No one outside Singapore’s steel-trap judiciary knows for sure whether Darshan Singh hanged Nguyen Tuong Van, of Melbourne, in Changi on Friday 2 December. A week earlier, Darshan said he’d been sacked as chief hangman after a series of embarrassingly gruesome articles had appeared about him in the Australian press. But his masters insist he wasn’t sacked. The confusion was not what you’d expect in Singapore, a place that is in most things obsessively efficient. But we do know that 72-year-old Darshan has seen off about 850 criminals in his 40 years as hangman. He is something of a world champion at this particular discipline.
One detail about Darshan that especially worried Australians when it was reported down under, was that he had toasted his 500th victim with a bottle of Chivas Regal with jailhouse colleagues. He is clearly a man who takes pride in his job, and sees no reason for sentimentality or false modesty. ‘With me,’ he says, ‘the prisoners don’t struggle. I know the real way. If it’s a raw guy, they will struggle like chickens, like fish out of the water.’
Darshan may well be a monster, but he has been a loyal servant of Harry Lee Kuan Yew, Asia’s self-styled Philosopher-King, across whose autobiography Margaret Thatcher scrawled ‘He Was Never Wrong’. Many Australians would take issue with Lady Thatcher. They certainly do with Lee. For months before the execution of Nguyen, debate raged in Australia about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment. But in Singapore’s state-controlled bubble, the hanging barely registered a blip. Nguyen was one of the 30–40 criminals Singapore admits to killing every year.
No one is suggesting Nguyen wasn’t guilty. In December 2002 the then 22-year-old, born in a Thai refugee camp to a Vietnamese mother fleeing communism, was caught in Changi airport on his way from Cambodia to Australia with 396g, or 14oz, of pure heroin.