On what first seemed like just another day, a young Malaysian commuter-worker was arrested in Singapore in September 2001, a nation which has the highest per capita execution in the world (according to 2004 report by Amnesty International). The charge: drug-dealing. He had just handed an undercover narcotics agent a small bag packed with 27.65g of heroin and received S$8,000 in return.
But was he really a drug-dealer? The young man swore his innocence, insisting that he was only doing a favour for an old family friend, who had asked him to pass along some religious incense to an associate and collect some money from him.
From there, the young man went on a rapid downward fall through the dark hole of a system he had little understanding of. He found himself facing a mandatory death penalty for dealing drugs and was dragged quickly through the few stages the Singapore justice system allows between arrest and execution: trial, the single appeal, and the clemency plea to the president - all to no avail.
The story might have ended right there for this young man, as it has for so many others found guilty of capital crimes in Singapore. If not for a veteran human rights activist and a young lawyer who took up the cause and brought the young Malaysian’s fight into legal areas never before dared in this tightly regulated city-state.
“Hung At Dawn” by M Ravi is the true story of the desperate fight to save this young man from a possible miscarriage of justice, weaving around the roadblocks the legal system in Singapore sets up. It also tells the story of a second, even more well-known case the young lawyer fought in defence of a convicted drug-dealer two years later.
This tale, also true in every detail, involves a charismatic figure who had risen from grinding poverty to become a kind of national hero in Singapore (having won a medal in the Jet-Ski World Championship), only to fall when personal problems led him to start using and dealing in soft drugs. Caught at a border crossing, this former hero was sentenced to die for possession of just over 1 kilo of cannabis!
The latter part of “Hung At Dawn” looks at the unprecedented campaign which Guardian described as a ‘high profile campaign’ in their report entitled “Singapore finally finds a voice in death row protest. To save this man’s life, a campaign that stretched beyond the courts into the streets to engage the general Singapore public and brought together a wide coalition of people galvanized by this particular case and the wider struggle to bring Singapore’s drug laws more into line with international humane standards”.
"Hung At Dawn" provides a vivid insight into the dehumanising process that leads to the state killing of death row prisoners in Singapore. Detailing the impact on those drawn into the process - including the condemned, their relatives, lawyers, police, judges and executioners - the narrative asks the uncomfortable question as to why Singapore has the highest per capita execution rate in the world.
In describing frantic legal efforts to prevent a hanging, the reader is forced to confront the reality that, while no judicial system is immune from error, the taking of a prisoner's life is final and irrevocable. The appalling prospect of the innocent being led to their death is driven home, when, in answer to a question during a last-minute appeal whether an innocent man could be hanged in Singapore for procedural reasons, the Chief Justice replied "Yes".
Singaporeans opposed to capital punishment have tried for many years to prompt greater public debate on the issue, and this book is an important contribution to that effort. Many hope the day when Singapore recognises executions as a violation of human rights without any unique deterrent effect against crime, and so joins the world-wide trend towards abolition of the death penalty, may have come a small step closer. (Timothy Parritt, Amnesty International)