Interview with the Author: Alan Shadrake

Alan Shadrake is a British journalist, and author of ‘Once a Jolly Hangman’ -an investigative book on Singapore’s judicial system and enforcement of the death penalty. We had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Shadrake and have heard in-depth of his experiences in a Singaporean jail, and raises key questions about the future of Singapore’s judicial system.

My interest in the death penalty began in the UK in the late 1950s when investigative journalists discovered several innocent men and a woman had been executed in error or through social prejudice. Their investigations helped bring about absolute abolition in 1965. In 1962, as a staff reporter with the Daily Express newspaper, I tried to interview Britain’s last hangman Harry Allen. He refused to talk for fear of breaking the Official Secrets Act. During my career I travelled the world and arrived in Singapore in 2003 with plans to cover South East Asia for several newspapers and magazines in Australia and the UK.

I soon found myself covering two interesting death penalty cases – the first a double murder committed by an English businessman who fled to Australia. Because of their laws, the Australian authorities refused to extradite him until Singapore promised not to execute him if found guilty. He was eventually tried and jailed for 24 years for involuntary manslaughter. The second case concerned an Australian citizen of Vietnamese ancestry who was sentenced to death in Singapore for attempting to smuggle 4kg of heroin from Cambodia to Australia. He was arrested at Changi Airport as he tried to board a connecting flight to Melbourne. Despite worldwide protests, the Australian conservative government were weak in their attempts to save this young man from the gallows. I thought this grossly unfair and considered another strong argument to abolish the death penalty anywhere it is practised. I followed both cases and got to know Singapore’s small band of human rights activists, notably lawyer M. Ravi and Alex Au who writes a very critical blog Yawning Bread.

The imminent execution of the Vietnamese trafficker prompted me to try to interview Singapore Chief Executioner who reportedly hanged around 1,000 men and women in his 48 year career. This time I was successful. Darshan Singh was enthusiastic as he considered his role pivotal in keeping Singapore relatively crime-free. My interview was published in The Australian – that country’s largest daily – and it went around the world. The Singapore government was angry with Singh but did nothing more than give him a ticking off. They said nothing to me and I continued meeting Singh for further interviews. After gaining his confidence he agreed to my writing his memoirs.

However, when I began delving into old and new cases which revealed instances of bad justice where vulnerable young men and women were lured into trafficking by sophisticated people often working with the police as informants, I realised this could not be his book. I also unearthed cases where several top-level foreign drug barons in Singapore were treated leniently or allowed to escape to their own countries. I found this extremely shocking which provided more evidence that the death penalty is inherently unjust.

By then I had obtained research material from Margaret John of Amnesty International which supported my investigations. I could not devote all my time to researching and writing my book because I had to make a living working with publications in Australia and the UK. So this was an on-off enterprise with no end in sight. I tried to interest some publishers in Australia and the UK without success. Some of the hurdles I came across concerned potential informants who changed their minds about talking to me. Some would reveal some interesting facts or make interesting comments but later denied saying such things when I returned to deal with loose ends. Most refused to be named anyway.

The first shocking case that spurred me to continue with this quest was the case of Florence Contemplacion, a Filipina maid, who was hanged for the murder of her best friend and a small boy in her. Florence was forced to work 18 hours a day without a proper break or holiday for three years. She finally went out of her mind and even the police said she had ‘cracked’ under the strain. This case is fully explained in the chapter Dead Woman Walking. The sad thing was that her own embassy ignored her plight as she languished on death row for three years. When the media in Manila finally woke up there was a huge worldwide outcry against Singapore – described by one journalist as a ‘nation with ice in its veins.’ Even pleas by The Pope were ignored. But the backlash resulted in a major downturn in trade between the two countries which last three years and cost Singapore billions of dollars. This prompted several observers to predict that Singapore would never hang another maid again. This prediction has turned out to be true so far despite having at least seven opportunities since 1995. Five of these are dealt with in two chapters that follow Dead Woman Walking. This also proved my thesis that finance and trade is more important to Singapore than a little local difficulty like hanging someone! Further proof of this is explained in the chapters The Odd Couple and the High Society Cocaine Circle.

Shortly before my book was completed I moved from Singapore to Penang in August 2009, I needed a change of environment. By coincidence, a publisher in Kuala Lumpur, heard about my book through Margaret John. It was published in April 2010 and the Malaysia edition was launched in June. Naturally news of my very serious allegations putting Singapore Justice in the Dock (the sub-title) soon reached the authorities in the Lion City. However, Once a Jolly Hangman was already in bookstores in Singapore and was slowly making an impact – although a quiet one. But it wasn’t until newspaper reports in Malaysia rang an alarm bells in the corridors of power.

My publisher and others were unaware of this and as the book was in Singapore bookstores we decided there would be no danger in having a long planned Singapore launch. This was also sponsored by Amnesty International. Quite a large crowd turned up. They included a few opposing politicians and human rights activists, several embassy officials – British, Australian and Canadian. It was regarded as a great success but we were unaware that among the guests were plain clothes police officers holding tape recorders and taking photographs. Afterward we went to a nearby restaurant for a late night supper. I went with a lady friend to a karaoke bar and stayed until 2.30am. Unknown to us again, two plain clothes officers followed us there and even invited me to play pool with them. I discovered who they really were later. My friend went directly home in a taxi and I returned to my hotel. I was asleep by 3am. At 6.30am I was awakened by loud banging on the door and shouts to open up. Then I was hustled down a side entrance to a waiting car in an alley. Minutes later, I was being ‘processed’ somewhere inside the police cantonment in Chinatown. All my possessions were removed and photographed. I was told I was being charged with ‘illegal communication’, ‘scandalising the judiciary’ and criminal defamation’. Together I was told I could receive jail sentences totalling 3.5 years. I was then put in a police cell for a few hours, given chicken rice late breakfast and taken to an interrogation room.

A senior investigation named Kelvin Kwek sat opposite me holding a copy of my book. Turning to several pages he would ask why I wrote certain statements. I told him to read the book because the reasons I wrote the one or two paragraph statements were explained in the following paragraphs. ‘I want you to explain it,’ he would say. ‘I just want to get to know you.’ This kind of nonsense went on for hours – up to ten hours a day for five days until I was completely exhausted. It seems they wanted to know the names of the various lawyers and retired police officers from the Central Narcotics Bureau who had provided me with confidential information. Of course, I refused and made up false names to stop the incessant questioning. It was becoming very boring.

After a long trial and appeal which began on July 30 2010 and ended in May 2011, I was found me guilty of 9 of the 14 charges. I do not feel I received a fair trial. The Singapore Judiciary is very much under the thumb of the People’s Action Party’s 50 year dictatorship in all political matters. When the International Bar Association published a report on Singapore in 2008 the government denied all their allegations – but did not sue for defamation or scandalising the judiciary. They would be able to do this but because they do not ‘own’ the judges in any other country this would be a foolish move to make.

Why am I continuing to investigate their system? I don’t believe there is serious risk to me now. And I certainly would not consider curling up into a ball, hide and stop doing what I think I should do. I am not trying to be a hero and when I think of all those people who have been unnecessarily hanged in Singapore because of its flawed justice I get very angry.

It seems that my book and the resulting uproar from around the world it caused – plus the Singapore’s growing band of activists – has resulted in a minor change in the MANDATORY death penalty. The change now gives judges in certain cases more discretion in murder and drug trafficking cases. But there are still serious weaknesses here. Once of the conditions in a drug case, for example, is if the accused has assisted the police in their investigations. This now shifts the power to a police officer. It will be up to him to reveal where he obtains certain information. There is room for corruption here. I came across several cases where the defence has appealed for leniency claiming their client provided useful information. The police response was always that ‘we knew all that anyway.’

There is still far too much room for improvement than simply giving the judges more discretion. This is like playing with putty. Total abolition is the answer. Then there would be no need for international wheeling and dealing and rich and poor would be treated equally. It is far too easy to execute an innocent person or someone who does not deserve to be hanged. I’ve always been keen to expose unfair or illegal practices by people in power. So when I have got a ‘bee in my bonnet’ I never give up until I have proved or disproved whatever it is that’s bothering me. I have been told that once I get my teeth into a story I’m like ‘a fierce dog with a bone.’

The two people I would particularly like to thank are Margaret John, of Amnesty International, and my Malaysia publisher Mr. Tong Chong Sin. After the worldwide outcry over my arrest, trial and imprisonment the other charges ‘illegal communication’ (I believe for inducing Darshan Singh to break the Official Secrets Act) and ‘criminal defamation’ were dropped. I was notified of this in writing while I was serving the two months’ sentence. The reason, according to the letter, was that it was considered unnecessary, that the charges were already dealt with under the ‘scandalising the judiciary’ trial. But the real, of course, was because Singapore took a big hit in prosecuting me and made to look rather ridiculous. The British government protested my arrest and a Foreign Office minister in London told his counterpart in Singapore that he was ‘dismayed’ at my being sent to jail. My case was also mentioned in the House of Lords during a debate on the death penalty in the British Commonwealth of which Singapore, as a former colony, is a member. By then, Singapore was thoroughly sick of me and wanted to get rid of me as soon as possible. While I was in prison protests continued everywhere. Many activists held candlelight vigils outside Changi Prison and had to be constantly moved on. This drew even more attention to the issues we were all campaigning for.

Almost every chapter in my book contains shocking cases and one in particular concerns the Nigerian soccer hopeful who was tricked into taking heroin into the transit lounge at Changi Airport to pass on to another man. The chapter Don’t Let Them Kill Me deals with this in full. What I found most shocking was that there was no evidence this 18-year-old kid knew what he was doing. Even the judge said so – then sentenced him to death. At the same time, a German woman, Julia Bohl, who had been running a big time drug party circle for years received a 5 year sentence, served three for good behaviour and is now enjoying her life back in Europe. One of the many charges against her carried the death penalty. All the charges except one were dropped. This lenient treatment – a slap on the wrist compared to what happens to the less fortunate – was arranged by the German Government and Singapore authorities. For saying all this constituted my ‘scandalising the judiciary’.

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