Singapore arrests author who criticised death penalty

The British author of a book that seeks to expose "disturbing truths" about Singapore's use of the death penalty has been arrested on charges of criminal defamation.

Alan Shadrake, 75, was in the country to promote his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, when police arrested him following a complaint by the government's Media Development Authority.

The attorney general's office in Singapore is also seeking contempt of court charges against Mr Shadrake because it alleges statements in the book, which includes an interview with a former hangman, call into question the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judiciary.

Mr Shadrake, who was arrested at his hotel on Sunday, told reporters that he had been expecting trouble when he travelled to Singapore "If they do anything, it'll just draw more attention to it all, and they have no defence," he told the AFP news agency.

Mr Shadrake's lawyer, M Ravi, said police have not allowed him to speak to his client yet, and no bail has been set. The lawyer also said that Mr Shadrake has recently been treated successfully for colon cancer. The latest charges carry a maximum jail sentece of two years.

In a letter sent to the Criminal Investigation Department, Mr Ravi asked the authorities to grant him immediate access to Mr Shadrake. He said he was concerned about Mr Shadrake's health, as he has recurring colon and hernia problems as well as high blood pressure. "His condition can worsen if he is under intense pressure," he added.

Mr Shadrake, who divides his time between Britain and Malaysia, is an investigative journalist and author. He has written for international newspapers and his first major book in his 50-year career was Yellow Pimpernels, which detailed escape stories across the Berlin Wall.

His latest book includes an interview with Darshan Singh, the former chief executioner at Singapore's Changi Prison, who, according to the author, executed around 1,000 men and women from 1959 until he retired in 2006. It also includes interviews with human rights activists, lawyers and former police officers. A flier promoting the 219-page book says it "cuts through the façade of official silence to reveal disturbing truths about Singapore's use of the death penalty", and "reveals the cruelty and imprudence of an entire judicial system".

In Singapore the death penalty is mandatory for murder, treason, drug trafficking and other crimes such as unlawful use of a firearm. Officials say it has helped to keep the crime rate low. Amnesty International said in a statement last year that Singapore was "estimated to have one of the highest per capita execution rates in the world".

"The city-state ... has executed at least 420 people since 1991," it added, but stated that the number was probably higher as "not all sentences and executions are reported publicly". Singapore officials consistently refuse to disclose any figures on executions.

Human rights groups have long criticised the Singapore government for using defamation suits to stifle political opposition. The government says restrictions on speech are necessary to preserve economic prosperity and racial and religious harmony among the population of five million. It says any statement that damages the reputations of its leaders will hinder their ability to rule effectively.

The British High Commission in Singapore said it had been informed about the detention of Shadrake and was "providing consular assistance".

The laws of Singapore

Chewing gum

Public mastication is taken very seriously in Singapore. The city-state banned gum chewing in 1992 as part of a long-standing drive against litter on its famously tidy streets. Not only is chewing gum in public banned, so too is its importation and sale. Police agents also roam the streets looking for miscreants chewing gum or littering.

Anyone brave or stupid enough to chomp on some spearmint chewy should be aware of the consequences. First time offenders can expect fines of between $500 (£330) and $1,000. Repeat offenders get an ever harder time – a fine of up to $2,000 and a Corrective Work Order, which requires the offender to clean public spaces, often while wearing a high-visibility jacket.


Singapore remains rigidly backward-looking in its attitude to gay rights. Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code bans consensual, private and adult homosexual acts and allows for such "gross indecency" to be punished with two years' imprisonment. The government allows movies with gay themes "as long as gay life is not depicted as desirable". According to the British High Commission, prosecutions under Section 377A are "relatively rare".


Despite Singapore's reputation for social conservatism, when it comes to smoking other countries have followed where it has led. Smoking has been banned in hospitals, clinics, department stores, bowling alleys, offices and factories since the early 1990s – long before it was outlawed in other countries. The ban has now been extended to all public spaces.


Very few cars in Singapore are more than 10 years old for the simple reason that owning a decade-old vehicle incurs a tax of £15,000 or more. The measure is designed to maintain air quality and limit the total number of vehicles on the roads. The city-state was one of the first places to introduce a congestion charge by setting up a zone where drivers must pay a daily fee to enter. However, it's cheap compared to London, costing only about £1 per day.

Corporal punishment

Beating with a rattan cane remains a sanction for a number of offences, including overstaying, drug misuse, rape, rioting, vandalism and the "outrage of modesty". Any man behaving inappropriately towards a woman, including touching, is liable to corporal punishment and/or a fine and/or imprisonment. Footage from surveillance cameras in nightclubs has been used in prosecutions for outrages of modesty.

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