There has been much talk online about the execution of convicted murderer Kho Jabing, who murdered a foreign Chinese national by bashing his head in with a tree branch during a botched robbery in 2008. He was hanged at 3.30pm on May 20 2016, a surprising break with historical precedent as almost all executions in post-independence Singapore have been conducted at dawn on Fridays.
To the majority of Singaporean netizens, the issue of whether the death penalty is a “just” punishment seems to have been conveniently ignored. Many who have responded to the issue have chosen to focus on why they disagree with the actions of the lawyers and activists defending Kho Jabing. Many cited the plight of the victim, Cao Ruyin, who was killed in his prime while seeking a better future for his family in Singapore. Others have taken the side of Kho, who argue that his execution was unjust because his actions did not seem to merit the harshest punishment available in the book. The Middle Ground’s Daniel Yap has rightly focused on this debate, where he arrives at the sensible conclusion that society, ultimately made up of individuals like you and me, are responsible for setting the laws of this land, and that for better or worse, these laws have determined that Kho Jabing must die for his crime.
However in a strange turn of events, the focus of the fiercest debates has shone not so much on the merits or demerits of the use of the death penalty in Kho Jabing’s case. The bulk of public interest now seems centred on toxic accusations which have been flung against the lawyers and activists backing Kho Jabing and family, accusing them of delaying the inevitable and putting the family of Kho through unnecessary emotional torture. One cynical comment by Singapore’s ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan had insinuated that Jeannette Chong Aruldoss (former secretary-general of the National Solidarity Party and now Singapore People’s Party member) and her team of lawyers were harbouring “political motivations” while acting for Kho. The claim has been refuted by Jeannette herself in an angry Facebook post where she said in no uncertain terms that only an “idiot” would think that there would be political payoffs for taking on unpopular cases. Her colleague, Alfred Dodwell, has similarly pointed out that Bilahari’s statements are defamatory.
Alternative media platform The Independent Singapore has taken the side of public interest lawyers Jeannette, Alfred, Remy Choo Zhengxi and human rights activist Kirsten Han by publishing some of the unappetising criticisms dished out by netizens. Highlighting the Straits Times and Singapore’s ambassador-at-large in particular for casting “unfair aspersions” on Jeannette for her political affiliations, The Independent’s editors challenged them to launch similar attacks on lawyers from the People’s Action Party, citing the example of newly elected MP Muralli Pillai who had acted in defense of a fraudulent bank.
Taking her critics by the horns, activist Kirsten Han publicly documented in her Facebook post some of the worst abuses directed against her by Singaporean forummers, some of whom suggested that she would not be campaigning for death penalty convicts if she had been the victim of violent rape and assault. Lamenting the lack of civility towards activists, in particular female activists, Han’s supporters have posted messages of support to which she responded:
“Hey everyone, no need to be sorry, these things don’t bug me too much. My usual response to these threads is to just ignore them, but I feel like once in awhile they should be “documented” because I am really sure that if a man had written the sort of post I did, even if a ton of people disagreed with him there still probably wouldn’t be threads like this.”
One piece stands out from the political mudslinging as food for thought however. Penned by Remy Choo on his Facebook profile and published by Yahoo Singapore, Remy defended the actions of his fellow rights lawyers through reference to an ancient and noble aspiration for lawyers: the “cab-rank-rule”, which states that a lawyer must always accept instructions no matter how despicable or vile the client is and in spite of differences in beliefs and opinions. Perhaps his piece suggests one way to arrive at a conclusion to this messy debacle: that every criminal should have his day in court to defend himself, without the need for the public to cast unnecessary criticisms at him and his lawyers, even if others see such legal recourse as “defending the indefensible”.
J.K. is an aspiring part time writer and journalist with a day job.