The contents of this well-researched book were so depraved and disturbing, that it took me several weeks to (1) finish reading the book in its entirety, and (2) gather my thoughts about it in order to write a cohesive review.
I would have thought that the book was a work of fiction were it not for the ‘non-fiction’ label at the back of the book in the print version.
Back in 2013, former ISD director Mr. Yoong Siew Wah mentioned “the callousness of the Singapore government” on his blog.
This callous and insensitive aspect that is completely lacking in any compassion for humanity, is certainly apparent in Once A Jolly Hangman. The title alone points to the bizarre nature of the system, where the macabre act of hanging a human being is undertaken with joy as if it were a festive occasion and cause for celebration.
Perhaps the most morbid fact mentioned is the “Death Row Diet.”
As it says in the book, “Beyond the walls of Changi Prison hanged prisoners’ organs are worth tens of thousands of dollars each.”
As if this fact of profiting from dead prisoners’ bodies were not deplorable enough, the prisoners on death row who sign the consent form to donate their organs for transplant or research are put on a special regime known as the Death Row Diet. This diet consists of high-quality, nutritious food to “ensure the organs are in perfect condition for transplant after they are hanged.”
Is this not a form of ultimate exploitation of human life, where one profits handsomely from the dead and forgotten?
The other thoroughly disgusting component of the book has to do with the racial bias of the elites. The author, Alan Shadrake, structures the book around several real-life accounts to show how people with money and the right connections have the means to prevent themselves from being executed by the state. If you’re poor, uneducated, or of an undesirable race (or, to phrase it a little better, your skin colour is not the right one), yours is the “pitiful, hopeless situation” where even the innocent may end up being executed.
Alan Shadrake went to jail because of this book — for contempt by scandalising the court. A scandal can be defined as an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage. How is the author scandalising the court when his book is based on scandalous facts?
What Alan Shadrake did with this book was to give the deceased a human face, since their lives weren’t worth anything to the Singapore authorities (apart from what could be gained from their organs, post-mortem). This further highlights the hypocrisy of Changi Prison’s motto.
I didn’t even know Changi Hilton — I mean, Changi Prison — had a motto until reading this book. That motto is:
“Captains of Lives: Rehab, Renew, Restart.”
From their own website:
“RENEW is a commitment an inmate makes to change his/her life for the better. Through the CARE Network, our offenders are given opportunities to restart their lives.”
Renew? Restart? Tell that to the families of Flor Contemplacion, Angel Mou Pui-Peng, Amara Tochi, Shanmugam Murugesu (a Tamil Singaporean former jet ski champion and army regular), Nguyen Van Tuong, Vignes Mourthi, and countless others who were executed in Singapore for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, without the riches or powerful connections to help them out of their dire situation. Or to the family members of Huizuan with regard to her tragic death in Changi Women’s Prison in 2011, which could have been avoided if more care had been shown by the prison staff in her medical condition before her death.
What is even worse is that Changi Prison sends out a letter to the families of the individual on death row informing them of when the execution will take place — a letter which has that same motto emblazoned on the bottom of the page.
This was truly one of the most despicable and morbid books I’ve ever read. It reveals a darker side which the authorities would likely prefer to keep hidden beneath the country’s veneer of justice, cleanliness and efficiency.
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Once A Jolly Hangman (Amazon.com)
Book Depository (Free Shipping)
Wikipedia | Guardian UK | Interview (Author: Alan Shadrake)
Murdoch Books / Pier 9 (Publisher)
Singapore sentences UK author to jail (Amnesty International)