The Theatre of Punishment: Case Studies in the Political Function of Corporal and Capital Punishment


Michel Foucault famously argued that punishment was an expression of power—a way for the State to shore up and legitimize its political authority. Foucault attributed the historical shift away from public torture and corporal punishment, which occurred during the 19th century, to the availability of new techniques of social control; however, corporal and capital punishment (what we term “shock punishment”) persists in many penal systems to this day, suggesting that these countries have for some reason not fully undergone this penal evolution. Using the experiences of Hong Kong and Singapore as case studies, we attempt to explain why this is the case.

We argue that, while a range of factors contribute to why countries employ shock punishment, retention is often linked to the political stability of a government’s rule. Punishment, as a visceral expression of power, makes shock punishment particularly appealing to States grappling with political insecurity. In the post-war period, Hong Kong’s colonial government did not feel their rule challenged to the same extent as the newly independent government in Singapore. The result is two radically divergent stories with regards to corporal punishment, with Hong Kong abolishing the practice altogether in 1991 and Singapore not only retaining it, but greatly expanding its usage. As further support for our thesis, we offer empirical data regarding the use of shock punishment and the political freedom of the societies that retain it. We identify a fairly robust, positive correlation between the use of shock punishment and authoritarian and semi-authoritarian governments desperate to legitimize their rule. The final conclusion we reach is that, while many factors undoubtedly contribute to the retention of shock punishment, its expressive power plays a significant role in why many States continue to employ it.


Criminal Law, Corporal Punishment, Rehabilitation, Singapore, Hong Kong



Bryan H. Druzin (The Chinese University of Hong Kong)
Anthony S. Wan



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