Came to know about this exhibition last weekend, and decided to drop by with my best friend.
I have always been interested in the subject of death – from casual interest like watching CSI to serious learning via documentaries. Aside from my own grandparents’, I haven’t exactly seen corpses in close distance.
What was I expecting from the exhibition?
To learn more about the other perspective. Other countries have commented a lot about Singapore – lack of freedom, full of laws and regulations, and inhumane in carrying out death sentences. In a sense, I get it. I understand that other countries may have more freedom but it’s like families, isn’t it? Some people are born in richer families, but the others may have more of something else too. Just because I don’t agree to what pro-life supporters think, doesn’t mean I should shut them out completely.
What’s my own perspective?
I am, without a shadow of doubt, a pro-death sentence person.
I count myself fortunate for having a friend who is mature and close enough to agree to visit such exhibitions with me, instead of movie and shopping. (Well, we also did that eventually)
Going through the exhibition, we discussed a lot and in-depth. She knows more about the penitentiary and type of death sentences carried out in Taiwan, while I know more about those in the US (thanks to documentaries online).
What struck me about the exhibition was… How much emphasis is placed on the ‘what ifs’ and ‘mistakes’ – xx was convicted, later found innocent; xx was just juvenile when he committed murder; xx was poor and poorly educated.
Scenario #1: The innocent who suffered
Yes, there will always be wrong sentences. As much as our parents may wrongly accuse/assume us of doing something wrong, as much as our teachers may blame the wrong students every now and then. But does that mean we have to omit all punishments, because some may actually be innocent?
Scenario #2: Those convicted were born poor/poorly educated
Every single human being is created different, but even children from the same pair of parents and raised in the same environment can turn out different. You can be poor but still willing to learn. You can be rich but choose to waste your life away. There is no guaranteed link to how being well-educated = successful in life and clean record.
In fact, my parents did not receive much education. My mum only finished primary school and my dad was from ITE. Even in harsh growing conditions, my mum is one of the most motivated keen learner I know and my dad, the smartest person I know who taught himself the many skills he has.
Scenario #3: They were young when they committed the crimes
Maybe I’m harsh but I don’t ever believe that juveniles should escape the death sentence just because they are young. In minor cases like theft and statutory rape, yeah, you can say that they aren’t matured enough to exercise self-control. But murder?
At what age is murder okay?
I am fully aware of how cruel death sentences can be. Like the guy who was sentenced to death in Singapore because drug was found in the rented vehicle he drove to Singapore. I feel sorry and regretful for his family who lost a member.
But on a more objective note, I felt that such sentences are important. As the first of its kind, it sets the standard for cases that follow. If this is excusable, drug trafficking via rented vehicle becomes a loophole in our system.
I couldn’t help but think of death penalty like the meat industry. We know it’s cruel, we try our best to avoid the cruelty but when it’s a necessity, we try to do it the most humane way possible. It’s not like we are torturing them in the worst way possible to ensure maximum suffering. In a sense, it’s civilized…?
Most importantly for me, it’s something we held on to that is actually effective in keeping our country one of the safest in the world. On the flip side, as my friend and I were discussing, the so-called pro-life hasn’t convinced us that it helps to turn someone around just because they are past adolescent, or because they were given a second chance.
From a victim’s perspective, how am I supposed to feel safe knowing that even with death sentence, they may be released on parole some time down the road?
Why this exhibition doesn’t work in Singapore
At the end of our visit, we had a brief chat with a representative of the organizing team. But the brief chat briefly infuriated me (deep down), which leads me to my next point – reflecting on why this exhibition doesn’t work in Singapore and hasn’t changed my perspective on pro-death penalty.
- Cultural differences
To be honest, what first drew me to this exhibition was the photographer being a Japanese. It is surprising because I don’t see it as a surprise coming from a Westerner, but Asian? Yeah.
So I did a quick read-up (emphasis: briefly) about him and then ah, I see why. An Asian, but based in New York.
There is a huge gap in our cultures – from what I see, the Westerners are more outspoken, they are quicker to develop a sense of passion and justice. Take the US for example, they are more compelled to voice out their opinions, protest, and not to mention the many hashtag movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #TakeAKnee, #Kony2012 and #MeToo.
In Singapore, we are taught to be more focused on our country’s development, economic and financial situation. We are taught to be logical so we’re more likely to be passive, thinking, yes you go on the streets to shout. Then what?
In a TL;DR sense, I’d think that many Singaporeans relate death penalty to justice and overall nation security. Pro-life and seem like a humane country but criminals not served justice, hence condone crimes – that seems to be the underlying mindset that the organizers have to realize people have.
On the contrary, the westerners have a much stronger cause for pro-life, such as criminal and racial discrimination that led to lack of faith in their system.
Why would Singaporeans be against something that has kept us safe all these years?
- Lack of understanding of target audience
What irked me about the brief conversation with the organizing representative, was how they assumed that Singaporeans are ignorant. It pissed me off real bad.
The argument was that Singapore is part of the minority globally that still carries out death penalty and that Singaporeans are supporting something of which is cruelty that we are not aware of.
Call me the minority for all I care, but no, I actually do some reading up on the matter. I feel a little cheated in a sense that despite being pro-death penalty, I have taken time to understand the details – I’ve seen hanging demonstration in Malaysia, I’ve read up on the different means like death by lethal injection, execution, electrocution, etc.
And you’re trying to convince me through your exhibition, on the grounds that you’re here to educate us that we are making an ignorant and inhumane mistake? Have you taken the time to understand our perspective, empathize with us and then build your argument? Maybe you should try that.
- Lack of convincing statistics and studies
I understand that it’s a photography exhibition but with its agenda, I was hoping to see more statistics, follow-up observations and study reports.
For example, there were photos of criminals who were given the death penalty and found to be innocent. What percentage per year? What percentage per region, say, in US compared to Asia?
You say that juveniles should be given a chance. So what percentage of them grow up to become “normal” and/or successful, and/or percentage of them end up going in and out of prison later on in their lives? What worked and what didn’t?
Which leads me to my next point –
- Overwhelming sense of minority rights
Without solid statistics to back up the agenda, it almost feels as if it’s a cry for the minority that the system failed to do justice for. And when that is the case, it doesn’t make sense for Singaporeans to convert, because they don’t see the benefit for the majority, which sadly, is what matters logically. We’re not trying to be perfect, we’re trying to be functional.
- The balance in Singapore
The last point I felt that made this exhibition ineffective for Singaporeans, is because of our trust in our system. As our Ministry of Home Affairs has once clarified, the death penalty has been effective in keeping our country safe and is only for serious offends.
For Singaporeans like me, we know that our death penalty hasn’t been given out loosely – we’re not killing people on a large liberal scale, and we’ve kept to a certain benchmark.
In a sense, you can call our system imperfect, but it is one that’s functioning well with the faith of the people. There is no huge gap for this pro-life campaign to fill in and potentially overturn the system.
Just an add-on from what I recall being told – that compared to some countries in our region, only about 70+% of Singaporeans support the death penalty, which is why they came to Singapore.
I see that as an effect of foreigners influx to our nation, bringing their cultures, values and mindset with them. But has anything in the past 10 years impacted the true Singaporeans’ perspective?
If anything, our lack of tolerance for murders like in the Huang Na case and for drug traffickers have upheld our nation’s reputation.
It’s almost 5am as I write till this point, so you see how compelled I feel about writing this review. As with what we were taught in school, I think it’s important to think about…
What would have made this exhibition more effective?
- An agenda adjustment Instead of a campaign-like event in hope of changing what people believe in, move the focus to education. You know how beauty parlors are touting their products but they always say it’s just to let you know how effective this is and you don’t necessarily have to buy it? Educate. Be more open-ended to leave space for reflections, discussions and suggestions. Take a step back from the current more-extreme perspective to connect with the majority.
- Get back to a layman’s ground
Maybe I’ve misunderstood, but from the exhibition, it feels like the photographer was a commercial photographer who moved to focus on this issue? I would think that it would be great if he could take a step back and get back to the industry, to try different types of work.
Like why our MPs attend community gatherings, it brings them back to the people, the foundation of the society, instead of being cooped up as a bunch in the parliament.
- Be more engaging
Like what our government is doing, but hopefully in a less-cringey way.
In recent years, it seems that our government has been trying hard to relate complicated issues like CPF and Medisave to our people in simpler terms that we are familiar with – short films, comic brochures, engaging/heartwarming (cringeworthy) ads, instead of the news presenter formal way.
I understand that black and white photos can be impactful, but it gets a little depressing and disconnecting seeing a gallery in full black and white. Add life to the issue of pro-life! Show the warmth with the family whose child escaped the sentence, the good, the bad, the controversial, the personal, not just what benefits your agenda. It would make a much more balanced and well-rounded argument and fair analysis of the situation too.