Asia News, Singapore: The American science fiction writer, Mr William Gibson once described Singapore as ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’.
Recent developments underscore the point.
Last week a 24-year-old Australian man of Vietnamese origin lost an appeal to escape the gallows, rights group Amnesty International challenged the city-state to disclose its execution rate, and the high court will soon decide whether to hang 3 people caught in a high-society drug ring in Singapore.
"The government is really not softening up when it comes to drug crimes or on executions," said Mr Chua Beng Huat, a sociology professor at National University of Singapore who has written several books on Singapore’s politics.
Though Singapore is loosening social controls -easing
censorship rules, allowing greater freedom of speech and championing a more open society - it is maintaining a hard line on crime and executions.
Amnesty, which seeks a worldwide ban on state executions, says Singapore’s death row is shrouded in secrecy. In the country itself, there is little public debate about the issue and even less information on how the process is carried out.
In the pre-dawn hours of any Friday, someone could be on their way to the gallows at Changi prison. No one knows for sure.
Amnesty says about 400 people have been hanged in Singapore since 1991, most for drug trafficking. This adds up to possibly the highest execution rate in the world relative to the island’s 4.2 million population.
Singapore wants to shatter the secretive image of its death row
and insists there is nothing to hide.
It released a barrage of data in February to counter an Amnesty report, denying most of those hanged were foreigners from poorer countries and backing this up with data showing 64 per cent of those executed from 1993 to 2003 were Singaporeans.
"The Singapore government has in place a tough but transparent law and order system for the safety and security of its citizens, residents and those who visit," Mr Freddy Hong, a home affairs spokeswoman, told Reuters.
Information on executions is not regularly published, and even Singapore’s former premier, Mr Goh Chok Tong said he did not know how many people were hung when queried in a BBC interview in September last year, putting the figure for that year at 70-80.
His office later said the actual number at the time was 10.
"We have actually stopped debating this particular policy. The pressure for more disclosure comes from international organisations. The local community is quite neutral on this issue," said Mr Ho Khai Leong, a professor at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Singapore, ruled by the People’s Action Party for four decades, is often described as having a theme-park feel because of its tidy streets, orderly living and low crime rates.
It has had capital punishment for murder since its days as a British colony.
Those found guilty of kidnapping, treason and certain firearm offences may also face the gallows, although rights activists say 70 per cent of hangings are for drug offences.
Amnesty data shows that from 1994 to 1999, an average of 13.6 executions were carried out per million people, three times higher than the next country on the list, Saudi Arabia.
A day after Amnesty challenged Singapore last Tuesday to disclose the total number of executions this year, the government divulged for the first time that 6 people had been hanged from January to September and 19 for the whole of 2003.
Requests by Reuters for these statistics had been turned down before Amnesty’s statement.
"This is a step forward, but the government should disclose a lot
more than the bare number of executions," Amnesty’s UK- based south-east Asian researcher, Mr Tim Parritt told Reuters.
From 1991-2003, an average of 32 people were hanged a year, according to a combination of Amnesty and government data. Last year’s 19 executions would be the lowest in 6 years.
"We call for a full breakdown - year by year - to illuminate to what extent the death penalty may be falling disproportionately on more vulnerable sections of society - whether by reason of the nationality, educational or professional background, socio- economic status etc," Mr Parritt added.
The public generally supports Singapore’s tough laws - including the death penalty, bans on pornography and curbs on political dissent - as part of a social contract that in return has delivered years of economic prosperity.