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Still safe to read, no ban on Alan Shadrake’s book – yet

Still safe to read, no ban on Alan Shadrake’s book – yet

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Alan Shadrake’s book Once A Jolly Hangman is not as bad and scary as the authorities make it out to be. I know, because it hasn’t been banned.

By Belmont Lay

SINGAPORE has a habit of banning stuff it vehemently disagrees with.

Over the years, we’ve banned chewing gum, guns, drugs, contraband cigarettes, public nudity, graffitti, pornography, moonshine, euthanasia, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, public gatherings of four persons or more, secret societies, Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope and All For You albums, Malaysian newspapers from circulation here, satellite dishes and recently, face-painting plus drum-banging during Thaipusam…

Ok, deep breath. The list is long and I could go on.

Therefore, I will.

We have also banned public protests, whores from soliciting openly, all trade unions except for one, knuckle dusters, Puff, the Magic Dragon, independent newspapers, Dustin Lance Black’s 2009 Academy Awards acceptance speech, men with long hair from entering government buildings, Mr Brown from print newspaper, walking around with a political party logo on Polling Day, Sex and The City, Cosmopolitan magazine, Singlish from free-to-air, local play Human Lefts, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and not to mention, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, which has been prohibited from being played over our airwaves for the longest time. (That hasn’t deterred me from playing it at home often enough at Krakatoan levels until I’m convinced my parents are capable of singing the first stanza whenever they hear the A – C – E – A arpeggio.)

But here’s one thing Singapore hasn’t banned: Veteran British writer Alan Shadrake’s book, Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore’s Justice in the Docks.

Now, look, this is where I’m confused.

Chewing gum causes MRT train doors to be jammed open or shut leaving a sticky trail and can be a public nuisance, so therefore, it has to go.

Dustin Lance Black’s 81st Academy Awards acceptance speech might make nuns blush, so you know, it really is, well… erm. Therefore, it has to go too.

Drinking moonshine can make you mad and that is a scientific fact.

And what could be worse than all these three instances?

Last October, Justice Quentin Loh ruled in Shadrake’s trial that his book, which was primarily about the death penalty, could cause readers to lose faith in Singapore’s justice system.

This was because the book implied judges were “influenced by political and economic situations and are biased against the weak and the poor.”

That’s a pretty serious charge, isn’t it?

Shadrake, who wrote mainly about cases involving the death penalty and his interview with Singapore’s ex-hangman Darshan Singh in 2004, was subsequently convicted for “scandalising Singapore’s judiciary” and sentenced to six weeks in jail plus a $20,000 fine.

And if he can’t cough up the money, sorry pal, it’s another two more weeks of free accommodation.

That’s a pretty serious penalty too, isn’t it?

Shadrake, who is 76-going-on-77, appealed. He’s represented by M Ravi, who is the only remaining human rights advocate-lawyer in Singapore.

So, on Monday this week, after more than five months of waiting since sentencing, I showed up at the Court of Appeal anticipating the outcome.

But there was none. Apparently, after two hours of interminable legal jargon that left everyone for dead plus a heavy-burdened bladder, the judges reserved judgement and court was adjourned.

Which means, on top of rigor mortis and the urgency to pee, we are left with a whole lot more of head-scratching and shoulder-shrugging.

Shadrake didn’t even come close to what criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan wrote explicitly when he gave a damning indictment of the criminal justice system.

“So when will we know the outcome?” Not too sure.

“What about the investigation supposedly stemming from charges of criminal defamation?” No one knows, really. (Ravi thinks it is over. Shadrake thinks it’s not.)

“So did you actually violate the Official Secrets Act?” Your guess is as good as mine, man.

“After all these your book is technically not banned?” Hell yeah!

But as always, I have the happy solution: Since the whole deal is done with in court, and the appeal court judges can’t seem to decide, why not ask a layperson for an opinion?

How about me? I’ve read the book. I’ve even got it autographed. I’m a member of the public. I’m perfectly qualified to speak about how I feel about the book’s contents. It’s also my perception that the courts are interested in, no?

All I can say is:

Get.

A.

Life.

Shadrake didn’t even come close to what criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan wrote explicitly when he gave a damning indictment of the criminal justice system.

Check out what Subhas had to say about criminal law in Singapore on page 87 of his autobiography, The Best I Could: “Though there is a “presumption of innocence”, according to our Constitution, the man in the street cannot be blamed if he thinks that he has to prove his innocence in court. The law is lopsided. So many aspects of the criminal law are loaded against the accused. The Constitution says one thing but in practice, it’s different.”

How the hell should this be perceived as not as damaging as what Shadrake wrote about? The last time I checked, The Best I Could was still available on the shelves.

And another point: I surely didn’t read Once A Jolly Hangman and come to the same conclusions as Justice Loh.

My take is that the main patch of grass Shadrake’s book seems to be plowing on is as old as the Greeks: When the ancient Scythian philosopher Anacharsis said that laws are like cobwebs, he meant that they are strong enough to only detain the weak, and too weak to hold the strong.

And how is this thought by Anacharsis unlike what I quoted Subhas as saying that criminal law has a lopsided quality this side of the world now?

So, here’s the point of today’s missive: If the Court of Appeal were to uphold Shadrake’s conviction, it might just vindicate Anacharsis.

And this might just prompt another writer somewhere, sometime in the future to write a book about how the laws are like cobwebs again.

And then that author will face the same predicament.

Ipso facto, it will continue forevermore.

The sun will implode, turn into a blackhole and an event horizon will emerge on its edge. And you and I will become chopped liver.

And Stephen Hawking will be vindicated.

Too.

And how is propounding this bit of astrophysical theory by a man who could not hold a pen to write down a thought or mathematical equation in the last 30 years due to Lou Gehrig’s disease be not as bad and scary as everything else Singapore has ever banned?

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