December 05, 2005 | Jeff Wall

Why the community is very divided over capital punishment

I was surprised that the community’s reaction to the hanging of Van Nguyen was not more overwhelmingly against what is a barbaric form of capital punishment than it was and given a generally sympathetic media coverage to his plight.
Listening to a range of open line programs, and talking to a reasonable cross section of the community I mix in, leaves me with a couple of suggestions why the opposition to his execution was not more decisive.
I suspect a clear majority of Australians oppose capital punishment – in Australia. But our attitude to its imposition in other countries, most notably in our region, is much less clear cut.
The message I am picking up is that an increasing number of Australian families are being directly impacted by the tragedy of drug abuse, and drugs such as heroin in particular.
People who have lost a loved one, or have seen a young life ruined, by drug abuse are especially vocal on open line programs – and overwhelmingly in favour of the tough line being taken in South East Asia.
And one has to say that the “Bali Nine” did not bolster support for Van Nguyen. The anti- “Bali Nine” attitude is overwhelming, though sympathy for Shappell Corby is much higher.
I sense a lot of concern at the barbarism of hanging…but much less opposition to the principle of capital punishment itself. And the support for the death penalty is very strong when it relates for terrorists, followed by drug traffickers, and much less so for murderers.
Public concern at the threat hard drugs present to our society is much, much greater than politicians, or the media, appreciate.
The argument that the support for his hanging was race-based is not supported by my interpretation of open line caller opinion at all. Indeed, the fact his mother is a refugee from Vietnam was in his favour in terms of public sympathy.
There is one other factor that worked against the young man in the public mind in Australia.
A large number of Australians have visited Singapore over the years and there is wide admiration for the city state’s safety, its cleanliness and prosperity. The fact it is not a democracy troubles comparatively few.
That has led to considerable actual support among open line callers for Singapore’s hard line approach to drug traffickers.
No one issue led to the very mixed community response to the events leading up to early last Friday morning in Singapore.
But a combination of circumstances – some unique to Singapore – combined to produce a community response that was quite different to the political and media view.
It may well change in the future, but the attitudes I have detected do not augur well for the Bali Nine.
They may well have cause to be grateful for the fact that the Indonesian Government has a considerably more flexible, and compassionate, approach to requests for clemency than does Indonesia, or Malaysia.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 10:40 pm | Comments (2) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. I think a lot of people take the pragmatic view that what Nguyen did was wrong, and that he should have been punished according to the rule of law in the country he was arrested. Apparently it doesn’t really matter how barbaric the punishment is.
    Sadly, I tend to think this view was consolidated in the minds of some by the fact that Nguyen was Asian.

    Comment by Guy — December 6, 2005 @ 8:30 am

  2. It has long been known that the death penalty does not stop people committing crimes. In the 70’s American lawyer, Clarence Darrow, said:
    “You can trace the burnings, the boilings, the drawings, and quarterings, the hanging of people in England at the crossroads, carving them up and hanging them as examples for all to see. We can come down to the last century when nearly two hundred crimes were punishable by death. You can read the stories of the hangings on a high hill, and the populace for miles around coming out to the scene, that everybody might be awed into goodness. Hanging for picking pockets – and more pockets were picked in the crowd that went to the hanging than had been known before. Hangings for murder – and men were murdered on the way there and on the way home. Hangings for poaching, hangings for everything and hanging in public, not shut up cruelly and brutally in jail, out of the light of day, wakened in the nighttime and led down and killed, but taken to the shire town on a high hill, in the presence of a multitude, so that all might see that the wages of sin were death. And what happened? Nothing.”
    What makes people think things are any different today? Singapore’s streets may be safer, but it’s not because its citizens have been turned off crime through fear of the death penalty – over 100 of them were executed in the last year alone. The only reason the streets are safer is that legalized murder is being carried out on a regular and continuing basis. Put bluntly, those who don’t toe the line are being exterminated. That’s a pretty gruesome price to pay for sanitizing your environment. If something offends you, get rid of it. The trouble is, these are human beings we are talking about.
    And what is the one characteristic all human beings share? – our propensity to make mistakes, to sin, if you like. None of us is perfect – we ALL do the wrong thing sometimes – and none of us can know exactly what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Nor, I believe, do any of us have the right to proclaim that another person has forfeited his right to go on living. The very idea of punishing someone for murder by committing the same crime yourself is an anathema. Do we strike a child as punishment for hitting someone? Do we kick someone out of school, denying him an education, because he does not conform to the rules?
    Surely God put us on this earth to learn how to live with each other – and that includes everyone, not just the so-called ‘good’ people. I believe we have a duty to at least try to help those of us who have seriously lost the plot. The purpose of our prisons should be twofold – punishment, yes, but more importantly, rehabilitation. The death penalty sends a message that the community has given up on these people even when, as was the case with Van Nguyen, it is clear that many of them might have gone on to lead useful, productive lives. Some, like Van Nguyen, could have made a significant contribution to the community. His death is a crime which diminishes us all. Life should be about compassion and learning how to help each other, not hardline, inflexibility, masquerading under the name of so-called ‘Justice’.

    Comment by Narelle — December 7, 2005 @ 10:59 am

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