By Alan Shadrake -
October 28, 2005
The hangman who will execute Australian drug trafficker Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore has been revealed as a semi-retired 73-year-old grandfather.
In a matter of weeks, Darshan Singh will place a rope around the 25-year-old's neck and say the words he has spoken to more than 850 condemned prisoners during his 46 years as Singapore's chief executioner.
"I am going to send you to a better place than this. God bless you."
Nguyen's hopes of escaping the gallows receded further yesterday when the Singaporean Government confirmed that it would not make an exception for the Australian.
Mr Singh has officially retired from the prison service but is called upon to carry out executions, for which he receives a fee of $S400 ($312).
Until now, his indentity has been a closely guarded secret in Singapore.
Officials rarely comment on capital punishment, which is carried out without publicity behind the walls of Changi prison.
But The Australian can reveal today that the 73-year-old grandfather, who lives in a modest, government-owned apartment near the border with Malaysia, has been asked to execute Nguyen unless the Singapore Government gives an unprecedented last-minute reprieve.
Mr Singh told The Australian yesterday that under the Official Secrets Act he was forbidden from speaking about his work.
A colleague and close friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Australian that Mr Singh wanted to give up his hangman's responsibilities and live quietly in retirement but the authorities were having trouble finding anyone to replace him.
"He tried to train two would-be hangmen to replace him, a Malaysian and a Chinese, both in the prison service," the colleague said.
"But when it came to pulling the lever for the real thing, they both froze and could not do it.
"The Chinese guy, a prison officer, became so distraught he walked out immediately and resigned from the prison service altogether."
Nguyen will meet Mr Singh a few days before he is executed and will be asked if he would like to donate his organs.
On the day before his execution, Mr Singh will lead him to a set of scales close to his death-row cell to weigh him.
Mr Singh will use the Official Table of Drops, published by the British Home Office in 1913, to calculate the correct length of rope for the hanging.
On the day of Nguyen's execution, Mr Singh will be picked up by a government vehicle and driven to the prison, arriving at 2am local time (0400 AEST) to prepare the gallows.
Shortly before 6am, he will handcuff Nguyen's hands behind his back and lead him on his final short walk to the gallows, just a few metres from the cell.
Mr Singh joined the British colonial prison service in the mid-1950s after arriving from Malaysia. When the long-established British hangman Mr Seymour retired, Singh, then 27, volunteered for the job. He was attracted by the bonus payment for executions.
Mr Singh is credited with being the only executioner in the world to single-handedly hang 18 men in one day -- three at a time.
They had been convicted of murdering four prison officers during a riot on the penal island of Pulau Senang in 1963.
He also hanged seven condemned men within 90 minutes a few years later. They had been convicted in what became known as the "gold bars murders", in which a merchant and two employees were killed during a robbery.
One of the most controversial executions in his career was the 1991 hanging of a young Filipina maid, Flor Contemplacion, who was convicted of the murder of a co-worker, Delia Maga, and her four-year-old son, on what many believed was shaky evidence.
He carries out the executions wearing simple casual clothes, often just a T-shirt, shorts, sports shoes and knee-length socks.
To mark his 500th hanging four years ago, four of his former colleagues turned up at his home to celebrate the event with a couple of bottles of Chivas Regal.
Mr Singh boasts that he has never botched an execution.
"Mr Seymour taught him just how long the drop should be according to weight and height and exactly where the knot should be placed at the back of the neck," his colleague said.
"Death has always come instantaneously and painlessly. In that split second, at precisely 6am, it's all over."
Mr Singh was an accomplished cricketer in his youth and was often opening bat.
"He is a keen soccer fan," his colleague said. "His favourite team is Manchester United. He watches all the English Premier League matches he can."
When his colleague asked him why he had stayed so long in such a gruesome job, he replied: "It's all I know. It has become my bread and butter."
"He also used to cane convicted criminals after training in this field," the colleague said.
"The pay then was 50cents per stroke. He could wield a cane as well as he could wield a cricket bat."
Mr Singh lives happily with his second wife and is close to their three adult adopted children.
His first wife left him years earlier because she could not accept what he did. He had kept it a secret from her for years.
Mr Singh reportedly spends time getting to know the condemned prisoners, especially those who do not receive visitors or religious support.
"He is a very kindly man and although it's his job to end their lives he does feel for them," his friend said. "Mr Singh tries to comfort them if they are completely alone in the world at such a horrible time."