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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.


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