“I take off my hat to the pragmatic ability of our government but there is no soul in our conduct,” said David Marshall in an interview in 1994.
Marshall was, of course, the first Chief Minister of Singapore, and was widely recognised as a brilliant criminal lawyer and “an egalitarian, a humanitarian full of compassion, [and] a champion of the underdog”, as one London newspaper described him.
23 years later, that same cry for a more soul-ful nation was once again sounded, this time by a member of the governing party.
“In our pursuit to automate most things, we now have a system without a heart,” PAP MP Louis Ng said earlier this year. “I hope that every public servant has a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”
To be fair, not all public servants are heartless automatons devoid of human faculties in carrying out their duties. At the same time, however, there are occasions when their actions leave you flabbergasted, and deeply saddened.
News have emerged that the Singapore Police have started to “interview” several anti-death penalty activists and supporters, and have also barred them from travelling out of Singapore, a restriction which was apparently not made known to the activists and supporters.
The police’s action comes some 2 months after the activists held a vigil outside the grounds of Changi Prison on 13 July, to observe the execution of Prabagaran Srivijayan, a drug trafficker.
Kirsten Han, one of the activists who was present at the vigil, reported on her Facebook page on 3 September that “two police officers showed up at my door and handed me a letter.”
“The letter says that the police are investigating an offence of “Taking Part in a Public Assembly without a Permit” and summons me to present myself for questioning as I “may be acquainted with the facts and circumstances of the case,” Ms Han said.
She explained why she was at the vigil: “I wanted to acknowledge the ending of a life, but more importantly I wanted to be there in solidarity with and support of Prabagaran’s family, who were understandably upset and distressed.”
Ms Han, a freelance journalist, is also part of the Second Chances non-governmental group which campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty in Singapore.
The police’s action against those who participated in the vigil, however, does not seem to stop with Ms Han.
Terry Xu, the editor of the website The Online Citizen (TOC), also reported that he was asked to present himself at the police station to help with investigation. He had also been at the vigil.
Mr Xu also said he was stopped at the checkpoints when he had to go on a trip out of Singapore. The ban on him travelling out of Singapore was apparently not made known to him until then.
“A few of us who received letters summoning us for questioning in relation to this investigation tried to figure the situation out, and to understand how the police has the power to impose travel restrictions on us before we have been arrested or charged,” Ms Han wrote on her Facebook page on 6 September. “We had not been informed about this travel restriction prior to this: the police officers who came to our doors had not mentioned it, nor was it written in the letters we received.”
What is puzzling about this (ongoing) saga is that vigils outside Changi Prison have been held several times in the past, without the police calling up the participants later. Also, on this occasion in July, the 10 police officers who turned up during the vigil (and filmed the vigil, participants and had collected the paraphernalia used), had apparently allowed the vigil to carry on.
Ms Han said “a group of police officers came and told us we couldn’t light candles or put up photos, and that these things would have to be confiscated.”
“We complied—we blew out the candles and handed them over. We were then told that we could stay outside the prison as long as we didn’t light candles or set up any more photos.”
Then 2 months later, the police turned up at her door and handed her a letter summoning her to the police station to help in their investigation into an alleged offence of “taking part in a public assembly without a permit.”
We shall not delve into the legal questions of whether the vigil constitutes an illegal assembly (but do keep in mind that the Constitution allows Singaporeans freedom of assembly), and let the police conduct its investigations.
What should interest us, as fellow Singaporeans, is a bigger issue, one which determines what kind of society we are – a mature, rational, compassionate one where the law is not blindly enforced without also taking into consideration the spirit behind the letters in our rule books.
That is, the intent behind the laws which we enforce.
This was what Marshall also spoke of – that “justice is a meld of law and humanity.”
“Law and humanity,” Marshall said, “decency in concepts; if we administer law by the soulless logic of the computer, we aren’t on our road to progress.”
The law, as is said, is not dead letters which we must adhere to no matter the circumstances, to be applied blindly and without any conscience or basic, common decency. And if it is enforced in such a callous fashion, it easily leads to abuse of power and ultimately to undermining authority itself.
In this instance, is it not enough that you have already taken a life (even if it is that of a drug trafficker), that you must also act against those who were mourning him that night you killed him?
It is ironic that in tweaking the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2012, to allow judges more discretion in sentencing, the Law Minister, K Shanmugam, said:
“We want to show mercy and compassion to the traffickers.
“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.” [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.”
Compassion to both offenders as well as the victims.
Perhaps such compassion should also be extended to those who mourn the deaths of the offenders.
To this writer, it is such a sad state of affairs we are in that we now have to even advocate for such an obvious, commonsense thing as allowing those who grieve to do so, to respect this very basic act of being human.
There is no decency in going after those who were simply mourning the death of a fellow human being.
Really, there is none.
Perhaps the words of Marshall will jolt us back from the edge before we fall and lose more of our humanity:
“We have lost sight of the joy and excitement of public service, helping our fellow men. The joy and excitement of seeking and understanding of the joy of the miracle of living the duty and the grandeur. We have lost the taste for heroic action in the service of our people.”