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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 47

Mrs IRWIN (3:25 PM) —I second the motion. While I held concerns for the fate of Nguyen Tuong Van before visiting Singapore last month, my concerns were greatly increased by my talks with representatives of the Singapore government and parliament. After having exhausted almost every avenue of appeal for clemency, it now seems certain that the sentence will be carried out in the next few weeks or even days. However, while there is life there is hope, and like other speakers I hope that there is still a chance of the Singapore government granting clemency.

I want to stress a few points that the delegation raised with representatives of the Singapore government and, hopefully, clarify some issues which may not have been understood at the time. One point which was raised by a female member of the Singapore parliament was that clemency should not be granted to an Australian when many Singapore citizens have been executed for the same offence. I should make it quite clear that our appeals were not based on nationality but on the issue of capital punishment. Clearly, our concern with this case comes from our close association with it, but that is not to say that we would not have called for clemency in other cases—indeed, I would seek the abolition of capital punishment in all countries.

The second point relates to the issue of respect for the laws of Singapore. At a meeting with Mr Raymond Lim, the Second Minister for Foreign Affairs, I repeated the comment of former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, when he referred to the Barlow and Chambers executions in Malaysia in 1986 as a ‘barbaric act’. The death penalty is the ultimate violation of human rights. While respecting the laws of other countries, Australia must never fail to speak out on abuses of human rights. Nor is this a case of Western society claiming to be more civilised than eastern cultures.

The values fundamental to human rights are universal, and none is more fundamental than the right to life. It was pointed out to me by a member of the Singapore parliament that Singapore regards the mandatory death penalty for drug offences as essential to controlling drug addiction and that opponents were simply bleeding hearts. I can understand the historical reasons for Singapore’s concern with problems of drug addiction, and some would see the deterrent effect of extreme penalties, but the use of the death penalty for social control purposes raises other concerns. Throughout the world, for every execution of a convicted criminal, hundreds are executed for their political or religious beliefs. When politicians oppose the death penalty, it can often be for the very good reason of self-preservation. Singapore is one of Australia’s closest friends in the region, and I hope this matter will not unduly harm our relationship, but we must make it clear that we cannot accept this abuse of human rights. I remind the House and the Singapore government that Vietnam has recently reprieved two Australians facing the death penalty for drug trafficking. I congratulate that government for granting clemency in those cases.

I express my admiration for the staff at our high commission in Singapore. The task of liaising between Nguyen, his family and justice officials is extremely stressful. They have been responsible for passing on the most terrible reports. My heartfelt thanks and admiration go out to them for the coming weeks. I can only conclude with the thoughts of my friend and fellow delegate the member for Canberra, when she reflected after one meeting that: ‘We will leave Singapore with heavy hearts.’ Indeed, we did leave Singapore with very heavy hearts and I am sure that was the feeling of all members of the delegation. Regardless of the outcome, while I have enormous respect for the people of Singapore and their achievements, I will never think of Singapore in the same way again.

To Nguyen Tuong Van, and your courageous mother, who may never again have even a moment to hold her son, you are constantly in our thoughts and you will live in our hearts forever.