Apprentice and the death penalty
NOTE: I am a founding member of We Believe in Second Chances, a group that advocates for the abolition of the death penalty in Singapore.
Boo Junfeng’s sophomore film, Apprentice, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in mid-May. I watched the goodreviews flow into my social media feed, saw the cast looking handsome and proud in the glamorous photo calls. I felt pleased for the cast and crew, glad that Singapore was being represented at a prestigious event.
I was also hopeful that Apprentice’s success would shine a spotlight on the issue of capital punishment in Singapore. In that very same week, anti-death penalty activists such as myself were struggling desperately to save Sarawakian migrant worker Kho Jabing.
We failed: after the Court of Appeal dismissed Jabing’s final appeal, he was whisked out of the court and to Changi Prison, where he was prepped and executed before any of us could really react.
Apprentice is now screening in cinemas across Singapore. I’d seen a rough cut last year, but have only just managed to catch the final product. This piece, though, is not a review; the plaudits for the film, the director, the cast, the set design, the cinematography, etc. have already been pouring in, so there’s no need to hear any of that from me.
The film follows a young prison officer, Aiman, who finds himself recruited as the assistant of the prison’s veteran executioner, Rahim. It’s a role that Aiman appears to find both repulsive and fascinating, and we find out why: Aiman’s father had been executed for murder before the young man was even old enough to know him. It is this baggage that colours Aiman’s relationship with Rahim and with the death penalty as he sees the system work up close.
What I would like to add to the chatter around the film is, as much as I can as someone who has worked on the issue of capital punishment, a little dose of reality. Yes, Apprentice is a beautiful film with gorgeous aesthetics, but it wouldn’t have been a film at all if the matter at its core — the death penalty — didn’t actually exist in Singapore.
Apprentice returned to Singapore flush with praise and success. Kho Jabing returned to Miri, Sarawak, in a coffin.
I watched Apprentice with what felt like a vice tightening in my chest. The execution chamber with its rope made me wonder about the last thing Jabing had seen before his afternoon execution (a breach of regular prison protocol), and how he had felt in those final moments. Scenes involving the families of death row inmates reminded me of Jabing’s sister and mother, Jumai and Lenduk, who had fought harder than anyone to save him, right up to the final moment.
In one scene, a condemned prisoner takes his final steps, and I thought about how we had later heard from the relative of another inmate that the execution chamber was so close to their cells they could hear the thud of the opening trap door as Jabing was hanged.
It’s of course unrealistic to expect everyone to watch the film with their hearts in their throats; the death penalty is a distant thought — if they think of it at all — to most people. I was in a cinema with people who sniggered, whispered (or annoyingly, didn’t whisper) and tutted through the film. They shook their heads at descriptions of an execution. Then, as the credits rolled, they shook it off and left.
I’m not blaming them for their reaction. But I wish I could have stopped them all as they left and said, “You know that scene you tutted at? When you shuddered at the sight of the noose? Well, it really happens. It really happens here.”
The brilliance of Apprentice is how it looks at the people who are touched by capital punishment, who are closest to it: the inmate, the families, the prison officer, the executioner. No one is the villain, everyone is a cog in the death penalty machine. The inmate might have committed a crime — maybe even a heinous one — but by the time we get this stage of the process, even that doesn’t detract from the clinical horror of a noose slipped over a neck, a spine snapped as the floor falls away. We see this in the way the protagonist Aiman and the executioner Rahim looks at and speaks to the inmates under their charge; there is no more anger, no more outrage, only a job to be done. And that is how capital punishment works; the process of death turned into an administrative task.
The film focuses on humanising the people caught in this system, and does a very good job of it. This point alone makes Apprenticea film worth watching.
But I would invite everyone who sees it to go one step further: to remember that what you’ve seen is real, and that it happens in Singapore. That, right this moment, there are death row inmates, not so different from the ones in the film, sitting in their cells, afraid and alone, waiting for that final journey. There are families, some fighting, others lost and helpless in the face of the pain that is coming their way. And there are prison guards, wardens and executioners, possibly also struggling with what we, as a society, ask of them.
They are all cogs in the machine. Apprentice gives us their story, allowing us to see a range of experiences. We shouldn’t just watch the film, then forget, because the film is reflection of something we allow to happen in our country.
Instead of simply sympathising with the cogs, what we should be asking is this: do we really need the machine at all?