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Events/Activities, Thoughts on Death Penalty

Our Precious Things

The following is a piece sent in by Justicia Phuang, who attended Mr Toshi Kazama’s presentation “Eyes On Preciousness” last Wednesday. Thank you Justicia for this piece!

It was a cold and rainy Wednesday evening, rather befitting of the grave issue at hand. I brought along two friends who, it is safe to say, have never put much thought to the death penalty. This probably applies to an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans, who claim we have other more important issues at hand – bread and butter issues, they say.

In all honesty, I didn’t know what to expect from the event, held in a small and crammed room in the back of a bookstore in Bras Basah Complex. But the moment Toshi Kazama took the stage, I was blown away. His enigmatic, passionate, inspiring and humorous self was larger than life and could fill more than a hundred other rooms.

Toshi & Our Precious Things

Toshi is an acclaimed New York-based photographer, who for the past 15 years has been photographing death row inmates in the United States and more recently, Taiwan. What lent even more credibility to his messages of love, healing, walking in another person’s shoes, and lapses in the judicial system, was that he had been a victim of attempted murder. Yet amidst all that craziness and hurt (he’s deaf in one ear with a weak sense of balance), he is still an anti-death penalty activist today.

But why? Toshi clued us in on this, going back to his first slide that read “Eyes on Preciousness”, the title of this photography project.

He repeatedly asked, “What is the one precious thing you want to protect?”

To him, it is life. To me, it is also life. The sanctity of life sets the basis on which all human experiences originate. Without life, we are nothing – no family, no friends, no loved ones, no us. Once I was able to identify that one precious thing, my guiding principle became clear as day.

Murder in any form is still murder.

The magic in Toshi’s photographs was the reality and humanity that instantly connected us to the death row inmates. We saw faces we can all relate to, while bearing in mind that about half of them have been executed. They could easily be our children, cousins, nieces and nephews. They are not monsters, but real people with real problems and real families of their own – just like you and me.

I suppose when we start seeing them as human beings, we begin to fall under the weight of the death penalty. Just because we do not personally trigger the trap door, administer the lethal injection or engage the electric chair, it does not mean that execution is a distant event. The state is killing people in our name, yours and mine. In Singapore, it’s on Fridays at 6am. Do we really want that kind of burden to carry and blood on our hands?

Toshi said something that still haunts me, three days later.

He said, “We go on with our lives, because we don’t know when we’re going to die. But [the death penalty] is completely scheduled and administrated… People say, ‘I support death penalty, I think this penalty is necessary.’ But they don’t want to be the executioner themselves. They don’t have the guts to pull the trigger and blow out the death row inmate in the name of justice. They think as long as someone else does it, it’s fine. I feel like if you cannot kill, why ask others to kill?”

If you shun from death or cringe at the sight of violence, is it right then to ask someone else to kill for you?

Do you know during an electric chair execution in the United States, there are two switches requiring two prison wardens to engage, but only one switch is connected to the chair? The prison wardens will never know which one of them sent the inmate to his death. What a telling design, don’t you think? Killing someone is hardly a happy event and no one wants to be responsible for it.

Now, death penalty advocates claim that the lethal injection is a more humane way to execute as it is painless, in an attempt to justify their support for state-sanctioned murder.

To this, Toshi quipped, “Are you sure? Have you tried it? Is there a humane way to kill someone? Would you prefer – the electric chair or the lethal injection? You choose.”

To a person whose most precious thing is life, murder in any form is still murder.

Moreover, there are way too many problems surrounding police investigations and prosecutorial processes that it is naive to think that we have never ever sentenced an innocent person to the gallows. Till the day human judgement is infallible, death penalty has no place in civil society.

In my mind, death penalty not only mocks the very justice it claims to serve, but also instils the very violence it tries to deter. What exactly are we trying to achieve with it?

Healing & Closure

Perhaps, healing and closure for the victims’ families.

While Toshi reaches out to death row inmates, he also reaches out to victims’ families to bring about closure, healing and understanding.

He recounted, “I’ve met so many victims’ families. Inmates’ families’ tears do not make them feel any better.”

Studies by psychologists have shown that there are five stages of grief: disbelief, yearning, anger, depression and acceptance. So at what stage does the death of the perpetuator fit in? Is it anger? But anger isn’t the last stage of grief. Acceptance is.

Toshi expressed this stand, “All these victims, when the murder happens, they all have sadness or anger. Over a period of time, all these victims change, they have to change. Because victims’ families cannot go on with such a huge anger and hatred that would torture them in their daily lives. One way or another, if they decide to live, they have to somehow make peace within themselves to go on.”

What he said reminded me of a picture I saw recently:

Penalty vs. Prevention

A country that has her eyes on the death penalty is looking for a quick fix, a kind of accountability to the victims’ families. That intention is certainly not wrong. But what is suitable punishment? Apart from punishment, what else are we doing to prevent such tragedies from happening?

Are we being myopic by focusing too much on punishment and too little on prevention? Does permanently and irreversibly eradicating perpetrators solve the bigger problem? Tell me, what is preventing another murderer from appearing in our midst tomorrow?

We are removing the weeds, but not the roots. We need to find out why people do what they do. Toshi found a common denominator amongst the death row inmates he has met – the lack of love in their lives. Instead of pointing all our guns at them, maybe we should re-examine our society. Not to say they should not be punished for their crimes, of course, but a thorough reflection of our society is in order. 

What kind of society do we want to build? One of violence or one of compassion?

Is the death penalty the only way we know how to create our ideal future?

Fighting Against Ignorance

This is a question we have to answer collectively as a country.

Some might claim we already have, referring to the survey done by The Sunday Times in 2006, where 96% of Singaporeans back the death penalty.

My question is how many of those that were surveyed understood the death penalty fully and all the problems surrounding it. Even in 2011, I still meet people who are oblivious to the mandatory death penalty. My only fear is that majority of Singaporeans still holds a rather simplistic viewpoint to this issue.

The death penalty is a reality here. Such travesty of life is not a distant event. We never know if someone’s life is going to end by order of the state in our name, on any given Friday at 6am. Real lives are at stake and our silence endorses death. So when people absurdly argue that tackling bread and butter issues are more important, I simply ask them with a straight face, “Why do they have to be mutually exclusive?”

Admittedly, this is a complex and multifaceted affair; which is exactly why we need robust debates to make sense of it all. But the truth is robust debates cannot happen constructively without an informed citizenry. All I am asking is for all Singaporeans to ensure they are truly informed before committing themselves to an opinion. Because this is not just a fight against the death penalty; this is a fight against ignorance.

And by the way, I thought I saw something in my friends change after hearing Toshi speak that day. I guess everything has to start somewhere!


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