Fighting false assertion with false assertion

Posted by Kirsten Han under Opinions on 3 February 2012

It is ironic that in rebutting Human Rights Watch's "false assertion", the Ministry of Law makes use of more false assertions.

Fighting false assertion with false assertion

If you follow politics or social issues in Singapore, there are phrases and expressions that quickly become familiar, rhetoric and spiels that any member of civil society will be able to recite to you with their eyes closed. Honestly, activists could pretty much write the government's press releases themselves, so accustomed are we to the same few arguments.

That's why reading the Ministry of Law's response to the recent report by Human Rights Watch comes as no surprise.

The Ministry accuses the report – which highlights issues such as freedom of expression, migrant workers' rights and gay rights – of making "false assertions". This is naturally to be expected. Anything members of the ruling party say that attracts criticism is by default "misrepresented" or "misunderstood". Anything external bodies say to criticise Singapore and its government is by default "false", and also a misrepresentation of the government. The world would just be so much simpler if everyone could only accept that our government has a master plan, and stop being so contrary!

I am now so used to such responses from the government that reading such statements don't usually provoke any particular response anymore. Oh look, the same ol' same ol', let's just keep going.

But I would just like to especially point out one section of the response:

…contrary to assertions in its news article1, capital punishment is not prohibited by international law. A large number of countries, including many modern, developed countries (like the US) impose the punishment. In Singapore, capital punishment has contributed to low rates of crime and drug use; and is overwhelmingly supported by Singaporeans.

It is ironic that in rebutting Human Rights Watch's "false assertion", the Ministry of Law makes use of more false assertions, namely that capital punishment is the reason for low crime rates in Singapore and that it is overwhelmingly supported by Singaporeans. As far as we know, both these statements have no concrete evidence to support them.

Activists have asked time and again for evidence that the death penalty actually is the cause for low drug and crime rates in Singapore, but such studies have not been forthcoming. Instead, we've seen that drug crimes were actually on the rise from 2008 – 2010, after the Central Narcotics Bureau corrected their misreported statistics. This, despite diligent meting out of the mandatory death penalty to drug mules such as Yong Vui Kong and Cheong Chun Yin.

Even Professor Michael Hor, who teaches at the National University of Singapore, has doubts as to the deterrent effect of the mandatory death penalty.

The other point – that there is "overwhelming support" for the death penalty in Singapore – is similarly unsubstantiated. Other than a 2006 survey done by the Straits Times saying that 96% of 425 Singaporeans polled support the death penalty, there has not been, to my knowledge, any other real study done.

Even if you round down the population of Singaporean citizens to 3 million, 425 is only 0.01% of the population. Unless the Ministry of Law has some unpublicised study on Singaporean support for the death penalty, they're really saying that 96% of 0.01% of Singaporeans support the death penalty. That's hardly overwhelming.

To be fair, the Ministry could be right. A large number of Singaporeans are probably pro-death penalty. None of the campaigners have ever been so naive to think that Singaporeans are for the abolishment of the death penalty. But then comes more questions: why do Singaporeans support the death penalty? How much do they really know about the law and its applications? How much debate and discussion has there been in the public domain? Do they really support the death penalty, or are they just supporting the status quo?

I've only been involved in the anti-death penalty campaign for two years, nothing compared some of my fellow campaigners. Some of our earliest activities have seen only 30 people, many family and friends. But interest has been growing, and events getting bigger and bigger. Our last forum at Sinema Old School had over 100 people, some of whom hadn't known much about the death penalty before, some who were even pro-death penalty. It is slow and it is hard, but there has been some change. Perhaps one day the so-called "overwhelming" support will not be so overwhelming anymore.

Things are ever-changing, ever-evolving. Perhaps it's time for the government to start accepting these changes, and stop giving the same old responses to criticisms.

Sources and Relevant Links:

Kirsten Han Fighting false assertion with false assertion 28 January 2012

Ministry of Law Ministry of Law's response to Human Rights Watch's January 2012 country report for Singapore 27 Jan 2012

Yahoo News Singapore Human Rights Watch report made false assertions: Ministry of Law 27 January 2012

HRW Singapore: Stop Hiding Behind Old Excuses 24 January 2012

HRW Human Rights Watch's World Report 2012 chapter on Singapore

HRW For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Singapore

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