[reproduction of an article I wrote, to be published at thecicak.com next week. intended less as an analytical piece than a discussion prompter for theCicak.com’s readership]
WARNING: The following contains highly graphic descriptions and video images of physical torture. If you are squeamish about such things, or are underage, please do not read on.
In 1757, a man named Robert-François Damiens burst out of the shadows of the streets of Paris and plunged a knife into King Louis XV, who, perhaps most unfortunately for Monsieur Damiens, was widely known to his people as le Bien-Aimé, or ‘the Beloved’. The monarch survived, and the sentence was swift: Damiens was condemned to die in a manner that was to gain him eternal historical notoriety. As philosopher Michel Foucault memorably described in his book Discipline and Punish, Damiens was to be carted to the Place de Grève, where,
on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers; his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, [will be] burnt with sulphur; and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, [there shall be poured] molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together…
and then his body [shall be] drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds.
The execution took place largely according to plan — except that the horses proved wholly unqualified for the strenuous task of drawing a man apart, even when two more of the poor beasts were added. Damiens’ limbs finally had to be sawn off manually.
Today, we have come quite a long way from this. The reason historians have such detailed records of ‘The Damiens Affair’, as it is invoked today with a shudder, is because the entire spectacle took place in public. In contrast, state-sponsored deaths today, even though purportedly more “humane”, have been largely squirrelled away from the public eye into the dingy basements of penitentiaries, where a needle might be somewhat abashedly administered while officials look on solemnly from the shadows. State-sponsored corporal punishment — whipping, flogging etc. — takes place within prison walls, where the only other witnesses are the quavering row of people soon to face the same themselves. And there is an increasing amount of moral pressure today to do away with both these “cruel, inhuman and degrading” practices altogether.
Yet, even if it is much less of an obscene public affair than it was 220 years ago, Malaysia is one of sixty-nine countries in the world which retains the death penalty, and one of at least seventeen countries in the world which still widely practices corporal punishment. Caning in Malaysia is a stock penalty for crimes ranging from vandalism, drug violation and overstayed visas to the more heinous infractions, such as rape, assault and homicide. Unlike the Damiens Affair, however, corporal and capital punishment are not conflated (no man who has been sentenced to death can be caned), and corporal punishment is highly regulated in its execution, from the requisite medical examination of “fitness to receive punishment” down to the standardization of the cane’s dimensions (1.09m long and 1.25cm in diameter).
Given these relatively “humane” restrictions, then, it is perhaps understandable that V. K. Chin could opine rather phlegmatically in August 2004 that “the government should speed up cases involving illegal immigrants so that they could be whipped and sent home immediately […] There is really not much point to just round them up and send them home without any meaningful punishment…Holding them for any period before their deportation is an unnecessary drain on our financial resources and so it is better to just whip them and send them home, otherwise they will not learn their lesson”. Rather like a mother who has apprehended a naughty child sticking their fingers into the Nutella jar (come, own up, you have all done this), the government’s role here is to literally spank these denizens and send them on their way.
But is it really so simple an issue? I’ve noticed that corporal punishment is notoriously easy to talk about with great nonchalance, because the sort of corporal punishment that most of us are acquainted with tends towards the odd clobbering, backhand slap or pinch from a parent figure, or at worst, a full-out beating with the dreaded feather-duster. The idea of it is inherently domestic, remedial and generally suffered with an indignity and resentment that mellows over time.
Can the same really be said for this?
[Link to YouTube]
Again, this contains profoundly unpleasant material. View at your own discretion.
TheCicak.com wishes to open a discussion on this video, which was posted on YouTube on 23 January this year. The subject in question was convicted of rape and sentenced to ten years in prison and 20 strokes of the cane (out of a maximum punishment of 24 strokes).
Some points to consider
Do criminals really deserve such torture? There is a kind of cognitive dissonance between vindication and mercy; in the case of caning, we want to punish serial rapists, but we flinch when watching the video (at least, I hope you did). Is it possible to reconcile the two impulses? Is Amnesty International correct in its assessment that caning is “cruel, inhuman and degrading”, and that “such punishment should have no place in the world today”?
Is taking a “hard stand” preferable to “going soft” on criminals? This article contrasts Singapore’s stentorian and punitive attitude to crime with Britain’s “relaxed attitude” and “over-indulgence” of their prisoners (going so far as to award them Christmas presents). Is incarceration and rehabilitation really a better method of crime deterrence than something punitive, like caning? What about people who just don’t learn?
Does caning tarnish Malaysia’s international reputation? There have been several cases of foreigners receiving the Malaysian Caning Experience, and the infamous case of Michael P. Fay just next door in Singapore provoked worldwide controversy when the boy was caned under charges of vandalism in 1994. And one YouTube user’s comment on the video accuses Malaysia and Singapore of being “barbaric fascist dictatorships” and “sick, perverted, Nazi f—s”. Should perceptions like these matter?
Under most countries’ legislation, including Malaysia and Singapore’s, women may not be caned under any circumstances; this derives from Britain’s Whipping of Female Offenders Act of 1805, which exempts women from any form of judicial corporal punishment. (Britain, incidentally, is also responsible for bringing the practice of caning to Malaysia and Singapore). If we cannot stomach corporal punishment for women, how can we countenance it for men? Or vice versa: if we flog criminal men, shouldn’t we flog women guilty of equivalent crimes too?
Should we really demonstrate caning to children to instill fear and deter them from crime when they grow up?
And with videos like this or Saddam’s execution up on YouTube for the world to see, how far have we really come from Damiens and the voyeuristic crowd that followed his cart all the way to the Place de Grève, hooting as the executioner briskly rolled his sleeves up and tore pieces of Damiens’ flesh from his thighs with a pair of custom-made steel pincers?
I’ll give my own answer to this: not very far at all. In my opinion, we are simply squirrelling away an impulse that still persists; today, instead of parading our brutality to the town square, we consign it shamefacedly to the basements of our penitentiaries and psyches alike. And I’d even argue that the same goes for the practice of corporal – and capital – punishment, both of which inhere as much in our world today as in the Paris of 1757, when Damiens’ ragged torso was finally, unceremoniously tossed onto the smouldering woodpile, then as evermore under the mesmerized gaze of this oddly barbarous civilization we call our own.
 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1977), pp. 3-8.