An arrest in Singapore

Time for me to climb on my soapbox. My attention this week was caught by the story of British author Alan Shadrake. The 75-year-old writer has been held by the Singaporean authorities for promoting his book on the death penalty that still exists in the country. He has been arrested for alleged criminal defamation and “other offences”, and his passport has been impounded.

Shadrake’s book, Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice In The Dock, contains examples of high-profile cases in Singapore that used the death penalty, and includes interviews with a former executioner, Darshan Singh. It sounds like a fascinating subject, but evidently it’s not something Singapore’s authorities wish to dwell upon.

It’s easy to feel crestfallen about Shadrake’s unpleasant predicament. Here we have an afeared government using criminal defamation laws to silence a critic of government policies, a single voice in the crowd who dares to speak out. Whether one is for or against the use of the death penalty, who wouldn’t be disappointed by that? I suspect pressure applied by western governments and NGOs such as Amnesty International (which has already expressed its disapproval) will eventually lead to Shadrake’s release, but the impact on freedom of speech has been keenly felt.

However, as well as feeling frustrated, I also felt heartened to a degree. Heartened by this reminder that words can still carry such power, the kind of power that can make entire governments quiver and quake. Heartened by the way in which simple ink on paper can threaten to upturn the status quo. The Singaporean government’s actions speak volumes about their fear, and that in turn reinforces my faith in the written word.

Almost eighty years after the earliest Nazi book burnings, Shadrake’s case is a timely reminder to us all about the power of language, and that truly makes me happy – and perhaps even a little proud, in a strange way.

Alan Shadrake, when I do find an outlet that sells your book, I shall be first in line for a copy.

Chris Greenhough

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