British woman faces death sentence

Should it be one law for “us” and another for “them”?

A British woman, Shivaun Orton, has been arrested in Malaysia for possession of drugs including cannabis, amphetamines and Ecstasy. The drugs were found when police raided the backpacker resort that she and her Malay husband run in the east coast town of Cherating. As the haul included over 15g of heroin, she faces death by hanging if convicted.

It cannot be long before the inevitable cries of outrage that a British national, the "daughter of a nuclear physicist" no less (code: she's middle-class, not some ill-educated scrubber with loose morals with whose fate the right-wing papers would be less concerned), might suffer such a fate.

No doubt the possible penalty, and by extension Malaysia, will be described as "barbaric" and "medieval", and every instance of courts in the country producing ludicrous, over-the-top judgments will be dredged up and presented as the norm, rather than the exceptions that they are. Oh, and there will also be no misgivings at all about the prospect of her husband receiving the same sentence.

I touched on this issue last year when two US citizens were freed from a North Korean jail after crossing the border illegally and when a convicted drug-smuggler, Samantha Orobator, was allowed to return to the UK from Laos to serve the rest of her sentence. As I wrote at the time:

The coverage of these cases, as so often when westerners are arrested in developing countries, focused almost exclusively on outrage at the conditions in which they were held and the sentences they faced. The garb of human rights hid a less pleasant, unspoken assumption: your laws shouldn't apply to us.

Even though, as I pointed out, "few will dispute that a state has the right to police its borders or impose penalties for drug trafficking . . . many westerners seem to think, 50 years after losing their empires, that they should still have carte blanche to wander the earth held to a different set of rules from those of the populations they deign to visit." Two examples then followed:

Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made this point well in his memoir From Third World to First. "In 1993, an 18-year-old schoolboy, Michael Fay, and his friends went on a spree, vandalising road and traffic signs and spray-painting more than 20 cars. When charged in court, he pleaded guilty and his lawyer made a plea for leniency. The judge ordered six strokes of the cane and four months in jail."

Such sentences are common in the region; we hear nothing about them. But "the American media went berserk at the prospect of an American boy being caned on his buttocks by cruel Asians in Singapore", said Lee. Suggestions were made that the first ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation be moved from Singapore over this "barbarity".

The second example is particularly relevant to the Shivaun Orton case:

"Barbaric" was the very word bandied about by the Australian premier Bob Hawke when Malaysia hanged two of his countrymen for drug trafficking in 1986. But the more telling view was that of one of the defendants, Kevin Barlow. "Do you reckon they'll hang us?" asked his co-defendant, Brian Chambers. No, replied Barlow. "The Malaysians won't hang white guys."

Exchange the word "white" for "western" and you have, it seems to me, the real truth behind the protestations whenever one of our nationals gets banged up abroad for doing something they know they shouldn't have done. It's OK for them, but not for us.

As it happens, I don't think Mrs Orton will be hanged if she's found guilty – partly because she's a woman and the mother of two boys, and partly because the current prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, does not share the desire to take every opportunity to upset western sensibilities that characterised Dr Mahathir, who was in power at the time of the 1986 case.

Najib is from the old aristocratic, anglophile elite and was educated at Malvern College and Nottingham University. Whereas Dr M would have regarded David Cameron as colonising-class material and would have been very happy to irritate and embarrass him, Dato' Sri Najib prefers smooth relations and will not want the bad publicity that would accompany the hanging of a British national. If she is found guilty, pressure from the top will almost certainly result in a lesser sentence.

Perhaps I will be proved wrong. Perhaps the commentariat will decide that UK citizens breaking laws abroad just have to take the consequences, like locals do. If there is an outcry, though, and calls emerge for David Cameron or William Hague to intervene, my question remains the same – how on earth do we justify the expectation that it should be one law for "us" and another for "them"?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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For a mayor who will help make Londoners healthier, vote for Tessa Jowell

The surgeon, former Labour health minister and chairman of the London Health Commission, Ara Darzi, backs Tessa Jowell to be Labour's candidate for London mayor.

London’s mayor matters. As the world’s preeminent city, London possesses an enormous wealth of assets: energetic and enterprising people, successful businesses, a strong public sector, good infrastructure and more parks and green spaces than any other capital city.

Yet these aren’t put to work to promote the health of Londoners. Indeed, quite the opposite: right now, London faces a public health emergency.

More than a million Londoners still smoke tobacco, with 67 children lighting up for the first time every day. London’s air quality is silently killing us. We have the dirtiest air in Europe, causing more than 4,000 premature deaths every year.

Nearly four million Londoners are obese or overweight – and just 13% of us walk or cycle to school or work, despite half of us living close enough to do so. All Londoners should be ashamed that we have the highest rate of childhood obesity of any major global city.

It’s often been said that we don’t value our health until we lose it. As a cancer surgeon, I am certain that is true. And I know that London can do better. 

For that reason, twice in the past decade, I’ve led movements of Londoners working together to improve health and to improve the NHS. Healthcare for London gave our prescription for a better NHS in the capital. And Better Health for London showed how Londoners could be helped to better health, as well as better healthcare.

In my time championing health in London, I’ve never met a politician more committed to doing the right thing for Londoners’ health than Tessa Jowell. That’s why I’m backing her as Labour’s choice for mayor. We need a mayor who will deliver real change, and Tessa will be that mayor.  

When she invited me to discuss Better Health for London, she had the courage to commit to doing what is right, no matter how hard the politics. Above all, she wanted to know how many lives would be saved or improved, and what she could do to help.

In Tessa, I see extraordinary passion, boundless energy and unwavering determination to help others.

For all Londoners, the healthiest choice isn’t always easy and isn’t always obvious. Every day, we make hundreds of choices that affect our health – how we get to and from school or work, what we choose to eat, how we spend our free time.

As mayor, Tessa Jowell will help Londoners by making each of those individual decisions that bit easier. And in that difference is everything: making small changes individually will make a huge difference collectively.  

Tessa is committed to helping London’s children in their early years – just as she did in government by delivering Sure Start. Tessa will tackle London’s childhood obesity epidemic by getting children moving just as she did with the Olympics. Tessa will make London a walking city – helping all of us to healthier lifestyles.

And yes, she’s got the guts to make our parks and public places smoke free, helping adults to choose to stop smoking and preventing children from starting.   

The real test of leadership is not to dream up great ideas or make grand speeches. It is to build coalitions to make change happen. It is to deliver real improvements to daily life. Only Tessa has the track record of delivery – from the Olympics to Sure Start.   

Like many in our capital, I am a Londoner by choice. I am here because I believe that London is the greatest city in the world – and is bursting with potential to be even greater.

The Labour party now has a crucial choice to make. London needs Labour to choose Tessa, to give Londoners the chance to choose better health.