Alan Shadrake’s career sparked into life when he uprooted his young family and relocated to Berlin shortly after the wall went up in 1961. Now the 76-year-old great-grandfather is enjoying a new lease of life after being imprisoned for writing a book that dared to criticize the judiciary in Singapore.
“I took two suitcases to Berlin, all the stuff I needed,” he said when we meet at his daughter’s house in Essex, England. “And I came back from Singapore with two suitcases and nothing of my life in between — no houses, no cars, no wives.”
Shadrake has enjoyed a rip-roaring, itinerant writing career, his life shaped by the stories that he has pursued.
“What have you done now, Dad?” his children laugh when he phones them from far-flung destinations.
However, Shadrake’s family feared his determination to expose injustice in Singapore was an adventure too far. When he was found guilty of contempt of court last year for claims in his bestselling book, Once a Jolly Hangman, his youngest daughter e-mailed to ask: “Will they hang you, Dad?” They did not, but Shadrake has only recently been freed — and deported back to Britain — after five weeks in Changi prison.
Shadrake is still recovering from his imprisonment.
“It was a pretty horrendous experience,” he said.
However, he looks younger than his years. He began as a 15-year-old on the Hornchurch and Upminster News and worked his way up to the Daily Express in Manchester before moving to Berlin. There he filed stories for all the UK papers and wrote a book about the people-smuggling racket created by the wall. Later, he moved to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, writing showbiz features for British tabloids.
After his third wife died, Shadrake was just about to go to Cuba when a journalist friend phoned and asked him to write some travel stories about Singapore. So he flew to Southeast Asia. On his only night off he was sitting alone at a bar when he met a Singaporean-Chinese woman who was to become his fourth wife.
“The very morning I moved into her flat in Singapore I switched the TV on and there was an announcement about a British guy wanted for two murders who had run off to Australia,” Shadrake said.
That suspect was protected from extradition until it was guaranteed that he would not be put to death and yet Shadrake also spotted the case of Nguyen Van Tuong, a young Australian who was found guilty of heroin trafficking at Changi airport and was hanged.
“I saw it as double standards,” he said. “I thought: find a hangman and interview him.”
The hangman he eventually tracked down changed his life. Shadrake was surprised to hit it off with Darshan Singh, Singapore’s chief executioner for nearly 50 years who once executed 18 men in one day.
“We’re old codgers together,” he said. “I used to talk to him about Manchester United. He loved it.”
Shadrake envisioned a biography of Singh’s life, but as he spoke to more local people he became convinced the judicial system did not always deliver justice. And so Once a Jolly Hangman tells of a judiciary that embraced the death penalty for murder, drug trafficking and firearms offenses. Singapore only recently started revealing its execution rates — killing six criminals in 2008 and five in 2009 — and Shadrake argued the death penalty disproportionately applied to the young and the poor, while high-ranking criminals, wealthy foreigners and well-connected drug lords escaped.