Van Nguyen died for your sins: Executions as public communication

The Australians were doomed from the start, literally and metaphorically.

They were doomed because they misapprehended the nature of capital punishment for drug offenses in Singapore. They thought of it as retribution, or punishment. This is wrong. Drug-offense executions in Singapore are, first and foremost, public communication. That radically affects how the Singapore government can be expected to respond to noisy pleas for clemency. Mercy is appropriate for punishment, but it is bad for deterrent communication. The louder and more passionate the public please for clemency became, the more inevitable was Van’s execution.

The Singapore government is fairly transparent about its death penalty. Anyone entering the country by airplane is treated to “the lecture”, in the form of a standardized announcement of the stiff penalties for drug offenses, including death. Immigration entry cards carry the same warning. The country publicizes many of its executions via coverage in the local media. The reason why is that, unlike many nations that apply a death penalty, Singapore appears to have given some thought to how to wield it most effectively as a deterrent.

In order to be effective a deterrent needs to be two things. First, it needs to be credible. In other words, people have to believe in the threat. Second, that credibility has to be communicated. A deterrent that no-one knows about or believes in is useless. Your trained rottweiler is a credible burglar deterrent. But you still put a “beware of dog” sign on your gate and scatter shredded dog toys, an enormous dog dish and a cow femur around your yard to drive the point home. That’s the communciation. It lets the thief know the penalty for hopping your fence and saves you the trouble of winnowing pieces of human flesh from between your dog’s teeth before his breath goes foul.

In the US, a death sentence is often an abstraction for those convicted; something sinister that hovers on the horizon, but which is often delayed for a decade or longer by the legal process. In a sense, the death penalty in the US is not credible (“hang ‘em high” Texas possibly excepted). This lack of credibility is aggravated by laws that differ from state to state. Singapore, on the other hand, is very systematic and uniform about meting out the death penalty for drug crimes. It applies strict criteria for when the death penalty applies to drug offenses, and those criteria are openly published. The appeals process is limited and the time from conviction to execution, anecdotally, is generally around a year. That’s immediate enough to make the prospect of death very real and credible indeed.

The Australian protests over Van’s execution yesterday arguably played right into Singapore’s hands on two fronts. It not only let them communicate their penalty globally, which the Singapore government has no qualms about, but it also let them publicly demonstrate the credibility of the deterrent by refusing to entertain pleas of clemency. The message was quite clear and effective: We are willing to execute a citizen of a first-world ally despite repeated, public pleas from his government and tearful mother. So you’d better believe we will damn-sure hang your narrow, friendless Burmese/Thai/Malay/Indonesian/Lao smuggler ass without a second thought.

From the Singaporean government’s point of view, the consistent application of the death penalty is the lynchpin of the credibility that must be communicated. Any visible erosion of that credibility is dangerous. You can think of this a bit like you would think of negotiation with kidnappers or terrorists. You can never be publicly seen to give in as that sends a message to others that they might succeed at the same thing. If you do negotiate, you will do it only in quiet situations where there is little risk of public disclosure. If there was to be any hope for Van at all (and that hope was never more than gossamer), it would have come from sotto voce diplomatic communication out of the public view, accompanied by restrained and dignified public silence. Candlelight vigils make nice photo-ops and public remonstrations generate good copy for Aussie politicians. But they essentially guarantee that the Singapore government will follow-through with the execution, because to do anything else would undermine the entire communication strategy around their deterrent.

Whether Singapore’s death penalty, credible or not, has any actual deterrent effect is, of course, nearly impossible to measure. It’s a truism amongst anti death-penalty campaigners that the deterrent effects of the death penalty are suspect. The fact is that, no matter how stiff the deterrent, Singapore is a strategic trans-shipment location. That is the unintended consequence of making yourself the modern transportation and air hub for one of the world’s most important drug production regions. And in Southeast Asia, and Australia as well, there is obviously a ready supply of people who will risk their lives for a large enough payoff.

Speaking of public communication, after Schapelle Corby and Van Nguyen, the Australians might want to think twice about having a noisy public protest if another one of their own is booked on drug charges in the next few months. Right now they are looking like the whiny kingpins of the Southeast Asian drug trade. Unfair and untrue, but that’s the perception being created.

Another spooky aspect of Singapore’s drug laws that is seldom remarked upon is that Singaporean citizens and (gulp) permanent residents can be prosecuted in Singapore for consumption of drugs overseas, even in places where it is legal or barely criminal. Singapore has, in effect, made its drug consumption laws extra-territorial, ensuring that its social values and legal restrictions apply to citizens and PRs no matter where they may live. Drug consumption spans a pretty wide range of activities, from the manifestly corrosive habits of a heroin junkie to the arguably pretty harmless dormitory spliff. The philosophical questions raised by this are, therefore, interesting ones.

Following the promulgation of that law, in 1998, in another classic piece of Singapore drug-enforcement public communication, a couple returning from a rave in Malaysia a few years ago was famously arrested at the causeway and convicted for smoking marijuana. They were reportedly, and not very credibly, rumbled by sharp border guards who spotted their reddened “addicts eyes”. My Singaporean friends theorized that it was more likely informers planted at the rave who had ratted the couple out. Many Singaporeans I know take it for granted that informers are also cultivated amongst Singaporean student communities overseas. After all, if too many defenseless Singaporeans caught the bong habit in the dorm rooms of libertine Perth, London or Los Angeles, who knows what that might lead to. Reggae, perhaps.

Disclosure: Imagethief opposes the death penalty in all applications. It is, I believe, a worthless deterrerent, prone to error and more often applied as a tool for satisfying an unworthy social lust for vengeance rather than as a gravely considered sanction of last-resort. In a societies that claim the mantle of modern civilization it is hypocrisy of the deepest level and there should be no place for it.

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