Tonight SBS will air the mini series Better Man that tells the story of Van Nguyen, the young Australian executed in Singapore. As someone who has worked on Death Penalty cases for ten years, seeks to educate the public on the issue and was part of a large group of people who battled to save Van’s life you’d think this would be a TV show I’d support. I do not and I do not believe it should go to air!
On the 2nd December 2005 at Changi Prison Singapore, Van Tuong Nguyen was executed. Hung by the neck until he was dead. As these events took place I stood outside the High Commission of Singapore in Canberra with a small group of others including then Senator Stott Despoja and waited until the news came through. Van was dead, murdered by the state of Singapore. Only days earlier I had been inside the same High Commission for the last time pleading for Van’s life to be spared.
Now many years have past, I’ve worked on many other cases, assisted by people I met during those years in which Van’s life was in the balance. Just before Van was executed I sat down with long time death penalty opponent and Australian political figure Barry Jones, almost everything he said was right. The execution would take place, more Australian’s would face the same penalty in SE Asia in years to come and because I had years on my side, years he didn’t have, I should continue to fight. But as advocates of those on death row at death we do not part. And not for the first time I find myself defending someone we have previously lost to the Death Penalty.
Left behind after Van’s death are his mother Kim Nguyen and his twin brother Khoa. Neither of them had anything to do with the making of Better Man and they do not want it screened. How is it that a show can be made accurately about an individual without any input from the two people who knew that individual best? Then there is the pain that opening this old wound is causing them, for what purpose does this serve? For ratings? To make money for the rich folk involved in its production?
Federal Speaker Anna Burke read a letter on ABC radio from Ms Nguyen to the director Khoa Do. She said she was concerned for the mental health and wellbeing of her constituents.
“Know the truth. Understand what is right and wrong. In writing a short story, like you did, you touched our family’s wounds once again,” Ms Burke read from the letter.
“Don’t do it for your personal benefit. You haven’t had enough understanding of a parents’ responsibility.
“You are not much older than my kid. Do you know what really happened? All you could do is listen to other people’s gossip. You have violated our rights and made our family’s life so difficult,” she read.
Ms Burke said Ms Nguyen’s surviving son, Khoa Nguyen was distressed by the imminent screening.
“The surviving twin is going through hell and with the title Better Man it leaves someone wondering: who is the worse man?”
Ms Burke said SBS had given her and Ms Nguyen a copy of the show but she would not watch it.
“She can’t bring herself to watch it and she didn’t want anyone else to. I am respecting her wishes,” Ms Burke said.
So then we have the argument from SBS and the makers of Better Man that it will educate the public on the issue of the Death Penalty and help change the issue in our region. Van’s Laywer Lex Lasry dismisses such claims and attacked the accuracy of the show. ”Whatever this show is, it is not the public record of what happened. The script I read was dramatically inaccurate and I guess that’s because it is a drama,”
‘‘They want to tell it because they want to tell a story and presumably attract ratings. If anyone thinks that running a dramatisation of anything like this is going to make a difference to the death penalty debate in Australia they are kidding themselves.’’ ‘‘I am concerned that the portrayal of what happened to all of the participants doesn’t really seem to accord with the truth and I think there is way too much emphasis on the lawyers,’’ he said.
‘‘The real gravamen of this story is about the family, about the death penalty itself and about the courage of our client, particularly at the end. That’s where the concentration should be. There is just too much temptation obviously to tell a legal soap opera and I don’t much care for any of that.’’
So for those of us whose lives it is to fight for every man, woman and child on Death Row. For those of us who witnessed Van’s courage, who were inspired by him and his family… it is hard to see this as anything more than the sensationalist profiteering from a tragic, painful event.
Tonight I will do what I always do, I’ll stay up until my eyes cannot stay open any longer… not because Better Man is on my screen but because there is real work to be done to save my clients right now who face the Death Penalty. For me that is a much better way to honour Van than watching any TV show could ever be!