The exchanges between Sir Richard Branson and Singapore’s current Home Affairs Ministry on the death penalty recently played out in full modern view – announcements on public personal blogs; the Singapore State Agency website contain interesting arguments and points of view over a topic that is complex and has no one universal moral standard. Sir Richard Branson’s view is that a recent drug case involved the execution of a man with an intellectual disability and that this is reflected in other cases and instances of disproportionate penalties. The Ministry of Home Affairs’ views strongly differ, asserting amongst other things that the case referred to involved a man who ‘knew what he was doing’ and providing a series of social order and economic justifications to the use of the death penalty in relation to drug convictions.
It is hard to simply reject out of hand the Ministry of Home Affairs set of arguments except for the unfortunate slide into historical xenophobia revealing a thin skin and internal hatred for external ‘criticism’:
“Mr Branson [Sir Richard Branson] is entitled to his opinions. These opinions may be widely held in the UK, but we do not accept that Mr Branson [Sir Richard Branson] or others in the West are entitled to impose their values on other societies. Nor do we believe that a country that prosecuted two wars in China in the 19th century to force the Chinese to accept opium imports has any moral right to lecture Asians on drugs.”
These opinions may or may not be widely held in the U.K – there is no reference to statistical analysis of opinions in the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs’ assumption that they are, but whether or not they are, is largely irrelevant to a defense of state execution in Singapore.
Similarly, the opinions of say Thai, Swiss or Mongolian nationals won’t be a signal or guide to acceptability of policy or values in Singapore. Further, the nationality of Sir Richard Branson isn’t a determining factor in an analysis of whether a death penalty is an acceptable public policy in any country based on the logic that one nationality should not have a higher right or to kill or constraint against killing another human merely on the grounds of nationality. The fact of history, with all its complexities and divide between the state and its people is also not relevant to a discussion in 2022. Instead, it smacks of internal hatred and resentment based on the reading of textbooks or an effort to mobilise popular domestic opinion in the most efficient manner possible by triggering obvious thought patterns and self-confirmatory non-analytical perspectives.
Logically, by extension of this crude rationale, we can always win an argument with a fellow human being if we mention his or her ancestors were apes and that they stole food or used violence to achieve their goals although we must remember that argument can work against us too. A current argument cannot point to the hypocrisies and crimes of ancestors to justify irrationality. Allowing a sophisticated argument to descend into historical condemnation exchanges is most unfortunate. The use of a non-existent boundary between the so-called ‘East’ and ‘West’ is also indicative of a divisive racist ‘local’ non-global mentality and the elimination of this ‘East versus West’ mindset, not through execution but through education, would be a welcome global evolutionary step. That said, we cannot also state that all of Sir Richard Branson’s arguments are valid or even mature, and to be balanced we must also point out that certain arguments, such as comparing Portugal to Singapore given the deep complex differences between economics, geography, politics, culture and history between the countries means a direct comparison of what works in one country cannot be simplistically transplanted onto another completely different country.
Moral questions are rarely as straightforward as yes or no. A fascinating insight into rationality and morality can be explored in the works of Steven Pinker, most pertinently his book “Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.” Students and experts of morality and ethics, neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, social sciences and other disciplines that may be thought of an abstract ‘consilience thought’ movement advocate awareness that an ethical problem doesn’t always have one answer or a straightforward conclusion, and further often involves a strong degree of ‘group prejudice’ whereby one member might help another member of a perceived ‘same-class group’ but would not do so for someone outside of the group. The effects of group and its relationship with the nature-nurture divide is still uncertain, but it is clearly true that there are many cases of groups creating their own set of morals and rules to the benefit of themselves and to the neutrality or detriment of non-members.
On such basis, it is not appropriate to ‘judge’ Singapore’s drug and death penalty policy in a basic subjectively moralistic manner.
On the other hand, it is also possible to analyse a problem through a series of different lenses to regularly test if it is still appropriate in modern times in a particular country in a particular global context, which Singapore did so when it recently adjusted with significant reservations, its position on same-sex male relationships by decriminalizing sex between men whilst emphasizing it would ‘preserve the institution of marriage’ by continuing to prohibit same-sex marriage. This is an evolutionary step, but in the context of many other countries, ‘West’ and ‘East’, a small one. Interestingly, when it suits Singapore, an old “colonial” law can be clung onto for some time without the same hostile rejectionist rhetoric applied to other colonial products. Cherry picking isn’t a great example of logical reasoning although most indulge in this to varying degrees to ‘win’ arguments. That doesn’t bring the dead back to life, or clean the hands, souls or moral compasses of those that killed them, sanctioned or not.
Applying a different lens to an old ‘issue’ where the same views and sets of comments are predictably raised up each time an issue is challenged, we can more clearly see where a series of rational deductions and thoughts from a different starting point can end up. For instance, arguing ‘backwards’ that Singapore’s policy is successful, is a great deterrent and has worked in terms of its objectives is a deliberately self-fulfilling affirmation that all is well. It is the same argument rationale that parents use to justify beating their children “I was beaten and I turned out ok”. Arguing from a different point, that ‘killing is wrong in 2022 because there are more humane options’ (or a similar premise) and then evolving forwards using the existent Singaporean system might yield more diverse innovative results, without dismantling the social success of what is globally regarded as a policy on the ‘strict’ side of the spectrum. After all, Singapore is globally recognised for its prowess in innovation, made more impressive by the constraints in terms of its population and geographical territory. Espousing only about the drastic potential consequences of sudden liberalization or the transplantation of incompatible law and policy from another country isn’t a solution-based approach from the premise “killing is wrong in 2022 because there are more humane options”.
Of course, many may disagree with an inviolable premise that ‘killing is wrong’ because of the well-known and oft used exceptions – war; self-defense, abortions in some countries and states; and in mass death versus individual(s) death trade off scenarios. The boundaries of where the exceptions do and should lie is where the debates rage on, as do wars in 2022 with some even abstaining from or refusing to openly condemn the shelling of schools and residences and the hanging of verbal protestors against invasion on the streets.
My challenge for readers, the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs, Singaporeans, Britons, Sir Richard Branson, murderers, repentant murderers, instragram posters and all humans capable of thought whether not such thoughts are mentally or physically impaired is as follows:
….Picture yourself with a gun, or a lethal injection needle, the switch to an electric chair, or standing next to the lever to activate the mechanics of a hanging mechanism.
…Next…picture yourself looking at a video camera, or an audience… then further imagine that you are proximate to the person who is to be executed by the so-called ‘state’ but in reality, by you…
…try to imagine using your ability to sense, the smell, the sounds, the feeling of standing there in the immediate period before a person is killed, deliberately as a sanctioned act of the state… imagine your country’s flag, and then think about your ‘loyalty’. Think about whether you will spend the rest of your life forever regretting the act of deliberately killing another human or whether you can easily picture yourself living with this act because you feel it wholly justified because “your country” permits it…
“…now shoot the rifle, pull back the syringe plunger – insert the needle and inject the lethal dose, flick the lethal electric voltage switch, release the pulley mechanism to activate the noose pull to hang the person before you…”
Are you capable of applying purely ‘rational’ thought to this process and eliminate all emotion to these thoughts? Do you reject emotion and put “logic” above and beyond all feelings in everything you do? This is a dangerous approach to take to all human matters.
Clearly there will be many people who disagree with this analysis and have a different lens or perspective. But that is the point. You can’t be selective about lenses, you should try them all out and constantly review a position or policy to see if it is still appropriate or is outdated and can be adjusted.
“Old” Slavery underwent a similar incremental transformation with some countries faster than others on abolition, but modern slavery still very much exists and is often justified in the minds of those that overlord modern slaves – be it helpers who are abused in small flats and apartments, victims of fishing industry abuse and slavery people suffering their land being seized and their properties demolished. There is still room, therefore, to continue to analyse whether it really is appropriate, justifiable and proportionate to Singapore’s objectives and values to hang those convicted of crimes violating its notably strict and notably effective drug laws.
To remind of the importance of proportionality in matters of punishment, it is of course extremely effective to threaten a child with a smash in the face or a beating with a belt should they be insolent enough to chat back to their parent. But really, what are the alternatives to this strong deterrent that will yield high reduction of chat-back crimes? Would a softer longer-term deterrent coupled with rehabilitation deliver a better humane outcome than the brutal cheaper investment cost method. This is a deliberate over-simplification of an analogy, using a child as the subject because adults often feel less emotion for the punishment of other adults, but this is necessary to re-provoke careful thought on proportionality and alternative punishments on a spectrum.
Because of my Nationality, which remains British for now, I leave myself open to attack for simply raising this issue, because as stated above, this has been used as one method of attacking the opinion of Sir Richard Branson. But, for a minute, imagine I am Singaporean, or that I was born in the UK but lived in Thailand most of my adult life absorbing information and opinions from a diverse global set of resources, and then see if you can eliminate any prejudice or bias against the author, prior to thinking about your own opinions on this issue. One advantage of a democracy, with all of its flaws and weaknesses and hyprocrisies, is at least the emphasis on perceived free debate. Use a democratic thought mindset to at least free-think the issue of state endorsed executions. I am not stating that I have the answers, that my views are better than others or right and wrong.
 Sir Richard Branson My response to Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister on the death penalty 31 October 2022 (see: https://www.virgin.com/branson-family/richard-branson-blog/my-response-to-singapores-home-affairs-minister-on-the-death-penalty last accessed 4th November 2022)
 Ministry of Home Affiars, Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs’ Response to Sir Richard Branson’s Blog Post on 10 October 2022 (see: https://www.mha.gov.sg/mediaroom/press-releases/ministry-of-home-affairs-response-to-sir-richard-branson-blog-post-on-10-october-2022 last accessed 4th November 2022)
 Sir Richard Branson World Day Against the Death Penalty: What’s the matter with Singapore? 10 October 2022 (see: https://www.virgin.com/branson-family/richard-branson-blog/world-day-against-the-death-penalty-whats-the-matter-with-singapore last accessed 4th November 2022)
 Rotem Kowner & Walter Demel Race and Racism in Modern East Asia: Western and Eastern Constructions (Brill 2013)
 Steven Pinker Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (Viking 2021)
 Aqil Azik Mahmud NDR 2022: Singapore to repeal Section 377A, amend Constitution to protect definition of marriage (Channel News Asia online 21 August 2022 see: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/section-377a-repeal-law-sex-gay-men-marriage-constitution-pm-lee-ndr2022-2891381 last accessed 4 November 2022)
 Young, R. (1979). What is so Wrong with Killing People? Philosophy, 54(210), 515-528. doi:10.1017/S0031819100063531
 Tom O’Connor The 4 Nations Who Back Russia’s War in Ukraine, and 35 Who Won’t Condemn It (Newsweek Online 3 February 2022 see: https://www.newsweek.com/4-nations-who-back-russias-war-ukraine-35-who-wont-condemn-it-1684250 last accessed 4 November 2022)
 Christopher Miller Kherson residents describe reign of terror under Russian rule (Financial Times Online see: https://www.ft.com/content/99349f01-c587-4ab4-86df-85ff3c0fcd3b 4 November 2022)
 Nadine Chua Threatening, controlling behaviour towards maids among main types of emotional abuse: Home report (The Straits Times Online 22 June 2022 see: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/community/threatening-controlling-behaviour-towards-maids-among-main-types-of-emotional-abuse-home-report last accessed 4th November 2022)
 Christina Stringer, Brent Burmester, Snejina Michailova Modern slavery and the governance of labor exploitation in the Thai fishing industry (Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 371, 2022, 133645, ISSN 0959-6526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2022.133645(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652622032231 )
 Amnesty International Indigenous Peoples (see: https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/indigenous-peoples/ last accessed 4 November 2022)