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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 November 2005, 13:11 GMT
Dissent in Singapore over death row case
Andrew Harding
BBC correspondent, Singapore

Van Nguyen's mother Kim Nguyen (centre) weeps as she meets an Australian official
Nguyen's mother Kim said her son appreciated Australian clemency appeals
At dawn next Friday, a 73-year-old pensioner will put a rope around the neck of a 25-year-old man, and open a trapdoor.

For the older man, it is a routine which he has now performed more than 500 times.

I'm told he informs each condemned prisoner - in his final moments - that he's being sent to a better place.

Technically the hangman, Darshan Singh, has already retired from the prison service after a long and busy career.

But it turns out that his particular skills are in short supply and regular demand here.

Tiny Singapore - with its zero tolerance approach to drugs - has the highest execution rate, per capita, in the world. And so Mr Singh keeps getting called in.

No clemency

His latest "assignment" is a Vietnamese-born Australian called Van Nguyen, a confessed heroin mule caught in transit at Singapore's airport.

A first-time offender, Van said he had been trying to pay off a debt owed by his brother.

Change is going to take years here. We're a society conditioned to living in fear
Constance Singham
Women's rights activist
The Australian government has asked, firmly but politely, for clemency. No deal.

The Australian media has demanded the same, rather less politely. There have been editorials urging economic sanctions, and pointed questions about the Singaporean government's hardline drugs policy.

Why execute the hapless couriers, but invest heavily in the repulsive regime of Burma, where so much of the world's opium is grown?

None of this seems likely to save Van's life.

In all likelihood, on Friday morning, Van's mother and twin brother will be invited to collect his coffin from the prison.

The hangman and the Australian journalists will go home. The 4.5bn trading partnership between Australia and Singapore will continue as before. And this peaceful, prosperous, strange little country will shrug off the whole incident.

End of story? Well, maybe not.

Winds of change?

A few miles from the prison there is a giant conference centre called Suntec City.

Singapore skyline
Singapore's glitz conceals a tightly-controlled "nanny state"
Over the past few days it has been hosting something very un-Singaporean: a sex trade exhibition. Lingerie, electric toys, scantily clad models, and so on.

It is a bold step for a famously straight-laced country where homosexuality and oral sex are still illegal.

And it is a sign, some claim, that this authoritarian government is getting ready to embrace more fundamental changes, that the nanny state plans to turn into, shall we say, a chaperone state.

A western advertising executive summed it up for me recently at a party here. Basically, they want to re-brand Singapore, he said.

To keep the economy growing, they need a more dynamic, more creative workforce, and they have realised that the only way to do that is to give people more freedom.

But how much freedom?

It is hard to generalise, as the subject does not get much coverage in the state-controlled media, but my sense is that an awful lot of Singaporeans believe that killing Van is wrong.

It is one issue which really seems to have galvanised people.

What's more, they are starting to make their views heard. Not on the streets. Unlicensed outdoor protests involving more than four people are illegal here.

'Living in fear'

But check out the internet and you will find a lively debate raging, complete with online petitions and blogs. Sometimes it goes a bit further.

"I'm a bit scared," said a young man called Jason, in a half-whisper. "Maybe I'm paranoid, but everyone here fears repercussions."

Protests in Sydney against Van Nguyen's sentence
Protesters have tried to raised awareness of Van Nguyen's sentence
We were standing in a crowded hotel function room with about 100 Singaporeans who had responded to an online invitation to a meeting in support of Van.

"Making a public stand isn't exactly part of our culture," said Jason. "But I think in this case the death penalty is a bit extreme, and I feel strongly about this."

Next to him, an older woman called Constance Singham let out a rich belly laugh. She is a women's rights activist and a restaurant owner.

"Change is going to take years here," she said. "It took us 15 years to convince people to take domestic violence seriously.

"It may sound funny," she went on. "But we're a society conditioned to live in fear. Still, as people become more educated and start to ask questions, our government will have to listen to us."

So much for long term.

Right now Singapore's elderly hangman has work to do. Mr Singh doesn't give interviews to the media.

But it is understood that he is keen to retire fully as soon as possible. The trouble is, no one else wants his job.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 26 November, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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