Here is a very measured opinion from a classmate (Class of 1959) from The Mine.
IT IS some time since we have been addressed by the Singaporean and Malaysian leadership about Asian values. But the subject was of lively interest, there and here, a decade or so ago.
As the issue was then framed by regional leaders, the Asian values challenge combined and confused several related but distinct notions. The proponents of the Asian values thesis insisted that others recognise, in everyday action, the principle of national sovereignty, the right of the nations of Asia to manage their own affairs independently.
This insistence they combined with, and justified on the basis of, a second principle: the obligation of outsiders to acknowledge and respect cultural pluralism…
In the case of Nguyen Tuong Van, as with Barlow and Chambers in Malaysia almost two decades ago, this slippage between the several elements of the Asian values package has been turned into an issue not only of capital punishment but also an argument over what form it takes: execution by hanging.
For many Australians, the core issue emotionally, no less than their opposition to the idea of recourse to state-sanctioned killing as a purported means of affirming the value of human life, is their abhorrence of this gruesome method of execution…
Yet what the Singaporean authorities are now defending is the prolongation of one of the most brutal techniques of colonial political policing. The disturbing fact that the region’s state hangmen still base their technique on the former colonial hangman’s Table of Drops and Weights attests to this morbidly prolonged attachment to a sadistic method of dissuasion.
Whatever is involved here is anything but Asian values. But here lies another terrible irony. Just as Malaysians and Singaporeans seem unable to acknowledge the peculiar psycho-cultural sources of their adherence to the borrowed, rather than inherited, instruments of colonial brutality, so too do Australians have a similar difficulty. We seem, many of us, incapable of identifying and reflecting upon the deep and powerful sources of our own abhorrence, so widespread in this country, of that same method of execution.
We take for granted and do not comprehend why others cannot recognise hanging for what it is and has come to mean to us. For most of us, hanging remains a signature method and an unmistakeable symbol of class vengeance, state retribution, colonial brutalisation and the imperial ruthlessness of a callous bygone age.
Whether or not we can or are obliged to understand others and to accept them as they are, we would do well to understand ourselves, who we are and what made us so. Were we to do so, we might just do a little better in our attempts to persuade others of the principled grounds and cultural authenticity of our powerfully held but perhaps, to others, puzzling convictions.
David Marr reflects on another disturbing aspect: “A typical talkback caller was logged this week applauding the prospect of Nguyen’s death and “wishing a lot of Singapore’s laws should be invoked in Australia because we are too lenient”. While Singaporeans were on the line saying they were ashamed of their own country, Australians were applauding the clean, safe, tough little republic up north for showing us how things should be done.”
I would advocate capital punishment for one class of offence only: the most horrendous crimes against humanity such as mass murder or genocide. But even there the possibility of error and injustice remains open, especially if revenge is the prime motivation.