The life and times of Van Tuong Nguyen

As Australian readers will be quite well aware, for the last couple of weeks the headlines every day of every major newspaper have been concerned with the plight of Van Tuong Nguyen. Nguyen is an Australian who was convicted of drug trafficking in Singapore, after attempting to smuggle several hundred grams of Heroin on a flight, and consequently sentenced to death. After countless attempts to have his sentence commuted via diplomacy and court battles, Nguyen was finally executed this morning.

While I’m completely opposed to the death penalty, I’ve been pretty disgusted by much of the reaction here in Australia, particularly by the main stream media. In the lead up to Nguyens execution, some politicians were calling for an economic embargo against Singapore, others were participating in candle-lit vigils, others were demanding that the Prime Minister declare a national minute’s silence, all the while the media was making Nguyen out to be some sort of God who was an innocent victim and taking online polls on what we should do as a nation to remember him.

This reaction is absolutely appalling for two reasons. Firstly, these people have essentially been making out that old Nguyen was some kind of national hero and demanding the sort of tributes that we give to the war dead. Let’s be perfectly clear on what Nguyen was – a low-life drug trafficker, with no respect for the lives of people other than his own, and who was attempting to commit a crime, which, had it succeeded, would have cost the lives of countless individuals and ruined countless more. Secondly, Singapore, and many other nations for that matter, routinely execute people for the same crime. On all of these occasions there has been silence. The churches, the politicians, the media and the countless other groups who condemned the immorality of this execution have historically been silent. Only now, when an Australian citizen is sent to the gallows do they decide it’s worth protesting about. This completely undermines the moral credibility of all these groups. If we oppose the death penalty, which we should in my opinion, then we should oppose it per se, not just because it’s applied to an Australian. Effectively all these groups have been saying “it’s okay when you execute Singaporeans, they don’t count you see. But, if you ever lay a finger on an Australian we’ll refer you to the International Court of Justice and implement trade sanctions against you”.

Nuf said.

3 thoughts on “The life and times of Van Tuong Nguyen”

  1. While I agree that the campaigning that has been conducted in the media may have been grating to quite a few people, including yourself, I do not agree with your view that the groups protesting this execution undermine their moral credibility by not protesting previous executions, especially those of Singaporeans.

    The crux of the matter, Peter, is that they simply cannot do so. The protests you have seen no doubt came from Australians. This means that their protests simply will not work if they were doing it on behalf of a condemned Singaporean, because Singapore would just brush it away, not just as a gross interference in their domestic affairs, but also a totally misguided, unjustified and irrelevant one.

    To draw an analogy, you may welcome criticism of your work in quantum computing from well-known experts in your field. But if someone from the philosophy department were to level criticism at your work, would you take the criticism seriously?

    Coming back to this issue, it is because the condemned is now an Australian that these people can now make their protests heard. By your argument, they should not speak even now, which is absurd. You may be in good company: it seems to be the stand of the Singapore government as well.

    Other groups which can protest on behalf of a condemned Singaporean, however, have done so, and the link below is to a Amnesty International page detailing the case of a condemned (and executed) Singaporean convicted of the same offence, in which the organization has sought to intervene:

    I trust you may also have seen the interview, on ABC’s Lateline, of Dr Chee, an opposition politician (there are not too many of them) in Singapore, who has campaigned against Nguyen’s execution. There is also the Think Centre in Singapore, which has held vigils of protest for Nguyen and Murugesu, the condemned Singaporean. These are people who can and have spoken out, because they can, as Singaporean citizens or organizations.

    Is it too much to allow Australian voices to join in the protest against the MANDATORY death penalty for drug offences in Singapore? The Amnesty case file only makes the necessity of this amply clear: the Singapore civil society is tightly controlled by the government there, and they need all the help, domestic or international, that they can get. Have you taken this into consideration, given that you claim to be “completely opposed to the death penalty”?

    Finally, it is the faulty logic in your first reason that underpins the Singaporean stand, and which protesters are exposing as fallacious. Simply because drugs ruin lives does not necessarily mean that offenders should be executed for the crime. If you are seriously “completely opposed” to the death penalty, you would hopefully not demand the death penalty for peddlers of alcohol and tobacco, nor for reckless drivers. But all of these miscreants ruin other people’s lives, and they still live among us. Can they never be rehabilitated? Certainly not. So what makes peddlers of drugs so special a class of criminals that demands their execution?

  2. Will, thanks very much for your comments. I do agree with much of what you say. You’re completely right when you say that in the absence of a case pertaining to an Australian many of the protest groups here simply don’t have sufficient leverage to be heard. Absolutely right. I have no doubt, as you point out, that within Singapore there are anti death penalty groups which protest more broadly. Furthermore, I don’t in anything I say want to vindicate Singaporean policy on this issue. As I’ve stated, I am anti death penatly, and I do disagree with Nguyen’s punishment. However, I do maintain that it’s completely over the top for some politicians and branches of the media to suggest a nationwide minute’s silence for the death of drug trafficker, or to hold candle-lit vigils etc. Just because his sentence was unjust doesn’t mean that he deserves to be idolized, which has become the case.

    For future reference to all readers, anything written between &#60rant&#62&#60rant&#62 should be interpreted as an off-the-cuff, badly-construed, emotional, unbalanced, and by no means comprehensive point of view.

    Thanks again.

  3. “would have cost the lives of countless individuals and ruined countless more.”

    Hmmm, looks like you fell for it, hook, line and sinker. 26,000 hits, the Singapore government said … 26,000 potential deaths they said. Firstly, did anyone in our wonderful press corps think that perhaps someone should question the veracity of that figure, or just report it as “fact” ? Secondly, just assuming it might be true, how any deaths might result from that many hits ? According to Melbourne University drug policy researchers, 26,000 is about the number of hits required daily in Melbourne by those taking heroin. And since heroin deaths in Melbourne amount to fewer than one a week, the potential “impact” of this crime begins to diminish doesn’t it ?

    Don’t believe everything you read. Similarly, when Mick Kelty head of the AFP was trying to justify the AFP’s dobbing in the Bali 9 to the Indonesian police, he suggested that keeping their heroin out of Australia had potentially saved 2000 lives. Since the current rate of heroin deaths in Australia is about 400 a year, the Bali 9 must have been carrying 5 year’s worth of Australia’s heroin supply. Either that or Kelty was lying.

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