Is compassion possible in Singapore’s death row?

Is compassion possible in Singapore’s death row?
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They are that small group of people whom few would bother with, except their families, lawyers and activists. And so, their welfare is perhaps not something which is viewed as a terribly important thing, especially when they are convicted death row inmates.

Be that as it may, there is still a case to be made for their families, and how their sufferings can be alleviated even as they struggle through the very painful eventuality of seeing their loved ones hanged for crimes deemed too egregious by the state for any pardon.

Under Singapore’s capital punishment rules, families get very little time with their loved ones once the ultimate sentence has been passed and the condemned person is scheduled to hang.

That very short period of a mere few days for the families to meet with the inmate before his life is extinguished can be traumatic.

In Parliament on 6 February, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), Kok Heng Leun, raised this matter with the Minister of Home Affairs (MHA).

Mr Kok asked “whether families of death row inmates can be provided with at least three weeks’ notice before the sentence is carried out to allow them sufficient time to come to terms with the sentence and make necessary arrangements.”

Mr Kok also asked what processes are in place to help such families deal with the trauma of the loss of their loved ones; and whether family members of death row inmates can be allowed to have physical contact during the last few visits after the date of execution has been set.

Under current practice, an inmate is informed of his date of hanging on a Monday, and the execution itself is usually carried out in the early morning on the Friday of the same week. This means the families would have little time to pay their last visits, and make preparations, and this is especially so if the families are not resident here and would have to travel to Singapore.

“The reason for asking for a longer notice period is to give the families sufficient time to make the necessary preparations, as well as for the grief process,” Mr Kok said. “At the moment, they will be informed on Monday, and usually Tuesdays to Thursdays are when the extended visits are allowed. So, I am asking whether it could be extended a bit more so that they would have more time to deal with that process.”

Also under current rules, families are not allowed to have physical contact with the condemned inmate, unless special permission is given by the authorities.

“In fact, the Government has made an exception once to permit one death row inmate’s mother physical contact to hold the hands of her son,” Mr Kok said. “So, would the Ministry consider granting this possibility during the last visits, if the family members and the death row inmates so desire?”

In his reply, the Senior Minister of State for MHA, Desmond Lee, said:“[Between] conviction and the actual carrying out of the sentence, there is a certain duration of time. Throughout that duration, families and next-of-kin are given opportunities to communicate and to visit the inmates.”

On the question of whether physical contact will be allowed, Mr Lee said “the practice has been no, because of operational security and the safety of visitors.”

“But we will always assess requests from families and next-of-kin as they are provided.”

However, as Mr Kok said, there has so far only been one occasion where physical contact has been allowed between an inmate on death row and his family.

The special privilege was granted to Australian drug courier, Nguyen Tuong Van, in December 2005.

The green light was only given a day before the hanging, and after the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, himself made a personal appeal to Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. Lawyers and activists had also campaigned for the families to have such access.

In a statement then, the Singapore government said it would allow only limited physical contact between Nguyen and his mother and his twin brother.

The Singapore statement explained why it is its policy to disallow such physical contacts.

“Such encounters can be traumatic and are likely to destabilise the prisoners and their family members,” it said.

In his parliamentary reply, Mr Lee reiterated the authorities’ reason for denying physical contact – the safety and security of inmates and their families.

“Physical contact has not been allowed for reasons connected with safety,” Mr Lee said.

Such meetings would indeed be very emotional ones, and it would be unrealistic to expect them to be otherwise. There is nothing more traumatic than knowing that you will be deliberately put to death at a known time and date; and for the family to know the same.

At the same time, however, spending more time and being able to have physical contact can also be consoling, healing and even necessary.

“The families I have worked with have told me how important these opportunities for physical contact are in helping them through a traumatic situation, and I urge the authorities to consider allowing some physical contact during visits,” said Ms Kirsten Han in a letter to the TODAY newspaper on 20 February. Ms Han is a founding member of We Believe in Second Chances, which campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty in Singapore.

She also calls for more time between the notice of execution and the actual carrying out of the order.

“Within this period, the family must visit and comfort the inmate, make funeral arrangements, buy clothing for the inmate’s pre-execution photo session and deal with the psychological turmoil of a loved one’s imminent death,” Ms Han explains.

At the end of the day, there are worthy considerations to be made – the safety and security of a prison setting, where an emotional or traumatic situation can, for example, give rise to a hostage situation if physical contact is allowed; and the compassion which a society such as ours must show.

Indeed, this was the very word Law Minister K Shanmugam used in Parliament in 2012 when debating on the changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) then.

The changes eventually saw the courts being given greater discretion in deciding to impose the mandatory death penalty.

“We want to show mercy and compassion to the traffickers,” Mr Shanmugam said.

“But we also need to show mercy and compassion to the Noinois, and the Roses, and the Nellies, and the Rickys in this world, and thousands of others like them,” he added, referring to the victims of drugs.

He ended his speech with:

“I would suggest: ask whether the changes we make, are they going to help the victims, or are they going to hurt the victims. Approach the question with firmness, clarity of purpose, and compassion, to both offenders as well as the victims.”

Often, we view the victims as being only the addicts who buy the drugs trafficked by the condemned inmates. We fail to recognise that their families – the children, wives, mothers of these traffickers –  are no less victims and suffer from the misdeeds of their loved ones.

This is not to excuse the actions of the traffickers or couriers. It is, however, to seek a balance between the brutal condemnation to death of a human being, and those who are most intimately affected by it, a trauma which often last an entire lifetime.

If we are serious about showing compassion to the innocent who are inadvertently affected, there is no better place to start than to help them heal. And we can start by letting them have more time to say their goodbyes, and allow them some physical contact for solace, before they part ways forever.

The condemned person will meet the brutal end. Let not his family go through the same, or worse.