The close Singapore-Australia relations unexpectedly hit a rough patch in 2005 over Singapore’s hanging of a convicted Australian drug trafficker, Nguyen Tuong Van, for a capital drug offence committed here.
Australia abolished capital punishment in 1973. Its Government and people had, on several occasions, made strong and even strident protests against foreign regimes, especially those in ASEAN where serious drug offences are punishable by death, whenever such a sentence was meted out to one of its convicted nationals. This had, inevitably, led to strained diplomatic relations with these foreign governments, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, the aftermaths of which are still being felt today.
Currently, there are no less than 12 Australians held in Indonesian and Vietnamese prisons for drug trafficking indictments, with potential death sentences hanging over their heads. How Australians will again react to such an eventuality will be watched closely. It is common knowledge that Australia has one of the world’s highest drug-addiction rates. Although drug abuse is quite widespread there, drug abusers and traffickers are dealt with less severely by its courts, despite the considerable personal hardships and social consequences inflicted on the community.
The Nguyen saga began in 2002 when he was arrested at Singapore’s Changi International Airport, on transit to Melbourne, in possession of 396 gm of pure heroin with a street value of $1.2 million. After a lengthy trial by the High Court here, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. His appeal to the Court of Appeal, the highest court in the land, was unsuccessful. Having exhausted the due process of law, he finally petitioned Singapore’s president, Mr S R Nathan, for clemency. This was supported by Australia’s Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, and backed by its media and a fair cross-section of its people. The President, after careful consideration, declined to commute the death sentence as he saw no exceptional circumstances to do so.
Led by some Australian media and politicians and supported by those against death penalty, highly derogatory public utterances were leveled against Singapore’s legal system and its government actions, despite the call for restraint by the Australian Prime Minister personally. To my unconcealed pride and admiration our Government responded with calm, sound reasoning and diplomacy, without being provoked into making statements that would aggravate the already tense situation.
Here are some examples of these diatribes. The Australian Attorney-General strongly condemned the hanging of Nguyen as a barbaric act, while a former prime minister, Gouth Whitlam, heaped insults by calling Singapore “a rouge Chinese port city (sic)”. Some Australians even advocated taking trade reprisals against the Republic, including boycotting its goods and Singapore Airlines.
Fortunately for Singapore, there were rational and forthright voices throughout the Australian community. Many supported Singapore government’s handling of the Nguyen episode as a soverign country. Also, authoritative opinion surveys taken immediately after his execution showed that almost 60% of the public there approved of the sentence, praising Singaporean Government’s unflinching stand in the face of unjustified external pressure. Some even wrote to the Australian and Singapore media apologising for their country-men’s excesses over this unfortunate incident.
How did Singaporeans react to the Nguyen incident? The overwhelming majority of them were solidly behind their government in steadfastly resisting such a fierce onslaught on its national integrity in upholding the law without fear or favour. This support was clearly reflected in random media interviews with ordinary Singaporeans and in the numerous letters to the press urging the Government not to succumb to pressures and threats.
Does Singapore’s international standing suffer because of the Nguyen case? Not at all, in my view. On the contrary, it had gained much sympathies or even approbation from many countries for its resolute handling of this episode, not least from its fellow ASEAN members. Ngyuen was treated in the same way that a Singaporean criminal in similar circumstances would have been dealt with. Lest it be forgotten, Singapore’s consistency in upholding the sanctity of law at all costs had been tested before without denting it. In 1995, an American teenager, Micheal Fay, who wantonly vandalised several vehicles here, was convicted and sentenced to a jail term and caning. The Singapore Government turned down US President Clinton’s personal appeal to exempt Fay from caning. Likewise, the Indonesian Government’s earlier plea for clemency on behalf of two convicted Indonesian murderers was also rejected.
Were these protesting Australians and their media right in taking such a fierce stand in the Ngyuen case and did they blow it out of all proportion? Did their actions damage their country’s international image? In my view, they emerged the clear loser. Why?
It is beyond doubt that Australia, like any other country, has the right to appeal for clemency on behalf of any national convicted of a criminal offence in another country through the diplomatic channels. Likewise, its media, public and others can freely support such a move. However, if such a move fails, they must respect the sovereign right of the country concerned to carry out the punishment in accordance with its own legal system. It is an axiomatic principle of international law that no foreigner is above the law of his host country and if he violates it he is answerable to it.
What did Australia, its media and public do in this case? Despite the correct and responsible management of the Nguyen case by their own government, his supporters behaved like crusaders in attempting to force Singapore Government’s hand to commute the death sentence passed on him. When the Singapore Government stood firm not to grant clemency, its detractors not only condemned Singapore’s legal system repeatedly and unjustly, but they also urged their own government to refer the matter to the World Court, bring the case before the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference as well as declaring some form of trade sanction against the economic interests of the Republic. To its credit, our Government did not succumb to these ill-conceived threats.
While Australians are generally against capital punishment, many had, nevertheless, resorted to double standards whenever it suited them to do so. For instance, far from lamenting at the death sentence pronounced on an Indonesian terrorist for his part in the infamous Bali bombing in 2003, in which 88 Australian tourists died, they welcomed the Indonesian court verdict. Likewise, they were also in favour of executing the dethroned President Saddam Hussien of Iraq if he is found guilty of war crimes. In the same token, just as Nguyen was hanged in December 2005, the US was carrying out its 1000th execution of a capital offender. Did these seemingly righteous Australian critics of Singapore’s so-called barbarity shout their disapproval of the US barbarity for the world to hear? No, they did not. Why not? Is it because the Americans are their firm ally and are far too powerful to quarrel with, compared to the tiny and weaker Singapore? I leave the answer to them.
Be that as it may, the saving grace is that both the Australian government and the majority of Australians did not share the exuberance of some of their politicians, media and fellow citizens in condemning Singapore harshly. Fortunately, too, now that the dust has settled over the Nguyen saga, the bilateral relations between the two countries have remained intact. However, the people-to-people relationship may take a while to return to the previous level, as the Australian Prime Minister had realistically predicted.
There are lessons to be learned from this case. How Australians will react in future to capital punishments involving their nationals in similar or other cases overseas will have a beneficial or detrimental impact on Australia’s international image and others’ perception of them as a country and people.
Lam Pin Foo