The ancient Code of Hammurabi and the biblical book of Exodus—both of which advocated the legal principle of “an eye for an eye”—seem almost enlightened and compassionate when laid next to the laws of some modern nations. This morning, news came from Singapore that 25-year-old Nguyen Tuong Van had been hanged for trafficking in heroin. This Australian citizen had been convicted of drug trafficking after being caught with two packages of heroin, which he was reportedly carrying as a “mule” for a drug syndicate to which his twin brother was hopelessly indebted. While I cannot condone Nguyen’s actions, neither can I accept that his was a capital offence. Indeed, the compassion that Nguyen showed for his brother’s plight stands in sharp contrast to the complete absence of mercy shown by Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and his indifferent cabinet.
I believe that state-sanctioned murder is never justified. Violence begets violence. But even most supporters of capital punishment would surely concede that, in this case, the punishment was utterly disproportionate to the crime. Even among those with a more rigid view of law and order, a compassionate person might yet have been moved to show mercy in this case.
In recent weeks, pleas for clemency had flowed in from around the world. Too often I have remained silent on the eve of an execution but this time I found myself moved by the plight of Nguyen. Like countless others, I wrote to the prime minister of Singapore and other senior government leaders to ask that Nguyen’s death sentence be commuted. The response to that plea was received this morning.
Singapore is governed by a calculating and heartless oligarchy masquerading as a modern city state. Proportionate to its size, Singapore executes more people than any other country on the face of the earth! And most of those executed have been convicted of drug offences, not the kind of violent crimes that most advocates of the death penalty have in mind when they try to make their specious case for medieval forms of punishment.
While Prime Minister John Howard of Australia hosted a cricket match and German chancellor Angela Merkel entertained the prime minister of Singapore in Berlin, the trap door swung open ending young Nguyen’s life. I can somehow picture these three leaders sipping on Singapore Slings, callously indifferent to the grotesque miscarriage of justice at Changi prison. Like too many leaders of the world’s democratic nations, Howard and Merkel seem more concerned about business than human rights—and Lee Hsien Loong is no doubt happy to know that an execution or two won’t adversely affect Singapore’s ability to do business. While making his own pleas on Nguyen’s behalf, Prime Minister Howard was quick to suggest that the matter wouldn’t be allowed to impact trade, investment and military relations between Australia and Singapore. Talk about a mixed message!
People need to understand that when they purchase products originating in Singapore, travel there on vacation, or even fly on its national airline, they are supporting the very regime that perpetuates this brutality. There is no real difference between “Singapore, Inc.” and the Republic of Singapore. Those of us who every day enjoy the privilege of living in free nations, where the laws are mostly just, even if they are at times imperfect, have no business sustaining the economies of tyrannical states around the globe. If the leaders of the world’s democratic nations will not link trade agreements with human rights, then the world’s consumers must take matters into their own hands by boycotting goods and services emanating from the those rogue states. Singapore Inc. would be a good place to start.
But the response of civilized people cannot end there. Showing that he really doesn’t understand how the actions of his own government contributed to the execution of Nguyen, the prime minister of Australia turned the whole affair into a trite morality play when he intoned, “I hope the strongest message that comes out of this ... is a message to the young of Australia—don't have anything to do with drugs, don't use them, don't touch them, don't carry them, don't traffic in them.” While I share the prime minister’s sentiments about drug use, he completely missed the point. The real message that comes out of this sordid affair is that it’s time for the leaders of the world’s democracies to start putting human rights ahead of trade agreements.