When in Rome, Don’t Smuggle Drugs

by on December 1st, 2005

According to reports from the Associated Press, Singapore hanged a 25-year–old Australian man this morning for drug trafficking. The execution came amid pleas for clemency from all over the world, and accusations that the clemency process in Singapore lacks transparency.

While the death penalty is arguably one of humankind’s more barbaric customs, it is rather difficult to support a claim that the government of Singapore should have done something different, or in the future should do something different.

The man, Nguyen Tuong Van, was caught leaving Singapore with nearly a pound of heroin 3 years ago. Singaporean law dictates that drug smuggling of this sort is a capital offense. Nguyen knew, or should have known that heroin was illegal in Singapore. Failing to know and understand the laws of a country where one travels is reckless at best.

The man broke the law of a sovereign nation and got caught. The nation has established its own laws, which is part of the right of sovereignty. The penalty attaches to the act, not the person, which is to say that Nguyen was hanged because of his crime, not because he was Nguyen.

The young man’s lawyer complained that he was “completely rehabilitated,” and therefore should not receive the full punishment, especially because he was so young. Of all the people who should understand the matter, the lawyer is the most surprising. Of course the young man was rehabilitated. Under pain of death, many persons have acquired virtue they otherwise lacked. There was no guarantee that this young man would have remained rehabilitated. In fact, having eluded the penalty would as likely make him bolder as keep him in the straight-and-narrow path. There is one guarantee, however; Nguyen Truong Van will not be smuggling any more heroin anywhere, ever.

His youth is even less reason to refrain from punishment. The world needs many things, but more young men to whom the laws do not apply is not among those needs. Singapore is very clear about where it stands. They hang drug smugglers. Young, old, rehabilitated or not. Their rationale is that while “dead men build no fences,” neither do they traffic in drugs.

The government of Singapore has been criticized for having a clemency process that lacks transparency. The process does not need transparency. The law has transparency aplenty: Smuggle drugs, get caught, get hanged. A five-year-old could understand it. The point of the harsh penalty is to discourage the drug trade. It works, but it takes an occasional high-profile case like this one to make it work.

Some find fault with the clemency process because during the last 40 years, all the prisoners granted clemency were Singaporean. These fault-finders might also note that all of those Singaporeans could fit in an elevator at once—there have only been six.

The outrage expressed by the Australian government is the hardest thing to understand. Australians’ choice not to impose the death penalty seems slender grounds to ask another country to break its own laws. The Australians may think Singaporean law harsh and barbaric; judging from the outcry, they do. Nevertheless, Australians are subject to the laws on the ground. One wonders if Nguyen might have had more respect for the drug laws of Singapore if those of Australia were harsher.

Persons of foreign nationality who disagree with the laws of Singapore are under no duress to visit. The concept of civil disobedience takes on another dimension here. Anyone who goes to a foreign country and decides that the laws that country do not apply to him or her, for whatever reason, takes a life-or-death chance.

Nguyen gambled and lost. Asians have a very different way of looking at things from westerners. They see that there are many, many people in the world, and that laws are the dikes that keep chaos out. Asia is so heavily populated that three children were born before Nguyen’s body was cut down from the gallows. He was replaceable. There is room enough for those who do not disturb the tranquility of society, but little room for those who do.

Nguyen is now deceased. It seems unlikely that anyone is lining up to try to succeed where he failed. From that point of view, who could argue that the law does not work? No one has to applaud the law or like the law. Laws are not made for celebrating, but for keeping order. In this case, it seems to be doing exactly that.

&copy 2005 Ann Weaver Hart

Ann Weaver Hart