21 January 2011

Book Review: Once a Jolly Hangman, by Alan Shadrake, ***

Singapore has one of the highest execution rates per capita in the world. Its government claims that only the death penalty can deter drug dealers from using their country as a transport hub - but this hard-hitting investigation reveals disturbing truths about how and when the death penalty is applied. Including in-depth interviews with Darshan Singh - Singapore's chief executioner for nearly fifty years.

This author is a brave man and is enduring prison in Singapore for writing this book. We learn the story of a Singaporean Sikh who was the country's chief hangman for decades. It is an insighful account of this gruesome career! It also highlights some reasonable questions about the fairness of the system, much like similar debates do in other countries where the death penalty is applied. Shadrake writes well and keeps the reader's attention.

However I feel the value of the book is diminished by the value judgement of the author, who is viscerally against the death penalty. I am too by the way so I agree with him. But it seems to me that in writing this book he should better have stayed with the facts of his inquiry. As it is, his arguement is weakened by his passion. The book could be improved with some substantial editing and cuts of all that is not related to his main point about the fairness of the legal system in Singapore.

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