Go with a smile!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Death Penalty and Kho Jabing

It's pretty difficult to have a discussion about the death penalty in Singapore. You could say that the death penalty being draconian has something to do with there being law and order in Singapore where that has not happened in many other places. We aren't going to be that sympathetic towards murderers or drug smugglers, because we don't really believe that we know anybody who's going to do that. In a way, Singapore's a walled city, where people believe that it's some kind of a sanctuary against the lawlessness that goes on outside of it.

Let's look at the arguments against the death penalty.

First, the strongest argument against the death penalty, is that some people are wronged and are put to death unjustly. You see quite a bit of it in parts of the states where lower class people (quite often colored ones) are sentenced to death, and they haven't had the legal help they needed in order to exonerate itself. In Singapore, these miscarriages of justice are quite rare, unless you're being politically targetted, and even in those cases, it's never about death. Nobody's going to sentence you to death unless they're completely sure. Even the anti-death penalty ppl are no longer saying that Kho Jabing was innocent.

Second, that it doesn't actually help reduce crime. To be sure, you could look at the map of the united states and see that the states which don't have the death penalty are also the ones which have lowest crime. But is there a direct cause and effect? The states that have less crime are also the ones which are better at providing social services for its people, and perhaps that's the real reason why there's less crime, because society is less broken down, and perhaps people think they don't need the death penalty because there's less crime? It's easy to get the data, but it's rather harder to interpret it correctly.

Third, there is the idealistic claim that it's just inhumane and barbaric, that we are just better off locking them away for 30 years. I think that a life sentence isn't that much better than a death sentence. Especially in the US, when the biggest problem with the judicial system at this point in time is that too many people are being locked up.

In sum, when I look at the ways in which the US justice system seems broken at the moment, I'd say that the biggest issue is that the prison population is way too large. Then another big problem is that the local justice system, in terms of who gets arrested, who gets charged, and how the law is applied, does appear to be quite biased against people of minority race. Another big issue is that putting people in jail does not appear to deter them from a life of crime. Often what happens is that once a person goes to jail, when he is released, he is very often unable to go back to his old life, because nobody wants to employ him. In the end, he ends up turning to a life of crime. So here's the problem: what's the point of putting a guy behind bars if he's not going to turn over a new leaf?

So here's the conundrum of the death penalty: those other three issues are more important to the justice system than the death penalty. So why harp on the death penalty?

If I had to criticise Singapore's death penalty, I'd say that it were applied too easily. But then again, consider the Misuse of Drugs act, one of the most controversial uses of the death penalty in Singapore. Now, we know that the War on Drugs is a failure in the US. Why? That's because the penalties for drugs in the US is a few years in jail. That pushes the prices of drugs up to the point where people find that it is actually profitable to have a drugs trade. That doesn't happen in Singapore. Yes, there are people in Singapore who have a drug problem, but the numbers are pretty small. There will always be seizures. By and large, people in Singapore know that you just don't take illegal drugs. You're not going to randomly bump into people in Singapore with drug problems. That's because the death penalty makes the smuggling of drugs into Singapore so onerous that it never becomes economically viable. We have a functioning drugs policy, no matter what the anti-death penalty advocates say.

Paradoxically, there are people who advocate for removing the penalty against smuggling drugs, and make them legal. Perhaps that could also work, although you're not going to hear very many Singaporeans jockeying for that. You really want to see it actually work in a certain part of the world before you go for that. In the northeast of the US, it's been well documented that there are heroin epidemics, partly caused by new distribution networks set up by some Mexican gangs, and because of a misguided medical policy over the last 20 years, that has started over-prescribing painkillers to patients. If you're abusing heroin or cocaine, it is a problem for you regardless of whether it's criminalized or not. Perhaps it's better for you if it weren't criminalized. But either way, your life is ruined.

But I'm also keen to live in a Singapore where if people felt the death penalty was too severe, too misapplied, they should try to scale it back. I am pretty leery of doing this for drugs, because you don't really know what might happen. I'm not for abolishing it. There are certain crimes which just call for the death penalty. Genocide. Mass murder. Take a guy like Andres Brevik, I'd not have spared him from the gallows. He just gets 21 years in a relatively comfortable jail, and he gets off just like that. Or somebody like Slobodan Milosevic.

There are three aspects of criminal penalties, and sometimes they are in conflict with each other. There is deterrence, meaning you put up the penalty so that people think twice before the crime is commited. There is rehabilitation, whereby the criminal is urged to change his ways and return to society as a functioning member of it. And there is retribution, whereby the wronged party is satisfied that the criminal has paid for his crimes. The last aspect is the most controversial, because people think that it is barbaric. And in a way it is. But psychologically, if you have had a crime committed against you, you might not be able to let it go unless something really bad is done to the perpetrator. In this case, it's better to have the justice system run its course than to have the mob do it.

So what's going on for the latest episode with the anti-death penalty advocate, Jeanette Chong Aruldoss. Bilahari Kaukisan, who is infamous for being really outspoken on Facebook, said, “This politically motivated 11th hour attempt to stay execution is despicable. If there were no new facts or arguments, they must — unless they were totally incompetent lawyers — have known that the appeal would fail. So they raised false hope in Mr Kho’s family and perhaps in Mr Kho himself for their own political agenda. That is completely cynical and ought to be condemned.” And Jeanette replied, “some well-educated and title-endowed commentator(s) have accused me of taking up Jabing’s case for political mileage. … I am amazed at the stupidity of such a proposition.”

This sound remarkable to me. It's not every day that somebody from the opposition can call somebody from the government / PAP an idiot and get taken seriously, but it seems to me that this is what happened.

OK, first, you must think about what Bilahari meant by “their own political agenda”. Jeanette Chong would be justified in calling him an idiot if what he meant was that she was trying to make herself more popular as a political candidate. (She ran in Mountbatten SMC twice, unsuccessfully). But if the “political agenda” meant her advocacy against the death penalty, then he does have a point. Although I'm pretty sure that Jeanette Chong, if she were being a responsible lawyer, would have warned Kho Jabing that his case would be part of a large struggle, that he had almost no chance of getting spared from the gallows, and that his last act would be to serve as a pawn in this political movement. And I'm pretty sure that he would have been alright with that, otherwise, they wouldn't have taken up his case. That means that Bilahari's point that getting a stay of execution to no effect is specious. In fact, apparently Kho Jabing's sister appreciates this gesture. In other words, it's not really for Bilahari to say what Kho Jabing's family thinks of this.

At the same time, take a look at how the Singapore justice system works. This was posted by Choo Zhengxi. It is pretty unprecedented that you'd want to file so many appeals against the death penalty. The Singapore justice system wasn't built for democracy. It doesn't really care for due process, once it's reached a decision. Under Yong Pung How, he was famous for discouraging people from filing appeals, by increasing the sentence as the result of an appeal against that sentence. And you can see that it will make life difficult for people who they presume to file whatever they consider to be frivolous appeals.

Personally, though, I'll have to think through this issue a heck of a lot harder before I were to make a position on this. I don't really know why the anti-death penalty folks chose this case to publicise their opposition to the death penalty. It wasn't a first degree murder because there wasn't much premeditation. But apparently the victim died a pretty grisly death. If I were the judge, he's going to have to say bye bye to his mother anyway. Even if I didn't sentence him to death, he'd be getting at least 30 years.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

East Coast Park

There is something special about a beach.

I probably wouldn't be kidding if I were to say that East Coast Park during the 80s was one of the most special beaches of all. Of course everybody thinks their beach is special. But it was what I associated with a real beach when I was growing up. It was basically an Eden back then, because before the 80s, it didn't exist. It was reclaimed from the sea. The whole strip from East Coast Road all the way to the shoreline did not exist for most of Singapore's history. And it was finished when I was a kid, just in time for me to have a glimpse of what it was like.

Perhaps that place held a little mystery for me because I only went there a relative handful of times. Only during the June holidays. I still remember there was a huge mall by the sea, Parkway Parade. Maybe it was the first suburban mall, we didn't have malls in public housing estates during that time. We had some of those old quasi-shophouses like Bras Basah Complex and Peoples' Park. There was something mysterious about the idea that you had to travel a long way (I was living in Toa Payoh at that time) just to get to another place. Actually Toa Payoh to East Coast is not terribly far, but it seemed far, especially when it was more than 10 stops before the Circle Line opened.

Somehow It was just supposed to be really fun playing in the sand, I don't know why. But people just thought that having a barbeque and playing in the sand and riding the bike up and down that long path was supposed to be the summit of your existence. What was really special about that beach was that it faced one of the most crowded sea-lanes in the world. It was basically like the great armada you see in the movie Troy, EVERY SINGLE DAY. You don't ever expect the waves to stop crashing on the shore. And at the same time, you don't ever expect to look south from East Coast Park and not see a ship on the horizon. That hasn't happened since 1819 and when it does happen, you know it's the end of the world, most probably it's also going to be snowing at that point in time.

Another thing special about that place is the presence of public housing estates next to the beach. It's a little unusual to have HDB blocks just a street away from the beach, but it's happened. But maybe all of these things will be en-bloced so that rich spoilt brats can take their rightful place there.

There is something – and I hope that nobody's really going to accuse me of racism here – there is something very Malay about that part of Singapore. This is the Malay part of Singapore, or in Joo Chiat and Siglap – it's a very Peranakan part of Singapore. There's something very Malay about a coastal village, about a tropical breeze by the sea, not to mention the scent of Satay and sambal stingray in the air.

My first long distance accomplishment also took place there. I rented a bicycle with my father, and when I was 8, I was interested in all the milestones. We probably cycled all the way to Tanjong Rhu and back. To cycle 8 kilometers was pretty unreal for an 8 year old. Maybe that's when we realised that I was built for long distance travel.

I found an old picture of me riding the small bike, and it was an extremely eerie picture, because in the background, there was a company of soldiers doing their route march. Perhaps my parents took it because they were aware of its significance. One day, I would be in the boots of those soldiers. It was an eerie specter of the future.

Late that year, I went to Perth, and my father met up with a friend, and we had a picnic at a beach there. It was a very different kind of beach, and very quiet, the air was dry. It seemed like some sort of paradise to me.

One of my favourite years was sec 3. I still remember the last time I ever lost my wallet was during that year, but I only lost a schoolboy's pocket money, so no big deal there. I was taking a bus to East Coast. Maybe my uniformed group had one or two activities there around that time. There was a 10km hike – complete with a full pack, from RGS, which was in River Valley at that time, to East Coast Park. I don't know why, but there was something romantic about the night for me. Maybe that was when I fell in love with the night. I still remember reaching a site in the wee hours of the morning, setting up camp there, and sleeping until noon the next day. I had just started listening to Bowie, and for some reason, the Ronson guitar solo at the end of “Life on Mars” would always remind me of East Coast Park at dawn.

There were a few other trips to Parkway Parade during that year, I can't remember what for. Maybe I just got sick and tired of wandering around Toa Payoh and Orchard Road. There were two McDonald's in that region. There was the Kallang McDonald's, right opposite the KFC, and for some reason I always knew about those places but never went in. There was an air of mystery about those places. They were just about the closest things to American style diners. Maybe I was a deprived kid in those days, and maybe I was secretly envious of the McDonald's kids who just wore fancy clothes and hung around McD's all day long. Or maybe I was peeved that I would go to my grandmother's place and my elder cousins would never bring me out anywhere – ever. I'm sure that if I went to that place often enough, I would get bored. But back then there was just this magical aura about a lot of places that I never got to go to.

Maybe there was something quiet and peaceful about the beach that I really enjoyed. Maybe that was my first taste of freedom. But then again, I had just gone through two of the worst years in my life, and I was just enjoying my first taste of fresh air. There was Parkway Parade too. I know that suburban malls are supposed to be a pretty hellish experience, but there's something really appealing about people hanging out there after a day on the beach. It's a place that seems to have a permanent holiday atmosphere.

There was a trip to New Zealand, where I passed by the 90 mile beach. But I think that's rather less fun, because there's something hellish about something so desolate. Then again, I saw a half buried car there and it was pretty amazing to watch. A few years into my working life, there was one year where for some reason I went to the beach quite a few times. One time, I was staying at a friend's place in Siglap. He was thinking about quitting his job to do a startup. It was nice catching up with him, but for whatever reason I felt I had to go back to the office to go check out some data. I don't really know why I didn't have a fuller more complete conversation with him.

Later that year, my boss asked me to organise a gathering with my colleagues. I think I did a pretty good job. A difficult spell at work was finally over, life seemed like it was getting back to normal. It seemed as though everybody had a pretty good time hanging out. And it was just a lot of people hanging out and talking to each other, rather than some crazy enforced activity with people you can't really stand. For whatever reason, that was a watershed moment, the dividing line between the fairly traumatic first half of my life in the Factory, and the more placid, calmer, happier second half.

East Coast Road, a few blocks inland, would always be famous for laksa. Sometimes I would just take long lunch breaks and take the bus out there for some random place to makan. So even though I was no longer the last guy in the pecking order, maybe I still wasn't fully with it. But those were fun times. The most vivid memories for me in the eastern part of the island, though, are recounted in this old article.

Then there was the first and most probably last marathon I'll ever do. I remember the route led me up and down the beach. This time, though, the zero milestone at Tanjong Rhu would have less happy memories for me. It was where I started cramping up, and then there were 3 excruciating hours limping around in circles near Kallang before being put out of my misery in front of the Padang, which, suitably, was where the Japanese signed the surrender documents.

I won't always have reasons to go back to that beach. It's probably having a midlife crisis of its own, just like me. It used to be really empty at times, but I don't think it is any longer. It will always be too crowded to do anything. The hawker center there is still fabulous. But there are homeless people there, and a cluster of tents. I've never lived in the chalets there but I heard they're disintegrating.

Perhaps I should pay that place a visit on my next trip back to Singapore.


Saturday, May 07, 2016

Lee Wei Ling

There is something curious and fairly unexpected that happened since I last blogged about our prime minister. I said that he wasn’t a man of the people, and in some ways, I still stand by that. But there was something more to it than that. Rather to my surprise, Lee Hsien Loong has turned out to be a digital native. He is a native of Silicon Valley. We all know that if he weren’t a prime minister / cabinet minister, he would be a mathematics or computer science professor. It is something that you would not find that surprising in hindsight, but it wasn’t that apparent from his first few years as a Prime Minister, and something that only really happened after 2011.

I don’t follow the news that much, but I’ve been noticing the little things that he did, taking pictures of places that he likes in Singapore and sharing them on social media. Either he’s hired a good media consultant, or he has mastered social media.

I didn’t think that this change was possible, because for the longest time, he had been prime minister and showed no signs that he was finally coming into his own. (from 2004 to 2011 it was 7 years.) All this time, he had continued policies from Goh Chok Tong’s time that were already known to be very unpopular – widening the gap between the rich and the poor, allowing property prices in Singapore to shoot sky high, and opening the floodgates to foreigners in our already very crowded city. But somehow, he managed to make Singapore look like a place where a lot of interesting things were going on (even though nobody can really afford to live there.)

But against my expectations, he had managed to make himself look like some kind of a regular dude, although it’s not really much of a surprise that he’s still pretty awkward around people. But now you see portraits of him going about his daily business. This is your prime minister taking pictures of things he likes about our beloved Singapore. This is your prime minister lining up for hawker food. (No more gaffes like Mee Siam Mai Hum). This is your prime minister patting people on the back for doing well at a sports event.

And against my expectations, he managed to win over the digerati. You know, they’re naturally like a bunch of very rebellious teenagers, and they have a natural suspicion of government and power. But if you can demonstrate that you are one of them, then suddenly things become very different. He’s even on first name basis with some of the guys from SMRT feedback. Suddenly, he’s giving a lot of help to people who want to make Singapore into some kind of a tech hub, and he gets a lot of kudos for that.

You see, the prime minister of Singapore is a really special job, because the mayor and a head of state are two different jobs. The head of state is a little like a king who rules you from the capital, which may or may not be far away. He has some distance between you and the commoner. Even the governor of the province is usually to be found in the capitol. The mayor, on the other hand, has the common touch. He’s one of the folks in your city, and he’s got every opportunity to be very close to the people. He’s like some kind of a school principal. He gets his hands dirty with the city projects, and he gets to forge a closer and longer term relationship with the people. If you think that it’s weird that two Lees have ruled Singapore for a combined total of 43 years (assuming that the meat in the Lee sandwich, Goh Chok Tong, was really his own guy. Maybe he was, but not entirely). Think about Chicago who had the two Daleys ruling it for 40+ years also. Suddenly the two Lees doesn’t seem so weird after all.

There was something really curious about the relationship between Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Wei Ling. After the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the “children of Lee Kuan Yew” jointly declared that they wanted to take charge of how LKY was going to be commemorated.

I wasn’t that sympathetic to the idea of 38 Oxley Road being demolished as per Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes, but I think I understand that maybe the two siblings of Lee Hsien Loong are not that keen to see their father’s death commemorated more than once, whereas Lee Hsien Loong realizes the propaganda value, much like Stalin understood how important Lenin was as a symbol of the Soviet regime.

That said, even though I understood where Lee Wei Ling was coming from when she wasn’t happy about her father’s dead body being trotted out every single year, it was a little alarming how she chose to express this sentiment. There is something a little unhinged about it all. She actually compared this to North Korea. Well, I don’t know what aspect of North Korea she wanted to highlight. If she just didn’t like the idea of the North Korean “eternal President / Great Leader”, that’s fine. But if she’s saying something about her brother shouldn’t be the prime minister, that’s something that would raise a few eyebrows.

I’ve always thought that Lee Wei Ling takes after LKY, whereas Lee Hsien Loong looks a bit more like Kwa Geok Choo. Unfortunately, Lee Wei Ling has inherited her father’s propensity for picking fights with people, sometimes to an extent that is somewhat unnecessary. When you view things in this light, it makes sense. Usually people regard LKY’s legacy in Singapore as being positive, but a few of the things he did were incredibly mean spirited and petty to the extent that we’re wondering how and why he should be considered a national hero. LKY is not villainous like Stalin or Hitler. But a few of the things that he was infamous for, for fixing political opponents long after it was necessary to fix them, of not trusting the process of democracy any more than maintaining a token semblance of it, seemed quite petty.

Now that I think about it, quite a few of the accusations of LKY being a dictator arose from petty squabbles – with the “Marxist Conspiracy”, with Devan Nair, with JBJ, with Francis Seow. It wasn’t that Operation Spectrum was a worse abuse of human rights than Operation Coldstore – it wasn’t. But what really stood out was how unnecessary it was. Cracking down on communists the way he did in the 60s was possibly a necessary thing to do – we’ll never have a definitive answer. In the 70s, it had the whiff of flogging of a dead horse. In the 80s, you had the Marxists who weren’t Marxists. Basically the best explanation of what it was all about was that they looked at what happened to Marcos in 1986, and just wanted to crush anything that smacked of that. When you see it in this light, maybe it isn't so much that LKY was a despot who ruled with an iron fist, but rather he has a pretty unfortunate habit of picking fights with people he shouldn't have picked.

It seemed as though he were a participant in a long-standing argument which had been going on forever, nursing an ancient grudge and he didn’t want to back down for anything. And it’s pretty unfortunate because some people think that overshadows all the good that he does for Singapore. (It doesn’t, but still…)

So I sometimes wonder how much of what Lee Wei Ling is doing is similar to that. Yes, you don’t really want LKY to be deified. But the social media postings, the mudslinging with the Straits Times editors. It just looks bad.

What is LHL going to do about this? It does seem that he’s set up his premiership so that a lot of it runs itself, and he mainly tries to make the really important, exceptional and non-trivial decisions. And it does seem like he can basically disregard his pesky little sister. But what becomes of all this? No point trying to fix the opposition if you can’t even fix your sister, mate. Maybe you should do a Dhanabalan on her.