Why Nguyen must die

By Joseph Koh
November 30, 2005

Singapore’s decision to execute Nguyen Tuong Van for drug trafficking is correct and responsible.

ALTHOUGH opinions in Australia are not unanimous, many Australians strongly oppose Singapore’s decision not to commute the death sentence on Mr Nguyen Tuong Van for drug trafficking. I respect these views, which spring from a deep sense of human compassion. However, the outcry has also made it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Fiction No. 1: Singapore has breached international law.
There is no international agreement to abolish the death penalty. Capital punishment remains part of the criminal justice systems of 76 countries, including in the United States, where it is practised in 38 states.

We respect Australia’s sovereign choice not to have capital punishment. We hope Australia will likewise respect Singapore’s sovereign choice to impose the death penalty for the most serious crimes, including drug trafficking. The overwhelming majority of Singaporeans support this.

Fiction No. 2: The death penalty has not deterred drug trafficking.
This logic is flawed. The death penalty has not completely eliminated drug trafficking, but it has certainly deterred drug trafficking. Since the introduction of tough anti-drug laws in the mid-1970s, drug trafficking and drug abuse in Singapore have come down significantly. Potential traffickers know that, once arrested, they face the full weight of the law.

Fiction No. 3: Mr Nguyen is an unsuspecting victim
Mr Nguyen may not be a hardened criminal, but he is not an unsuspecting victim either. He knew what he was doing and the penalty if he was caught. Had he succeeded, he would have made a lot of money. If we let off a convicted courier because of age, financial difficulties or distressed family background, it will only make it easier for drug traffickers to recruit more “mules”, with the assurance that they will escape the death penalty.

Fiction No 4: The punishment does not fit crime.
Mr Nguyen was caught with 396 grams of pure heroin, enough for 26,000 “hits”, with a street value of more than $A1 million.

Yes, he was transiting Singapore, and not smuggling drugs into the country, but Singapore simply cannot afford to allow itself to become a transit hub for illicit drugs in the region.

Fiction No. 5: Mr Nguyen can testify against Mr Bigs.
All drug syndicates assume that some of their couriers will get caught. They never let the couriers know enough to incriminate themselves. The information that Mr Nguyen provided to the Singapore authorities was of limited value, and was, in fact, intended to mislead and delay the investigation.

Fiction No. 6: Singapore connives with drug lords.
This is an old falsehood propagated by Dr Chee Soon Juan (Singapore opposition leader). He has alleged that the Singapore Government had invested in projects in Myanmar (Burma) that supported the drug trade. When this first surfaced in 1996, the Singapore Government explained that its investment in the Myanmar Fund was completely open and above board. The fund held straightforward commercial investments in hotels and companies. Other investors in the fund included Coutts & Co, an old British bank, and the Swiss Bank Corporation. The Singapore Government offered to set up a commission of inquiry so Dr Chee could produce evidence to prove his wild allegations. Unfortunately, Dr Chee never took up the offer.

Fiction No. 7: Singapore has treated Australia with contempt.
Singapore highly values good relations with Australia and with Australian leaders. We share a common belief in the sanctity of the law. The Singapore cabinet deliberated at length on Mr Nguyen’s clemency petition. It considered all relevant factors, including Mr Nguyen’s personal circumstances, and the many public and private appeals from Australian leaders. Unfortunately, finally the cabinet decided that it could not justify making an exception for Mr Nguyen. It had to treat Mr Nguyen consistently with similar past cases, and apply the law equally to Singaporeans and foreigners.

Singapore’s leaders have taken pains to explain our decision to Australian leaders, both in writing and in person. Singapore’s Foreign Minister had also informed Foreign Minister Alexander Downer confidentially in advance of when the family would be notified of the execution date, and explained to Mr Downer that that the family should be the first to learn of the execution date. So when Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, met Prime Minister John Howard in Busan, he could not inform Mr Howard of the execution date either. Mr Lee did not know that the letter of notification had by mistake already been delivered to Mrs Kim Nguyen, one day early. Once Mr Lee discovered what had happened, he promptly apologised to Mr Howard.

Australians who oppose the death sentence on Mr Nguyen will not agree with everything I have said. But I hope they will accept that the Singapore Government has a responsibility to protect the many lives that would otherwise be blighted and destroyed by the drug syndicates, and to prevent Singapore from becoming a conduit for illicit drugs in the region. We are all touched by the pain and anguish of Mr Nguyen’s mother, but if we waver in our firm position against drug trafficking, many more families will be shattered.

Joseph K. H. Koh is Singapore high commissioner in Australia.


Singapore digs in as execution looms


Wednesday 30 November 2005 5:58 AM GMT

Nguyen Tuong Van is scheduled to die on Friday

Singapore has dismissed calls to save a young Australian drug smuggler from imminent hanging despite threats of retaliation from his compatriots and condemnation from international human rights groups.

With less than 48 hours to go before Nguyen Tuong Van’s execution at Changi Prison, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Singapore’s envoy to Australia have made it clear the execution of the former south Vietnamese refugee would go ahead.

Lee, currently in Europe, told French newspaper Le Figaro that the death penalty “is necessary and is part of the criminal justice system”, rejecting claims that executing people for non-violent crimes is out of date and inhuman.

“We also think that drug trafficking is a crime that deserves the death penalty. The evil inflicted on thousands of people with drug trafficking demands that we must tackle the source by punishing the traffickers rather than trying to pick up the pieces afterwards,” he said.

“It’s a law which is approved of by Singapore’s inhabitants and which allows us to reduce the drug problem,” the son of Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said before calling on French President Jacques Chirac.

“It’s a law which is approved of by Singapore’s inhabitants and which allows us to reduce the drug problem”

Lee Hsien Loong,
Singapore prime minister

Some private groups and opposition politicians in Australia have called for sanctions against Singapore, but Prime Minister John Howard has adopted a more restrained approach and sought clemency for Nguyen.

Singapore’s high commissioner in Canberra, Joseph Koh, in an opinion piece published on Wednesday in Australian newspapers, dismissed what he said were “fictions” about the Nguyen case.

Supporters of the Vietnamese-born man, who said he agreed to be a drug mule to help pay off his twin brother’s debts, say mitigating circumstances including his cooperation with investigators justified commuting his death sentence to a prison term.

But Koh said: “The information that Mr Nguyen provided to the Singapore authorities was of limited value, and was, in fact, intended to mislead and delay the investigation.”


Nguyen was arrested at Changi Airport – near the prison where he will be hanged – three years ago carrying 396 grams of heroin strapped to his back from Cambodia to Australia.

Singapore officials say the amount is enough to supply drug abusers 26,000 doses.

“Contrary to assertions, the death penalty has no unique deterrent effect in relation to drugs or other serious crimes”

Timothy Parritt,
Amnesty International

In Singapore, possession of more than 15g of heroin is deemed as trafficking and punishable by a mandatory death sentence.

Amnesty International says Singapore has the world’s highest execution rate relative to its population of just 4.2 million, including resident foreigners.

About 420 prisoners were sent to the gallows between 1991 and 2004, Amnesty said.

Singapore’s Home Affairs Ministry says 66 Singaporeans and 22 foreigners have been executed between 2001 and September 2005.

Timothy Parritt, a researcher for Amnesty’s Southeast Asia team, said the watchdog was “unaware of any scientific studies” showing the death penalty was a greater deterrent than other forms of punishment.

“Contrary to assertions, the death penalty has no unique deterrent effect in relation to drugs or other serious crimes. The certainty of arrest, prosecution and the prospect of long periods of imprisonment form the basis of effective deterrence,” he said.

Parritt added that Amnesty regarded the death penalty “as the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights” and stressed that “no criminal justice system is immune from error, and the risk of miscarriages of justice can never be excluded”.

Meanwhile, envoy Koh also dismissed allegations that Singapore’s drug policies were hypocritical because it backs military-ruled Myanmar, a major heroin producer.

The charges were “an old falsehood” propagated by a Singapore opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan, he said, adding that the city-state’s investments in Myanmar are “straightforward” commercial transactions.

He said the Singapore cabinet deliberated at length on Nguyen’s clemency petition and considered all relevant factors but decided not to treat him differently.

“We are all touched by the pain and anguish of Mr Nguyen’s mother, but if we waver in our firm position against drug trafficking, many more families will be shattered,” he added.

Drug trafficking ‘deserves death penalty’: Singapore PM

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has defended his country’s decision to execute convicted Australian drug-runner Van Nguyen this week, saying “drug trafficking is a crime that deserves the death penalty”.

Speaking to France’s Le Figaro newspaper ahead of a meeting in Paris with French President Jacques Chirac, Mr Lee justified Singapore’s position when asked specifically about the case of Van Nguyen.

The 25-year-old Melbourne man of Vietnamese background was arrested at Changi airport three years ago while in transit from Cambodia to Australia with 400 grams of heroin in his possession.

Mr Lee says the death penalty, which is mandatory for the trafficking of significant amounts of drugs in Singapore, “is necessary and is part of the criminal justice system,” he says in his interview with the paper.

“We also think that drug trafficking is a crime that deserves the death penalty. The evil inflicted on thousands of people with drug trafficking demands that we must tackle the source by punishing the traffickers rather than trying to pick up the pieces afterwards,” he said.

“It’s a law which is approved of by Singapore’s inhabitants and which allows us to reduce the drug problem.”


Amnesty denies glorifying Nguyen

Related Audio
SA Premier Mike Rann says has described Van Nguyen as a potential murderer and says his sentence should be kept into perspective.

[RealMedia 28k+] [WinMedia 28k+ ] [MP3]

The lawyer for convicted drug smuggler Van Nguyen says there is little hope his client will escape his looming execution.

[RealMedia 28k+] [WinMedia 28k+] [MP3]

Amnesty International says it is not trying to portray Melbourne man Van Nguyen as a hero in the lead-up to his hanging in Singapore for drug smuggling.

The human rights group has responded to comments made by South Australian Premier Mike Rann, who has called for people to put the planned execution of the 25-year-old on Friday into perspective.

Mr Rann says while he opposes the death penalty, he believes calls for sanctions against Singapore and a minute’s silence to mark the execution are outrageous.

But Amnesty International’s anti-death penalty coordinator, Tim Goodwin, says the Premier is missing the point.

“This campaign is not about defending Van Nguyen by any means,” he said.

“He committed a very serious criminal offence and an offence that he clearly needs to be punished for and punished very severely.

“This is an argument about a fundamental violation, which is the death penalty.”


The Greens say they have legal advice that Australia may be able to extradite Nguyen.

Senator Kerry Nettle says she will move a motion in the Senate today, calling on the Federal Government to try everything possible to extradite him.

Senator Nettle says the Government has previously been advised that extradition is not possible.

But she says there may be a loophole if Nguyen is charged by Australian authorities with conspiracy to import heroin.

“The Government has put forward arguments to say that you would not be able to charge Van Nguyen here with importing heroin,” she said.

“That’s why the request from the Council of Civil Liberties is to charge him with conspiracy to import heroin because it’s a separate charge so the double jeopardy does not come into play.”


Just two days away from his scheduled execution, Nguyen is again being visited by family and friends.

His lawyer Lex Lasry, QC, has also arrived for an official visit to his client.

Earlier, Nguyen’s friends Bronwyn Lew and Kelly Ng visited him, while his mother and brother are expected to come to Changi Prison this afternoon.

There has been no word on whether Singapore will agree to a request from Nguyen’s mother, Kim, to be allowed to hug her son before he is executed.

Nguyen’s case is drawing attention in Singapore’s media.

The influential Straits Times newspaper has today run a number of articles and letters about the case, some of them from Australians supporting the Singapore Government’s stance.

Outcry over death penalty blurs line between fact and fiction: High Commissioner

By Pearl Forss, Channel NewsAsia

Singapore’s High Commissioner in Australia Joseph Koh said the outcry over the death penalty for drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van had made it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

In an article published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday, he noted that many Australians strongly oppose Singapore’s decision not to commute the death sentence.

While he respected these views, some facts remained.

For instance, contrary to some beliefs, Singapore has not breached any international law as there isn’t any international agreement to abolish the death penalty.

And while some Australians feels the death penalty has not deterred drug trafficking, statistics in Singapore show otherwise.

Mr Koh also refuted arguments that the Australian drug trafficker was an unsuspecting victim.

While Nguyen may not be a hardened criminal, he is not an unsuspecting victim either.

He knew what he was doing and the penalty if caught.

Had he succeeded, Nguyen would have made a lot of money.

Some have also pleaded for leniency for Nguyen as they believe he can testify against the drug syndicates.

But Mr Koh said the information that Nguyen provided was in fact intended to mislead and delay investigations by the authorities.

Responding to allegations that Singapore connives with drug lords in Myanmar by investing in the Myanmar Fund, Mr Koh said Singapore had made clear its investments in Myanmar were open and above board.

Stressing that Singapore values its good relations with Australia, Mr Koh added that both countries shared a common belief in the sanctity of the law.

The High Commissioner said Australians who oppose the death sentence on Nguyen would not agree with everything he has said.

But he hoped they would accept that the Singapore government had a responsibility to protect the many lives that would otherwise be destroyed by the drug syndicates, and to prevent Singapore from becoming a conduit for illicit drugs in the region.

Mr Koh said Singapore was touched by the pain and anguish of Nguyen’s mother, but if it wavered in its firm position against drug trafficking, many more families would be shattered.

Nguyen’s execution has been scheduled for Friday December 2. – CNA/ch

Singapore paper claims Australians support execution

November 30, 2005 – 1:45PM

Singapore’s leading newspaper claims ordinary Australians support the decision to hang convicted drug courier Nguyen Tuong Van.

The Straits Times today cited an email sent to Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo from a man whose 40-year-old son and daughter-in-law were said to be drug addicts.

The man, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed anger at those who showed sympathy for drug peddlers such as Nguyen, who is due to be hanged on Friday.

The report entitled “Few Aussies against Nguyen hanging, says addict’s dad” concluded that: “His email coming amid criticism from human rights and other activists, suggests ordinary Australians hold a different view and back Singapore.”

Nguyen was caught in transit at Changi airport in 2002 with 396 grams of heroin. Repeated pleas for mercy from the Australian Government, his family and friends, and the Catholic Church have fallen on deaf ears.

There is still no word from authorities as to whether Kim Nguyen will be allowed to hug her 25-year-old son when she sees him for the last time.

The Straits Times report on the unnamed Australian carried no reporter’s byline. The email was not released to the foreign media based in Singapore.

The report went on to describe the contents of the email, which talked about the difficulties faced by the father coping with his son and daughter-in-law’s addiction.

“I have the heartbreaking experience of dragging my son from our toilet with a needle in his arm, and he had stopped breathing,” the email was quoted as saying.

“If it hadn’t been for his wife knowing what to do, he would have died,” it said.

The email said that Australians backed the Singapore court’s decision to hang Nguyen.

Singapore’s main print and broadcast media, including The Straits Times, is firmly tied to the ruling People’s Action Party Government, which has run the country uninterrupted since independence more than 40 years ago.

The local media are not free in the mainstream western sense, but support what officials call “nation-building”.

The email to Mr Yeo said few Australians would support a call for a minute’s silence on Friday for Nguyen.


Elitism in stratified education.

There’s been some talk in the news lately about Singapore’s Gifted Education Programme (GEP) and whether it breeds elitism. While acknowledging that people should, generally, move on from their narrow educational backgrounds and create lives which are not defined by which class in which school they went to decades ago, I would have thought this was so obvious as not to require controversy. Of course the GEP – and all stratified education – breeds elitism.

The justification frequently raised in favour of stratified education is that it helps children learn better. The argument goes that the teacher can pitch the tenor of the lessons according to the abilities of the children involved, so that brighter kids can be taught at a faster rate without leaving others unable to follow, while slower kids can be instructed at a pace appropriate to them without boring the more talented. The result, it is claimed, is better education for all. And because children are streamed into the GEP or other better streams according to tests that determine their merit, this ensures equality of opportunity, regardless of socioeconomic background.

But is this what really happens? I’m going to address this question on three bases: first, the one of equality of opportunity; second, the one of pedagogical effectiveness; third, the question of what primary and secondary education should seek to do.

First, equality of opportunity. Any streaming system and the GEP presuppose that the tests that separate children into various strata do so on the basis of innate merit, and that such merit can be effectively identified at the ages when the tests are administered. But the criticisms of this are obvious. First, there are always children with the potential to be late bloomers, for whom being labelled as underachieving or a failure at an early age may prove a major obstacle to what would otherwise be a successful academic career. Secondly, these tests are undeniably biased towards those who with cultural advantages such as English-speaking parents or parents savvy enough to know the consequences of passing these tests, as well as towards those whose families have the money to supply them with books, tutors, and pleasant surroundings in which to study (and who don’t have to have their kids hold down part-time jobs to help the household make ends meet). The result is that children end up having a different quality of education not according to merit but according to class.

But does this matter? Don’t kids who have the disadvantages I’ve talked about need to be taught at a slower pace anyway, so that not being in the GEP or in a more advanced stream would ultimately be better for them? This brings me to the second question, that of pedagogical effectiveness. The argument that “everyone gets a better education” from stratification might be arguable if there were indeed equal resources being poured into both “good” schools and “bad” schools. But there aren’t. Motivated teachers prefer to teach classes full of bright kids rather than classes full of kids who are seen as disruptive wastrels, so clever children get better teachers and other children get worse ones. Moreover, the GEP has historically had a disproportionate amount of money allocated to it by the Ministry of Education, manifested most obviously in smaller classroom sizes.

Moreover, even if equal amounts were being spent on each kid per capita, regardless of their stream, this doesn’t neutralise the problem with stratified education in terms of classroom dynamic, which is a large part of the reason for streaming to begin with. It’s probably true that clever kids do better academically in an environment full of other clever kids: most of the kids who pass these tests are likely to be fairly well-behaved and task-oriented, because, as I’ve already mentioned, the selection procedure favours kids with at least moderately well-off, pushy and savvy parents. But this is at the expense of kids who’ve achieved less, because, by definition, if the proportion of disruptive kids in GEP and other high-stream classes has decreased, the proportion of disruptive kids in the other classes has increased. So that children left in these classes – the vast majority of children in the educational system – face an environment that makes it harder for them to learn. In many cases, these kids don’t need to be taught at a slower pace so much as they need to be in an environment where a focus on teaching is possible at all.

And I haven’t even begun to talk about the psychological effects of being told from an early age that you’re not as smart as Johnny Tan or Michelle Lim from the school next door, and you never will be, and that’s why you need to get dumped in the thicko bin.

But that ties in quite nicely with my third objection to stratified education. Is the point of education simply to churn out people who can do sums and write summaries? Or is part of the value of education the social factor – the opportunity it provides for children to learn to interact with a peer group and socialise with people? It seems to me that if, as I have suggested, kids with inherent advantages from their background will do well in any case, it is far less important that they learn one more scientific theorem or Shakespearean text than they otherwise could have, and more important that they learn what it’s like to be someone who doesn’t come from the sort of background that they come from. To learn that they are not those “other people” who go to that “other place” which is for people who aren’t as smart as you. It’s equally important that children who don’t achieve as much academically learn that they can interact with those who do as equals and peers, and that not everyone who goes to a good school is a rich snob.

People say you don’t need school to do this – that children can mix with other children in their own time – but you can’t discount the influence of the school environment. Children spend the vast majority of their time there. What they see in their classes becomes, in their minds, a sort of normalised, representative vision of the world they live in. It may well be the case – it should hopefully be the case – that they may change their minds about this the more they see of the world, and come to realise that they came from a very specific background. But too often this takes the form of a sort of subcutaneous elitism, a deeply rooted assumption that as a gifted or highly educated child one is innately better or more rational or intelligent in some overarching, holsitic way – when all they’ve done is answer test questions better. Yes, people can shrug off the influence of the school environment towards elitism, but why install that influence to begin with? We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the place that they spent every working day for years upon years during a formative stage of their life, especially as many children who do well in school then go on to tertiary education where they continue to be surrounded by others who share their social and economic status to a large degree.

A final word: it seems to me much of the claims relating to better teaching in streamed systems can be answered by simply having a much less weighty syllabus to begin with. Teach kids less in the regular curriculum, so that most kids can keep up with it; and then offer completely optional courses and extra-curriculuar activities so that kids who are interested in finding out more have the opportunity to do so. I think bright kids will do even better out of a system that lets them shape their own intellectual – and other – exploration in their free time.