Thursday, November 24, 2005

Death in the Lion City

Update 26/11/05

With less than a week to Nguyen's execution, the pro-deathers now have their own blog, HangVan. Strangely enough, it uses the same template as the Singapore anti-death penalty campaign blog, Changi-Gallow, which was set up a month ago in response to Nguyen's case.

"If coincidences are just coincidences, why do they feel so contrived?"

With exams over, I once more have time for the important things in life, like blogging. And seeing my brother off to Japan, where he's language-cramming till February. You never know who you'll meet at the airport; on the way out I ran into our local Attorney-General Rob Hulls, on his way to Singapore to make a last appeal in the case of Nguyen Tuong Van.

For those who don't live in Australia (or do, but under a rock), Nguyen is the young Melburnian who hangs in Changi prison for heroin trafficking in a week's time. When the media picked up his case a few months back, I didn't expect a rerun of the Schappelle Corby affair. Nguyen was unambiguously a drug mule, not to mention Vietnamese and male. I remember remarking to a friend on the comparative lack of clamour over Nguyen's plight, and speculating that Australian perceptions of Singapore as a 'first world' nation and of Indonesia as a 'third world' one were reflected in the credibility given their respective legal systems.

"Our Schapelle?" "Our Van?"

As if to prove me wrong, those first trickles of publicity have turned into a flood. For weeks now the Australian media has editorialised from right and left against the mandatory death penalty's barbarity, the more so when applied by a 'developed' country. The shadow foreign minister said on national television that Singapore has treated Australia with contempt over this matter, which is direct as diplomats get. Even the normally unflappable PM was visibly angry upon learning of Nguyen's execution date from Lasry rather than Lee Hsien Loong, with whom Howard had just appealed for clemency in one-on-one talks in Busan. Newspaper letter pages and the blogosphere have resounded with boycott threats against SIA and Optus (owned by Singtel). Less choleric but equally public has been the tracing hands campaign mobilised by Nguyen's supporters, whose cutout paper hands blanketed the lawns outside the State Library last Friday.

The response from Singaporean columnists and bloggers has been less widespread, though what's out there is aggressive enough, wheeling out the old carts of Western cultural imperialism and racism. Certainly much of the Australian public comment has been turning ugly, with eminents like Gough Whitlam now railing against that "Chinese rogue port city." Even the Nguyen campaign blog has appealed against the "belligerent, jingoistic tone that local press coverage and letters have taken in the past few days," as this is hardly likely to change powerful minds in Singapore where a bipartisan resolution of the Australian parliament failed. If the fatal date hadn't already been set it might even lead to a fasttracking of the execution, as happened with the Barlow and Chambers case in Malaysia two decades ago. When the discourse is studded with words like 'barbaric' and 'primitive', it constantly runs the risk of slipping across that hazy boundary into denigration of the brown man and his law.

But much of the Singaporean comment has also been knee-jerk nationalism: "our country, our right to kill him," with little debate on the merits of a mandatory death sentence for trafficking a few hundred grams of narcotics. What argument there is tends to feature mantra-like recitation of the 26,000 heroin shots Nguyen was carrying (which clearly equals 26,000 innocent deaths) and uncritical defence of the death penalty's efficacy as a deterrant, without examining whether this is borne out in practice. The flipside of this general failure to question government policy is the turning of media heat on dissenters like opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, who's voiced his opinions in the Australian media after the local press failed to carry them. Nor is there much talk of Singapore's financial links with narcostate Burma, which include direct investment in Southeast Asia's most notorious heroin lord, and the ethical implications for a policy of executing one-off couriers like Nguyen.

Lo Hsing Han, Sino-Burmese drug baron and beneficiary of Singapore's public largesse

Nguyen's case has become a platform for the parlous state of political discourse and civil society in Singapore. Not only is it a veritable running column at Singabloodypore and other internal critics of the Lion City, it has galvanised the local anti-death penalty movement (which now has its own blog) and has been taken up by the NGO-based Asian Human Rights Commission. There is growing international consensus, including several decisions of the Privy Council (Singapore's final court of appeal until 1994), that the death penalty constitutes "cruel and inhuman punishment" under customary international human rights law. How long Singapore's government can continue to respond that the death penalty is not a human rights issue is anyone's guess, but the trends suggest that its old two-track strategy of refusing to sign treaties like the ICCPR while smothering debate at home may not work much longer for a nation with the 29th highest per capita GDP in the world.

For me, the Van Nguyen affair has turned up several personal dimensions. In high school I gave a laudatory presentation on Singapore's model success story, which in retrospect was a tad naive in some departments. I spent the better part of my last summer holiday in Singapore (much of it at NUS proscrastinating on a research paper). As for Nguyen himself, we share the experience of growing up in a first-generation Asian migrant family in Glen Waverley. My old classmate Bronwyn Lew has been one of the faces of the campaign for Nguyen's life. And then, of course, there was Rob Hulls in the airport on Wednesday. As I left the media scrumming for pictures of Hulls having his luggage weighed, I had to reflect that this world really is just one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.


Dave said...

After researching various sources, I've found that one gram of heroin accounts for 14.13 doses ("hits"). This implies that 396.2 grams would deliver 5598 hits, or 4.6 times less than the 26,000 hits estimated by the Singapore government in the Van Tuong Nguyen trial.

Also, equating one hit with one ruined life is a gross exaggeration. My analysis shows that 5598 hits would supply heroin to approximately 15 addicts, or 67 average users, for one year.

I have attached the results of my findings; I encourage you to perform your own independent research.

Would someone please tell me how adversely affecting the lives of up to 67 people justifies a death sentence?

Dave Jarvis

Estimated Number of Hits per Gram of Heroin


21.43 hits/gram = 300000 hits / 14000 grams

5.26 hits/gram = 2000000 hits / 380000 grams

10.00 hits/gram = 10000 hits / 1000 grams

20.07 hits/gram = 111 hits / 5.53 grams

6.25 hits/gram = 5000 hits / 800 grams

25.51 hits/gram = 2500 hits / 98 grams

5.00 hits/gram = 5000 hits / 1000 grams

19.08 hits/gram = 5 hits / 0.262 grams

16.06 hits/gram = 4000 hits / 249 grams

12.62 hits/gram = 10000 hits / 396.2 grams


Average: 14.13 hits/gram


Estimated usage for 396.2 grams: 14.13 * 396.2 = 5598 hits


Singapore's estimated usage for 396.2 grams: 26000 hits

65.26 hits/gram = 26000 hits / 396.2 grams

Singapore's ruling over-estimates the number of hits by 4.6 times.


Usage: 2.8 hits / day

Regular Habit: 2.5 usages / month = 30 usages / year

Total: 30 * 2.8 = 84 hits / year

Result: 5598 hits supplies 67 average users for one year


Usage: 2.8 hits / day

Addict Habit: 2.5 usages / week = 130 usages / year

Total: 130 * 2.8 = 364 hits / year

Result: 5598 hits supplies 15 addicts for one year


Anonymous said...

Feedback on your blog: I think your blog has too many pictures. You need to change the template as well. Please don't mind, it's just a suggestion.

John Lee said...

Melbourne Uni's resident drug boffin came up with 6-8 addicts for one year

but I think that your general point stands, Dave...

even the infamous 26,000 doses would apparently service only 26 addicts for a year

Anonymous said...

Very well-written and well-thought out blog. Jonathan Fairbank

John Lee said...

thanks :)