The Null Device

Singapore's hangman

A profile of Singapore's executioner, 73-year-old Darshan Singh, who learned the ropes (literally) in the last days of the British Empire and remains in the job because no-one else will do it:
"He tried to train two would-be hangmen to replace him, a Malaysian and a Chinese, both in the prison service," the colleague said. "But when it came to pulling the lever for the real thing, they both froze and could not do it. The Chinese guy, a prison officer, became so distraught he walked out immediately and resigned from the prison service altogether."
On the day before his execution, Mr Singh will lead him to a set of scales close to his death-row cell to weigh him. Mr Singh will use the Official Table of Drops, published by the British Home Office in 1913, to calculate the correct length of rope for the hanging.
Mr Singh joined the British colonial prison service in the mid-1950s after arriving from Malaysia. When the long-established British hangman Mr Seymour retired, Singh, then 27, volunteered for the job. He was attracted by the bonus payment for executions.
Singh holds a world record for single-handedly hanging the most men in one day — 18, in 1963 — and was an accomplished cricketer in his youth, a skill which has, in the past, translated into caning prisoners. He is now retired, but executes convicted prisoners by special arrangement.

His next client is likely to be convicted Australian drug trafficker Van Tuong Nguyen, assuming the last-minute pleas for clemency don't succeed (which they are rather unlikely to). (Aside: why exactly are Amnesty International devoting their resources to campaigning for clemency for him? Aren't there political prisoners, civil-rights campaigners and such being imprisoned and tortured across the world? Everybody knows that Singapore automatically executes anyone caught in possession of more than a few grammes of heroin. Nguyen was caught several orders of magnitude over the limit; which means that he took the calculated risk of smuggling heroin through Singapore. Surely campaigning for clemency for short-sighted opportunists whose luck happened to run out (not to mention heroin traffickers) is not the best use of Amnesty members' dues.)

There are 7 comments on "Singapore's hangman":

Posted by: toby http:// Tue Nov 8 23:42:54 2005

He was a first time offender smuggling heroin to pay off the loan sharks his drug smuggling brother had become indebted to. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine that he was coerced into this situation.

Amnesty are right to campaign on his behalf, especially as this is the best chance they've got at the moment of convincing the wider community that the death penalty in Singapore is wrong.

Posted by: Peter Wed Nov 9 01:50:56 2005

What toby said.

I too was, like you, wondering whether Amnesty was wasting their time - but Toby is right that it's a good way of publicising the fact that there's a death penalty there, and this *is* a case of pretty full-on extenuating circumstances. Van was stupid, but not nearly as stupid as the Bali kids (sad though I feel for them too, because you could argue some of them were "too stupid"/ignorant to know better)...

Posted by: St Paul http:// Wed Nov 9 02:41:11 2005

Humans executing humans is, in my book, wrong, period. In this case, the guy was involved with drugs - ingested by humans to make themselves feel good. What's the crime there?

Posted by: Michael S. Wed Nov 9 13:12:56 2005

I think that Amnesty International--like Greenpeace, etc.--have never been in the business of "utilitarian" actions. They're not necessarily in the business of producing the most freedom for the most people in the shortest period of time. (For a various reasons, most good.) If they were, they wouldn't be devoting any energy to complaining about Gitmo, etc.

Posted by: acb Wed Nov 9 14:52:21 2005

Because, as we all know, everybody in Guantanamo is unquestionably guilty as sin, right?

Posted by: Michael S. Wed Nov 9 16:03:06 2005

Er no, my point is that in terms of human rights, there are many prisons worse than Gitmo (this is uncontroversial), and quite a few of them are likely to be more vulnerable to the sort of pressure AI can bring to bear than Guantanamo is. But for vaious reasons, AI goes after Guantanamo. (PETA is another organisation with a similar profile/philosophy.)

Posted by: acb Wed Nov 9 16:46:11 2005

Possibly, though I don't think that Amnesty should devote no energy to Guantanamo. For one, if it is soft on Western governments committing human rights abuses, it will open itself up to allegations of partisanship, and lose some of its credibility. A lot of Amnesty's influence undoubtedly comes from the fact that it is not specifically an arm of any one nation or bloc of nations.

Having said that, I think there's a moral difference between going to bat for potential terrorists being mildly tortured by Our Boys and going to bat for drug traffickers whose luck ran out.

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