A young Indian woman is dead, the victim of an unspeakably sadistic gang rape. Her passing has triggered a wave of protests and soul searching in her country. People are angry. They want justice. They want answers. All this is understandable. Details of what happened to Amanat (a pseudonym coined by the media) on a bus in Delhi have been repeated and rehashed regularly online, on TV and in newspapers across the world. She was raped by six men and violated with a metal rod. They yanked out her intestines. According to one report, the men even tried to run her over with the bus. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could be so savage. Hard not to want Amanat’s attackers punished in the severest way possible.
And so calls are mounting that the six be put to death. They have already been arrested and charged. The Indian courts will decide what needs to be decided. In the meantime, there are demonstrations and debates, editorials and opinions. The government is planning new anti-rape laws. Politicians are weighing in. Emotions run high. Opinions abound.
In Singapore, our own Law Minister, K Shanmugam, jumped on the opportunity to drive home a few points of his own. Here’s what he wrote on Facebook:
“Many are sickened by the horrific gang rape and subsequent death of the young Indian student. Happened in broad daylight. A young life cut out brutally. Media reports that 6 men have been charged with murder. The family had pinned its hopes on the young girl – father had sold his plot of land to finance her education. Our thoughts are with the family. It is a heart breaking case. Many will agree that this is a type of case where, if the injuries inflicted were of a nature sufficient to cause death, then the abusers should face the death penalty. In discussions with people who want the death penalty abolished, I would often cite cases like these – ( similar cases have occurred elsewhere) . There was a good letter written in by an Indian journalist Deepika Shetty , published in yesterday’s ST. She points out that in Spore young women can go about confidently at any time of the day and night, in spaghetti tops and shorts – a right which they should have, a right which society should protect.”
The Minister’s post was picked up by at least one news organisation in India. Perhaps he was hoping to draw some support from Indians sick of their apparently unsafe, unruly streets. Maybe he was hoping Singaporeans would see the wisdom of our laws. Maybe he wanted to make a point about the foolishness of those calling for an end to the death penalty. Maybe the Minister meant well. But the post was in poor taste.
Amanat was a human being – a living, breathing person whose family continues to mourn her passing. One can only imagine the depth of their grief, their bewilderment, their rage. Politicians should refrain from scoring cheap points off their suffering. Mr Shanmugam, unfortunately, could not resist. He chose to speak out as Amanat’s death was being reported across the world, when her ordeal was still fresh in our minds. In doing so, he succeeded in putting down another country, talking up his own government and scaring the hell out of some of us.
Yes, our streets are (relatively) safe in Singapore. Young women can step out in shorts and not be overly fearful about getting raped or molested. This is a right we should protect. But Mr Shanmugam’s Facebook post is illogical. Sex offenders have never had to face the death penalty in Singapore. If our streets are not crawling with would-be rapists, it is not because they are put off by the possibility of being sent to the gallows. To suggest otherwise is misleading and disingenuous.
Mr Shanmugam, because he is a clever man and a lawyer, qualifies his stand by stating:
“… if the injuries inflicted were of a nature sufficient to cause death then the abusers should face the death penalty.”
This makes the offence murder, not rape. The Minister should know better than to confuse the public. How does doing so advance the conversation on how best to keep women safe?
Maybe what the Minister really means is that society should be able to seek vengeance on behalf of victims like Amanat. After all, savages like her rapists deserve no sympathy. I agree. But what are we willing to trade for the right to revenge? Judges and law enforcement officials are human beings, capable of making mistakes. Can the Minister guarantee that no innocent person will ever be executed? Singapore already has a reputation for turning too quickly and too easily to the death penalty to combat drug crimes. A string of mules has been led to the gallows. Questions remain over whether some of them were even guilty (see this and this).
Do draconian laws protect women? Afghanistan imposes the death penalty on a range of offences – from murder to rape to adultery. Yet according to one survey at least, it is the worst place in the world to be a woman. Mr Shanmugam might argue that this is because Afghanistan is at a different stage of development from Singapore. It is grappling with issues that mere laws cannot address. But this is precisely the point.
Singapore is not Afghanistan. It is not India. Why should problems faced by other countries give us cause to gloat? If the Minister is genuinely interested in safeguarding women’s rights in Singapore, then perhaps he should examine why our Penal Code accords legal immunity to husbands who rape their wives. Or why single mothers must deal with official discrimination. Or why perpetrators of this gang rape were given relatively light sentences. Or why there’s an open trade in mail order brides in Singapore. Or why women have to endure public service messages like this:
Yes, we need conversations about rape and rights and the death penalty. But please, let’s have genuine discourse. Let’s not use a tragedy like Amanat’s death to shape public opinion. Let’s not resort to scaremongering. Above all, let’s refrain from self-congratulatory chest thumping. It is crass. It is distracting. And it adds nothing to the debate.