Thursday, April 14, 2005

Thoughts on the Death Penalty

So watching the nightly news with Australian woman Schapelle Corby crying and fainting almost everyday in the Indonesian court has been heartwrenching. She's an Aussie tourist who went to Bali only to have the customs officials find 4.1kg of marijuana in her luggage, loosely packed. The death penalty for her is not out of the question. It's not uncommon for the bad guys to put in a loose packet into unsecured or compromised luggage. They can then pick up their stash outside the customs area. The problem is, she may not be able to clear her name even if this actually happened. The other question is, what if she is guilty and the drugs were really hers? Do people who smuggle drugs need to be killed? And do those who kill her need to be killed as well? In Singapore, the same thing goes on. There's an article two days ago on Shanmugam Murugesu who is to be hanged, and his kids are now on the streets distributing leaflets to passers-by, hoping people would help them and their father. The guy's lawyer is working pro bono on this case. More power to the lawyer. My home country is Singapore; a place where probably most people believe that the continual existence of the death penalty is about the only thing that keeps society together. If the death penalty were to be abolished, the country would sink into some sort of lawless swamp. Most people won't even bat an eyelid because this is a way of life, you put people who smuggle drugs to death; it's a given. Now I, on the other hand, feel the complete opposite. I think that the death penalty is one of the most, if not the most, shameful policies that any country can have. It's probably the stupidest thing around too. There's this time I attended one of those short courses conducted by the Uni for students from non-English speaking backgrounds, and this particular one was on presenting arguments in essays. So the instructor tossed out the 'death penalty' question since it's a relatively contentious issue, and everyone was like 'yewl... what government in its right mind would advocate the death penalty?' The death penalty has been abolished in Australia 20 years ago, hence the sentiment. So, I proceeded to apologize to the rest of the class the follies of my country's ways and to beg for their forgiveness. The real question remains: is the death penalty a punishment that's really necessary? It's clearly not. There are two aims for this punishment. The first one is simple: the objective is to remove this person from the rest of society. Locking the guy up in prison forever (rather than killing the person outright) does the exact same thing. The second point is more fuzzy wuzzy. It involves the deterrent effect. Hopefully would-be criminals would think twice about doing something silly if the threat of execution is explicitly on their minds. My problem with this is, again: is there a significant difference between execution as a deterrent, and a lifetime of jail time as a deterrent? I don't think there's a difference, but the most I can go is 'we just don't know.' And if we don't know, why are we adopting the most drastic measure of willful violence against criminals? The punishment of willful termination of life is grossly not commensurate with the severity of the crime. The disparity is so huge, it's hilarious. On the other hand, there is a definite difference between the effects of the death penalty and other forms of punishment. The former involves state-sponsored murder and the removal of a person from the Earth; the latter does not. The death penalty should be the talk of the 17th century, not the 21st. There is an attraction in believing the story of cause and effect relationship between the deterrent effects of the death penalty and low crime. However, I think it's just an attractive myth. A myth in false inference. For example, ask any Singaporean if they think Singapore is a clean place. Sure, they'd say, Singapore is a clean city. Why is that so? Well, because we fine unlucky people $1000 if they litter and are caught. It's a convenient story, and it warms people's hearts. But it's just plain wrong. Singapore is a clean place because the roadsweepers do their jobs diligently, not because people don't litter! This can be easily verified by observing the streets late at night, say, at Orchard Road. It's messy, and that's because the cleaners start working very early the next morning. So a desirable outcome need not necessarily come from the huge deterrent, per se. The outcome can be affected by some other factors. Sure, a huge fine like being executed tends to wake people up. I just think the exact same thing can be achieved without resorting to willful violence, such as locking folks up for a long time. But I'd have to admit, it's not an easy thing to turn away from believing the convenient story. Frankly, I don't see how the situation can be improved. Maybe if in twenty years time a more liberal/progressive government comes into power, some changes in both legislation and attitudes can be made. In the meantime, if I could, I'd apologise to Murugesu, again, for the follies of our country's ways. Optional Reading: Ex-Deputy Public Prosecutor Gilbert Koh has been talking about the same topic these past few days. OK, it's not optional reading. It's a MUST READ. Others covering this include AcidFlask (contains .pdf of appeal letter), Singapore Serf, WannabeLawyer.


Ali said...

This is off-track from your post, but my Dad reckons that Schapelle is guilty. He thinks that she would notice that her surfboard bag is an extra 4kg heavier.

Anyway, I digress.

Singapore does have harsher punishments for everything, but I do think that the streets are safer over there than here in Aust. I mean, if I had to choose, I would prefer to walk alone in the night in Singapore rather than here in Aust.

I attribute the safer streets to the harsher punishments.

jeffyen said...

I agree with the idea that there's a perception that streets are safer, and perhaps it actually is safer. That is achieved with good marketing and a healthy respect for the cops.

But what I'm trying to say is this: are there alternative punishments that we can use to achieve the exact some outcome? Other than killing people for their drug crimes, can we think of other comparable punishment that would have the same deterrent? Life time in jail with no parole, perhaps. That is also a very very harsh sentence, but it doesn't involving killing the guy. Safer streets and an environment that discourages crime can also result from this sorts of alternative punishment.

VIV said...

Yes, as a deterrent for would-be criminals, it's awfully inoriginal and archaic. But i must say there's another reason the death penalty should be cast as a relic of the past: nobody can guarantee that every person they hang is guilty, and that justice is that clearly served 100% of the time. For this reason, as long as there is a chance of ONE innocent person being wrongfully sentenced to death, it is enough reason to abolish the whole exercise altogether.

Infringement of human rights u know, but then again, who has real rights nowadays?