharon Barak and Osama al-Baz, two brilliant lawyers on the Israeli and Egyptian negotiating teams, to fine-tune the final text so as to make it more palatable to both sides. Peacemaking requires ingenuity, which I am sure can be found amongst Israelis and Palestinians today.

Eventually, the Camp David Accords were signed on 17 September 1978, paving the way for long-lasting (albeit cold) peace between Israel and Egypt and heralding a new geopolitical configuration in the Middle East. Can such a monumental solution be forged once again? Perhaps it can, if Israeli and Palestinian leaders remember the relief and jubilation that Begin, Sadat and Carter felt on that 17th night of September.

לזכור ולא לשכוח (Remember, and never forget.)

“Lizkor ve lo lishkoakh.”

The Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Ceremony on campus started off with the solemn reminder, “Remember, and never forget.”

At 10 am, sirens wailed throughout the country, bringing the entire nation to a halt for two minutes of silence. From north to south, people paused to grieve the loss of millions of lives, to remember the hundreds of Holocaust survivors who live with the physical and psychological scars of the past, and to renew their commitment to ensure that such a tragedy never befalls the Jewish nation again. My head hung low as I silently contemplated the sombreness of the occasion.

After prayers were read from the Tanakh, we took our seats. Students delivered moving poems in Hebrew and English, honouring the lives of those who died and exhorting the listeners to cherish life and cling to hope even in overwhelming darkness. The theme of life triumphing over death was complemented by the majestic tree behind the stage, with the petals of its glorious flowers falling gently to the ground, never to grow again but giving life to young seedlings and fresh grass. I found it a poignant metaphor encapsulating the message of the ceremony – that the memory of the fallen should inspire us to live meaningful lives.

IDC Tree 3

A professor was invited to share his thoughts. His words were heavy-laden with sorrow as he described his childhood  as “one long Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony”. His family shared an apartment in Tel Aviv with Holocaust survivors, who often relived the horrors of the concentration camps whenever they saw the numbers tattooed on their arms. One of those survivors had been part of a community of Jews who had been herded together like animals, made to stand in front of a giant pit, and struck down by the axes of Nazi soldiers who wouldn’t even “waste their ammunition” on Jews. The survivor was knocked unconscious, and had to crawl out of a mass grave in the middle of the night when he came to.

Sorrow turned to indignation as the professor scoffed at the idea that the people of Europe were unaware of the daily atrocities perpetrated against Jews. His voice rose in fury as he lambasted the governments of several countries that had denied entry to Jewish refugees in the 1940s. But he also paid tribute to those who had saved the Jews, even at great risk to their own lives. I was amazed when one of my friends told me after the ceremony that her paternal grandparents had saved hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust, and her maternal grandparents had sheltered a Jewish family on their farm throughout the entire duration of the war. As I have asked myself before, I asked myself again: “What would I do in such a situation?”

The passionate speech of the professor was followed by the tear-jerking reflections of a student who had visited one of the concentration camps in Poland. “Let no one say that some were heroes and some were martyrs,” he said. “Every hero was a martyr, and every martyr was a hero.” His voice quivered as he compared the simple actions of Jews in the concentration camps to the valiant exploits of heroes, whether it was the sharing of bread despite their excruciating hunger, or raising each others spirits with the words, “It’s Shabbat, my friend.” Imagine that – for many Israelis today, Shabbat is the time to hit the nightclubs and laze on the beach. In those days, it was a rare sliver of sunshine in the midst of immense darkness.

My soul was burdened throughout the ceremony, but my tears only flowed at the end as we rose to sing HaTikvah. This melancholic national anthem always sends shivers down my spine, but the song held much greater meaning today. After commemorating one of the worst tragedies in human history, we left the past behind us and looked forward to the Hope of a future where freedom, peace and justice reign.