AT DAWN yesterday, 25-year-old Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van was hanged, despite weeks of protests and pressure from Australian politicians and media commentators, demanding his life be spared.
No doubt, many Australians will be dismayed at Singapore’s decision to proceed with the hanging. There will be much sympathy for his distraught mother, and lamenting at the piteous loss of a wasted life.
Singaporeans, I believe, will share this sadness. No one relishes the thought of sending a young man to his death.
Yet, those who are quick to hit out at Singaporeans, and their leaders, for their supposedly "barbaric", "inhumane" and "callous" behaviour, would be better off directing their anger at the real villains in this saga — the drug traffickers and barons who seek to profit from this heinous trade, at the expense of thousands of innocent lives.
Many Australians, it appears, share this view, despite all the bluster over the case whipped up by some Down Under.
A major survey published on Thursday by the respected polling agency Roy Morgan International made this plain.
Its nationwide poll of 654 Australians, conducted on Wednesday, found that 47 per cent thought Nguyen should face the death penalty, against 46 per cent who disagreed. The rest were undecided.
Significantly, the poll found that only 27 per cent of Australians agreed that those convicted of murder should be given the death penalty, a 26 percentage point drop from a decade ago.
Yet, despite this strong swing against the death penalty, nearly six in 10 — 57 per cent — said that Australians convicted abroad for capital offences should face the penalty. only 36 per cent thought otherwise.
Interestingly, even among supporters of the Australian Labor Party, whose leaders have led the charge in hitting out at Singapore over the Nguyen case, 56 per cent felt the sentence should be carried out, while 38 per cent opposed it.
Clearly, many Australians feel strongly about capital punishment and do not want it in their country.
But contrary to the picture painted by some media groups, of overwhelming opposition to Singapore’s stance, there seems to be a sizeable majority which is also strongly against drug traffickers, and accept the need to respect Singapore’s touch approach to dealing with them.
This should not come as a great surprise to anyone. After all, the death penalty is no recent Singaporean innovation. It has been on our statute books for three decades. The stiff penalties are well known and well publicised.
Some 75 countries also have it on their books, including many states in America, where the 1000th death row case since the penalty was reinstated in 1976 was dealt with yesterday.
Besides, as an Australian, Mr John Fletcher, argued in a letter to this newspaper, "those who are most critical of the Singapore authorities in the Nguyen case are silent when it comes to Amrozi", who is on death row in Indonesia for his role in the Bali bombing which killed many Australians.
In this case of double standards — death for Amrozi because he killed Australians, leniency for Nguyen because he is Australian, as Mr Fletcher pointed out? Why is the death penalty "barbaric" in one case, but not the other?
No government could afford to run such a system in Singapore, or anywhere else for that matter. Not to have carried out the death penalty in this case, when it has been applied to dozens of cases involving Singaporeans in the past, would have been simply untenable.
It would have been tantamount to repealing capital punishement, and under duress at that. Every future capital case would cite this precedent.
Sure, Singaporeans can have a legitimate debate about capital pinishment, if and when it should be applied, whether it should be mandatory for some crimes, and if so, which.
But these are not debates to be conducted after a man’s conviction.
To my mind, the issue in the Nguyen case was thus not so much the death penalty as the rule of law. His case was heard in the courts. He admitted his crime and was found guilty. His appeals for clemency were heard and turned down after due consideration. In the face of this, like it or not, the law had to be upheld.
Australians, who champion the rule of law around the world, can hardly quarrell with this. Indeed, as the Morgan poll makes clear, many do not.
So what explains the fervent campaign by some media players and politicians to vilify Singapore, and paint its people and leaders as being "barbaric and inhumane"?
How is it they were quick to trot out the old stereotypes of Singapore being an authoritarian, repressive, Orwellian state, where people live in fear and the media is cowered into submission?
These charges were ironic, to say the least. They were made even as dozens of Australian journalists descended on Singapore this week to cover the run-up to the hanging.
these reporters roamed freely around the island, speaking to people in the streets, interviewing academics and commentators, and even tracking down the supposed hangman. Some also came to the Straits Times newroom to interview my colleagues and me.
Their reports, many of which were hardly complimentary to Singapore, were freely available on the Internet, or in copies of Australian newspapers which could be bought from downtown bookstores.
To my mind, underlying the revulsion some Australian media players and politicians sought to whip up against Singapore was the idea that its actions were out of line with Australian values and sentiments.
Perhaps it came as a shock to find that the two countries, which seemed to share so many common interests and similarities in their regional outlook, might yet to be so different in their attitudes towards something as emotive as capital punishment.
Herein lies a critical point: It is misguided for Australians to assume because Singapore is more "developed" than its neighbours, it should increasingly become "more like us".
That is an unfortunate conceit, which fails to recognise the deep-seated differences in the two countries’ histories, cultures and social make-ups.
Thankfully, the Morgan poll makes clear that many more Australians appreciate and accept this than its media would have us believe.
This mature and realistic approach among the Australian people and its present government in recognising the world’s diversity offers some hope that the recent episode might not have "lingering repercussions" for Singapore-Australia ties, as some have warned.
It would be a pity if it did. Singapore is Australia’s largest trading partner in Asean, and its eighth largest trading partner in the world. Many Singaporeans travel to Australia for business, leisure and education. They will be forced to go elsewhere if they are made to feel unwelcome. Both sides will lose.
Indeed, if any good is to come out from this unhappy episode, it might be the message that should go out to Australia’s — and Singapore’s — youth. As Prime Minister John Howard put it yesterday: Don’t do drugs, don’t use it, and don’t expect to get away with it if you do.
A sober sense of perspective is needed on the Nguyen case. Yes, we should spare a thought for his family as they grieve today. But remember, Singaporeans did not ask for the trouble this case has brought on them.
It was Nguyen and his drug masters who knowingly stood ready to blight thousands of lives with the 26,000 doses of heroin they sought to bring to Australia’s schools and streets. They are the real villains in this sorry saga.
~ by Warren Fernandez, foreign editor of The Straits Times, December 3, 2005