WHEN the Changi Prison executioner loops a noose around the neck of Australian Nguyen Tuong Van, Singapore will be living up to its reputation as the hangman of Asia.
The tightly controlled city-state – governed uninterrupted by the People's Action Party since 1959 – is ranked by human rights group Amnesty International as having the world's highest per-capita execution rate. Between 1991 and 2000, 340 people were hanged in Singapore, according to official figures.
Some years are busier than others. For example, 50 people were hanged in 1996, meaning the gallows were used almost once a week.
Death sentences in Singapore are mostly imposed for drug trafficking, such as in Nguyen's case.
But it is also handed down for murder, kidnapping and some firearms offences.
Tradition dictates that hangings are always set for the early hours of a Friday. Although criticised abroad, Singapore's tough capital punishment policy is broadly supported at home, where opinion polls periodically show hanging is backed by about seven out of 10 Singaporeans.
But there are a handful of people who disagree.
"Drug addiction cannot be solved by hanging a few people, and these are normally the small-timers . . . not the masterminds," human rights activist Sinapan Samydorai said.
Mr Sinapan, a spokesman for the group Think Centre, is one of a few dozen people set to protest against Nguyen's impending death at a rare vigil planned for Monday.
Melbourne salesman Nguyen, 25, was arrested at Changi Airport in 2002 as he was about to board a flight to Australia.
He was carrying 396g of heroin; enough, Singapore authorities say, for 26,000 doses.
The final avenue for appeal appears to have been exhausted.
Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer has received a letter from his Singapore counterpart, George Yeo, rejecting any last-minute bid for clemency.
The city-state had a responsibility to prevent Singapore from becoming a conduit for the trafficking of illicit drugs, the letter said. It added that the final decision to take Nguyen's life was debated by Cabinet and had not been taken lightly.
Singapore argues the noose has helped keep it safe from serious crime, especially drug trafficking.
"The Singapore Government makes no apology for its tough law and order system," the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a written defence last year of capital punishment.
"The death penalty is a just punishment for those who knowingly and intentionally commit serious crimes, which threaten the lives of others.
"The death penalty, because of its finality, is more feared than imprisonment as a punishment."
Most of those hanged are Singaporean citizens, and the majority are condemned for drug-related crimes.
But official figures also show that the system is more likely to be used against the jobless or low-skilled.
A 2004 document said Singapore executed 138 people in the five years to 2003. Of those 37, or one-quarter, were foreigners. This figure tallies almost exactly with the proportion of non-Singapore nationals who are resident in the city-state.
Of the same group of 138, 110 were executed for drug-related offences.
During the 10 years to 2003, 51 per cent of those hanged were unemployed or working as unskilled workers, labourers or cleaners.
Sixty-four per cent of those hanged were either educated only to primary school level or had no schooling.
Opponents of the death penalty fire back that executions do not make Singapore safer and violate what they regard as a sacrosanct right to life.
On it website this week, Think Centre asked: "If this inhumane practice is really a deterrent, how come we after 40 years of executions still have the highest per-capita execution rate in the world with the greatest known proportion of these executions small-time drug mules?"
As Nguyen is a foreigner, the authorities will inform his next of kin and the Australian High Commission of the chosen date between seven and 14 days in advance, compared with the four days' notice usually allowed for locals.
He will then be allowed visits from relatives of up to four hours during his final few days. His execution will be witnessed by a doctor and his body will be handed back to his family.