Written by Kar-Yen Leong.
In an article by Franklin Zimring and David Johnson, we are reminded of the importance of studying the death penalty in Asia as it is the site of “…at least 85 per cent and as many as 95 per cent of the world’s execution.” The authors add that the region is a key battleground as to whether this practice will continue or become a remnant of a less civilised past.
This struggle is no more intense than in East and Southeast Asian states, where the death penalty is not only an indelible part of only their legal systems but also their very societies. The decision to retain or abolish the death penalty has become a matter of intense soul-searching among states such as Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia, navigating landscapes replete with ghosts of colonial and authoritarian pasts. For these countries, the state’s power over life and death is a direct extension of its sovereignty. Giving up this power is to lose that sovereignty, but it also means the loss of a weapon of last resort forged to keep the forces of chaos at bay.
Power over life and death
Institutionalised and bureaucratised punishment is the most harmful form of state power, none more so than capital punishment. It is that one singular punishment which leaves no room for redemption, forgiveness, or compensation. It might not even be seen as a punishment but more of an organised form of violence designed to preemptively strike down any possibility of criminal or aberrant behaviour. While it purports to punish individuals, the death penalty carries an onerous message, warning would-be criminals of the ultimate price to be paid should they overstep boundaries.
Abolished in most countries in the west, it continues to be enforced in states with legitimacy based on an argument that this practice reflects the people’s will. The death penalty creates a dyadic relationship, binding the state to its citizens, thus enabling the former to maintain a façade of moral purity, serving merely as a tool of the latter. Thus, in diminishing these boundaries, the state is further strengthened to kill in the name of the people and increase its level of governmentality in all aspects of their lives. To that extent, the state and, by extension, capital punishment have become ‘embedded’ in the fabric of society.
While it is certainly the case that the death penalty is a necessity for some states to showcase their strength, we cannot ignore the allure that capital punishment holds for the greater population. Punishment and specifically the death penalty in the past were spectacles in which the public could engage. Placing the heads of kings underneath the guillotine’s blade, burning heretics at the stake or standing alongside Black bodies hanging on trees reflects that deep-seated human desire for violence and revenge. But as societies inched towards ‘civilisation’, the propensity to stomach these exhibitions of the ‘people’s’ will decreased. As such, executions became sanitised, the wilful taking of life, humanised. State killings as a public spectacle receded into the hidden spaces of death rows and execution chambers. Nevertheless, society’s desire for retribution still needed to be sated from time to time, leaving bureaucracy and the law with a greater role in fulfilling society’s need for vengeance.
Democratisation Can Make Change?
But as societies evolve, their relationship with the state also fundamentally changes. Democratisation is one example that corrodes and loosens the states’ and citizens’ relationship. This is especially problematic for states with authoritarian pasts, as these changes elicit moral panics. Politicians often take advantage of this by pushing a brand of politics referred to as penal populism. Appearing in different forms, it could be a war on drugs at one moment and, in another, a war on crime. Regardless, the labels utilised are designed to evoke in the population the notion of ‘decay’ in ‘values’ ‘morals’ and the general ‘loss of direction’. Punishment is then weaponised to bring that sense of control back.
In Taiwan, we also have presidential hopefuls stating their intention to end the current death penalty moratorium should they come to power. Seen as the last vestige of Taiwan’s martial law period, undoing this legacy has been far from easy. Nevertheless, having ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights in 2009, the state has since put in place a moratorium on executions despite the death penalty still being in the books. This is partly due to the presence of a vibrant civil society with the most vocal against the death penalty, the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP).
As part of its advocacy, the TAEDP spends a lot of energy on making the death penalty visible. Executions in Japan and even in Taiwan are undertaken in circumstances of secrecy, almost as if states are embarrassed by the act they are to perform. To combat the state’s ‘veil of ignorance’ over executions, the TAEDP has engaged in various efforts to showcase the lives of prisoners on death row. This includes exhibitions of the writings and artworks of these prisoners and several exhibitions which aim to give a human face to those on death row. One of the more ambitious projects the organisation has been involved with was a campaign where the death penalty issue was brought right to the doorsteps of ordinary citizens in different townships—travelling from township to township, the TAEDP used a deliberative method to engage the population in a healthy discussion concerning the death penalty.
More often the death penalty the issue of the death penalty is only raised when violent crimes take place and often in the media. Appealing to the widest strata of society, the media sensationalises such cases, leaving little space for measured contemplation on the issue. As a result, the TAEDP often takes the brunt, with angry members of the public blaming the organisation for encouraging violent crimes through its advocacy. This has brought a level of danger to the work of the TAEDP, with threats made towards those working within the organisation. Despite these challenges, perhaps an indicator of its effectiveness, TAEDP continues to challenge the death penalty’s place in the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people.
For the past several years, the TAEDP has served as the convenor of the Murder by Numbers film festival, showcasing feature films on the use of the death penalty both within Taiwan and abroad. Films and documentaries as a genre are an important part of the TAEDP’s toolbox or, for that matter, that of any other abolitionist group. In 2000, Italian fashion brand Benetton placed pictures of death row inmates on billboards and publications throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. This caused a furore, especially in the US, as it broached taboos and ignited a firestorm amongst those who have kept their eyes wide shut. This form of ‘witnessing’ presented uncomfortable truths to a general public supportive of the death penalty. Pictures of the condemned have an unnerving on those viewing. The pictures of those killed during the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime, of drug war victims in the Philippines and death inmates carry an ‘affect’, reminding those gazing upon their visages that these individuals had lives. This affect is a testament to the power of the picture, imbibed with a particular kind of visuality, making it as if almost as if the dead speak to the living.
The documentary genre is also becoming an effective implementation in the abolitionist toolbox. One example is the recent 2019 Taiwanese documentary “Me and My Condemned Son” by director Li Chia Hua detailing the lives of three death row prisoners through archival material as well as direct interviews. While pictures of death row inmates are ‘affective’ on their own, they nevertheless remain frozen and are without context; documentaries, on the hand, are often more effective in telling the stories of these individuals. It allows their individual narratives to appear, representing their viewpoints and worldviews. Now they appear as storied individuals, allowing viewers to look beyond the labels placed on them by the legal system, the media, and the rest of society. Unlike the media, the documentary genre allows viewers to reflect more accurately, far from the media’s maddening sensationalism.
The Image Travels from Taiwan to Southeast Asia
The reach of these documentaries has also been extended to Southeast Asia. As part of its program to commemorate the world anti-death penalty, organisers from the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) featured “Me and My condemned Son” in October this year. What is even more interesting is that Southeast Asian abolitionist activists are also beginning to engage with the moving image to push forward with their agenda. Even in a country as averse to the abolitionist agenda as Singapore, filmmakers such as Boo Jun Feng broke the taboo with his fictional depiction of the lives of hangmen executioners in the service of the Singaporean state.
In Malaysia as well, the walls are slowly being broken down by independent documentaries showcased during independent film festivals. One such documentary is Sherrie Razak Dali & Seira Sacha Abu Bakar’s ‘Waiting for time’, which highlights the plight of an impoverished family dealing with the issue of injustice as one of their family languishes on death row. The documentary also reminds the Malaysians amongst its audience that the individuals most likely to be incarcerated for crimes leading to the death penalty come from ethnic minorities. This then raises the question: have these laws been made to target specifically the underclass or the most vulnerable segments in society? Another ground-breaking Malaysian documentary is Lily Fu’s documentary on a father put on the death penalty for growing marijuana. Carrying a certain number of drugs often leads to the death penalty but in the case of Dr G in ‘My Father is Dr G’, the titular character alleges that what he grew was only used to treat his sickness.
So as the death penalty remains a taboo and secretive topic, the politics of witnessing, as evinced in Taiwan and Southeast, points to a direction in which pioneering documentary filmmakers and human rights organisations are breaking through this invisible barrier. They create narratives and attempt to bring imprisoned stories into the light. As such, their efforts will hopefully change the landscape in Asia to be able to dissemble the death penalty from both politics and society. While advocacy on the part of human rights groups, there must be a greater engagement with the public, and one such way would be to bring the issue right into the public realm. Only through this particular way can people in general face the act perpetrated in their names by the government.
Kar-Yen Leong is an associate professor at Tamkang University’s Department of Global Politics and Economics. He is also on the editorial board of the Taiwan human rights journal. Trained in Southeast Asian studies, he is a keen observer of how human rights continues to evolve in the region. His current research revolves around human bodies, remains and the legacies of violence past.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Conversation between Taiwan and Southeast Asia.