Prisoners are fit to drop in Singapore Once a Jolly Hangman by Alan Shadrake
Reviewed by Megawati Wijaya
A recently published book in Malaysia describes in detail how Singapore hangs
its drug traffickers and convicted murderers. Near the execution date, the
prisoner is weighed to determine the length of rope necessary to ensure a quick
On the eve of the execution, a prison doctor may prescribe a relaxant to help
the condemned person to stay calm. The drug is usually slipped into a last
drink. In the morning, an assistant or guard usually stands by while
preparations are completed. The prisoner's arms are pinioned behind the back
with handcuffs and straps. The executioner than hastens the person into the
execution chamber via a connecting door, where there are twin trapdoors under
When the executioner places the noose around the neck, he must ensure that the
knot is in the correct position behind the right ear so the spinal cord is
broken instantly at the drop. A white cap is then placed over the head. The
trapdoor that is mechanically connected to one lever will open at precisely
6.00 am, give or take a second or two. The body will plunge down a distance
gauged by his or her weight, height and muscularity, and the length of the
Veteran British journalist Alan Shadrake details the grotesque administration
of capital punishment by hanging in his 219-page book, Once a Jolly Hangman.
It is not the easiest book to read, given the subject matter and the
uncompromising writing style, which is brutally honest and hard-hitting.
it provides a rare insight into Singapore's highly secretive death penalty
cases. Shadrake pores over court documents and library archives, and counts
among his sources retired officers of the Central Narcotic Bureau (CNB) who
have to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. It also interviews high-profile
lawyers such as M Ravi and Subhas Anandan.
The "jolly hangman" in the book title is Darshan Singh, who has been
Singapore's chief executioner inside Changi prison for nearly 50 years.
Shadrake scooped an interview with him in 2005, leading Singh to innocently
talk about his job and break Singapore's rigorous Official Secrets Act, which
forbids him to talk or write about what he does. Singh started his job in 1959
when he was only 26. His fees for hanging earned him S$30 (US$22) per head in
his early days. He tells Shadrake that he has hung "over 1,000, can be under".
His fees have increased to S$400 per hanging.
Shadrake's portrayal of Singh is never in a bad taste or sensational. He
describes Singh not as "a grim reaper of fantasy but a very likeable,
down-to-earth man - like any other kindly father and grandfather". He reminds
readers how Singh sincerely repeats the words "I am sending you to a better
place than this" to each of the prisoners, because he totally means it.
told Shadrake that he would always support the death penalty in Singapore.
"It has helped to keep Singapore one of the safest places on Earth," he
said. "These drug traffickers know what will happen to them if they get caught.
People who sympathize with them have nothing to say about the thousands who
suffer because of drugs. They destroy their lives as well as their families -
and society as a whole suffers."
While the interview with Singh, strategically placed in the early chapters of
the book, is a fascinating read, it is merely the lead to Shadrake's serious
and uncompromising critique on the death penalty in the following chapters.
Shadrake's abolitionist stance
against capital punishment rings loud and clear.
Never one to mince words in his narratives, he
says the death penalty has outlived his
usefulness. The risk of error in applying the
death penalty is inescapable, yet irrevocable, he
says. He also quotes Tim Parritt of Amnesty
International who said: "The death penalty is an
inherently unjust and arbitrary punishment,
however heinous the crime for which it is
provided. Studies have shown that it is more
likely to be imposed on those who are poorer, less
educated and more vulnerable than average."
He draws attention to high-profile drug trafficking and murder cases, asserting
serious allegations that some accused people (for example, a case involving a
German citizen, Julia Bohl, mentioned in chapter 10) managed to escape the
gallows through foreign government intervention or connection to government
elites, while the poor and disadvantaged (such as the Filipino maid, Flor
Contemplacion, mentioned in chapter 13) have no chance to be pardoned.
The author also highlights the weakness of mandatory death penalties that take
no account of any mitigating factors. Under Singapore's strict laws, anyone
aged 18 or over who is convicted of carrying more than 15 grams of hard drugs
such as heroin or 500 grams of marijuana receives a mandatory death sentence.
In the case of Vignes Mourthi mentioned in chapter 18, Shadrake described what
the defense lawyer called a miscarriage of justice in sending the convicted to
the gallows. A recorded conversation between Mourthi and police officer
Sergeant S Rajkumar - who posed as a buyer - that recorded that Mourthi knew he
was handling drugs and not incense stones as he claimed was produced as
evidence in court.
However, the conversation bore no date and could have been written up at any
time. Mourthi was convicted mainly based on this evidence and was hanged on
September 26, 2003.
The day after Rajkumar arrested Mourthi, a woman accused Rajkumar of sodomizing
and raping her. Two days later, on September 23, 2001, Rajkumar was arrested on
these charges. However, he was not suspended from work and continued to be part
of the prosecution's case against Mourthi.
Only after Mourthi was hung two years later did prosecution against Rajkumar
start. He was later found guilty of trying to bribe the woman to drop the
charges against him and sentenced to 15 months in jail on corruption charges.
trial of Vignes
Mourthi had been delayed until after the case against Rajkumar was thoroughly investigated
and his trial completed, and if Rajkumar was then found guilty
of corruption, "the courts would have known exactly what kind of man Rajkumar
really as and would have had the chance to prevent a potential travesty taking
place. It would have shown that Rajkumar was a bad, corrupt cop and that the
questionable evidence he brought against Vignes Mourthi would have had to be
thrown out," argues Shadrake.
A study carried out by the United Nations in 2001 concluded that Singapore had
by far the highest per capita execution rate in the world, triple that of Saudi
Arabia, the next highest. Amnesty International estimates that 400 people were
hanged from 1991 to 2001, mostly for drug offences and murder. Shadrake
estimates based on his interviews with Singh that the total is actually closer
to 1,000 or even more. Singapore does not publish these statistics.
Singapore's strict laws and governance have helped maintain law and
order and have kept the city state among the safest in the world. Its low crime rate
is a main factor in it being ranked number as the best city in Asia for
expatriates to live in. Singapore's judicial and police forces are well known and well
respected for their efficiency and constantly ranked among the top in the world
for transparency and low levels of corruption.
It is also seems naive for a foreign national or international bodies to simply
tell Singapore how to run its legal and judicial system. In a letter addressed
to the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions
and circulated in 2001, the permanent representative of Singapore to the United
Nations stated that "the death penalty is primarily a criminal justice issue,
and therefore is a question for the sovereign jurisdiction of each country. The
right of life is not the only right, and it is the duty of societies and
governments to decide how to balance competing rights against each other."
Despite the UN's 2008 resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on
executions as a step towards total abolition, Singapore continues to keep the
death penalty. "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," Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew
said in a speech as quoted in the book.
"Our priority is the security and well being of law-abiding citizens rather
than the rights of the criminal to be protected from incriminating evidence."
This is a fair statement.
Shadrake's allegations on the discrepancy on judicial application in Singapore
on deciding on death penalty cases are very serious ones, and Singapore's
government and citizens have every right to take offence if such allegations
are indeed unfounded and malicious.
Readers of the book, mostly perhaps ordinary citizens of Singapore, are not in
the position to confirm or deny the allegations, given their lack of
information or access to information. Singapore's Official Secrets Act
prohibits the making or receiving of any photographs, drawings, sketches,
designs, models of any military installations, military vehicles, weapons, etc,
so as to protect the safety and vital interests of Singapore and all those
Violation of the Act is punishable by a S$2,000 fine, and can bring a two-year
jail term. As pointed out in Hung at Dawn, an earlier book on capital
punishment by human-rights lawyer M Ravi, published in 2005, there is a broad
interpretation of the term "safety and interest of Singapore".
"[T]alking to certain police
officers about the arrests and interrogations or to prison officials or
the hangmen about the details of the incarceration, the specific executions or the
demeanor and attitudes of the prisoners in their last moments could be
declared 'against the interests of Singapore' and thus a criminal offence. Not only
would [a person doing this] be guilty of violating the law for soliciting
and publishing such information, but those on the inside who provided the
information to us would also be guilty of a similar crime," Ravi wrote.
Singapore's government itself has every duty to prove to its citizens that such
allegations are indeed untrue. As Singaporean social worker Dr Vincent
Wijeysingha wrote in the independent news site, The Online Citizen, "If the
government is able to refute all, or even some, of Shadrake's data, let it do
so. [Singaporeans] would welcome it if he were found to be wrong. Because we
could not sit by if these things were happening in our name."
Given the potentially constructive debates it may spin off, it is indeed sad
that this book is not available for purchase in Singapore. Singapore's Media
Development Authority (MDA) said that it had not banned it in Singapore. A
report by state-owned newspaper Straits Times, however, reports that the book
had been withdrawn from a major bookstore's shelves at the MDA's request. The
purported controversy surrounding the book has helped drum up sales elsewhere.
A bookstore in neighboring Johor Bahru in Malaysia said that it had enjoyed
Shadrake is not smiling yet. Last week, the
75-year-old journalist found himself hauled out of his hotel bed early on uly 17, a night
after his book launch in Singapore. He was held for questioning for 39 hours
before being bailed out for S$10,000. His passport has been confiscated and he
cannot leave the country. Singapore's Home Affairs Ministry has said that
Shadrake's "anti-death penalty views are not the issue in these investigations;
it is his violation of the laws of Singapore which are".
"The Singapore government's position on the issue of capital punishment is not
new. Those who disagree with our position have presented their arguments and as
a matter of principle we respect their right to hold such opposing views, as
we hope they do ours. The problem was not his views but his alleged
criminality. Anyone, Singaporean or otherwise, who breaks the law regardless of
the cause he touts, will be taken to task. Shadrake is no exception - he cannot
expect to commit offences and then assume that he will be exempted from being
held accountable under the law,” said the ministry.
Shadrake faced trial on July 30 for alleged criminal defamation and contempt
of court, charges raised by the attorney-general's office which claims
statements in the book allegedly impugn the impartiality, integrity and independence
of the judiciary. The trial was adjourned, and he still faces up to two years
in jail. Speaking outside the court, however, he told the BBC he would
never apologize. "I will not grovel to them," he said. "I will carry on this
Once a Jolly Hangman by Alan Shadrake. SIRD, Malaysia, 2010. ISBN
9789675832000. Price US$19.90, 219 pages.
Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based journalist. She may be contacted at