Why I support the death penalty and a second chance for Yong Vui Kong

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Letter from Mr Marcus Lee to The Online Citizen on the death penalty issue.

Dear TOC,

You might be wondering why I am writing about Mr Yong Vui Kong’s death sentence more than 2 weeks after the impassioned online discussion on TOC over this issue. It really started with a minor altercation between your Editor-at-large, Choo Zheng Xi, and myself on Terence Lee’s blog, “Irreligious”. [1] The issue was quickly resolved when Zheng Xi agreed that I could engage TOC in discussion on this matter.

The process of writing this letter has been a journey of self-discovery for me. I’ve learnt to think responsibly about the life and death of a fellow human being. I wish to cut down on personal attacks against TOC and focus instead on a constructive discussion about the death penalty.

I have to thank this online publication for a few things: first, its effort to campaign for Yong to be treated mercifully; second, the sincere attempts to educate and stir empathy among members of the wider public. Nevertheless, I still have strong reservations about the stand against the death penalty. I have to tread carefully though, and draw a distinction between the abolishment of the death penalty and that of the mandatory death penalty.

First of all, I wish to point out that the debate over the mandatory death penalty shouldn’t be framed solely from the perspective of the drug trafficker. TOC has repeatedly pointed out that Yong’s life had been affected by parental divorce, poverty, abuse and a lack of education. [2] While I acknowledge that Yong deserves sympathy for his plight, I wish to remind everyone that drug users are also victims.  I believe many Singaporeans have been educated about the deadly effects of drugs, thanks to years of campaigning by the Central Narcotics Bureau.

Nonetheless, I have also considered Zheng Xi’s point that was raised on “Irreligious”:

“One of the fundamental tenets of criminal justice is that the punishment must fit the crime as well as criminal, hence the possibility of mitigation. You do not sentence a hardened drug smuggler to the same penalty as a first time offender. A law that leaves absolutely no judicial discretion in sentencing is arbitrary” [1]

I now understand that the campaign to abolish the mandatory death penalty aims to abolish capital punishment as the default automatic sentence meted out to all drug traffickers regardless of circumstance. This is different from wanting to abolish capital punishment altogether. I humbly admit that I had a rudimentary understanding of this crucial difference during our previous exchange on “Irreligious”. My stand however, remains the same - I believe that the death penalty is a reasonable punishment for drug traffickers who have knowingly caused harm.

In meting out justice, I believe judges should be able to take into account mitigating factors. I am not trained in law but I hope you will find these suggestions sensible:

1. Social background of the offender

TOC argues for clemency for Yong based on, among other factors, his “tragic family circumstances” and “socialized corruption” [3].  I question if this basis for requesting for a lighter sentence takes away the element of impartiality in our law. Aren’t criminals supposed to be convicted equally regardless of their background?  I question if this will lead to bias towards people from underprivileged backgrounds. Please, someone convince me why the answer is “no”.

2. Possibility of reform

TOC also raises some other factors in support of Yong:  the absence of a “prior criminal record”, “possibility that he can be reformed” and “whether or not an alternative punishment might suffice” [3].  Can Yong turn over a new leaf?  Yong’s brother says that Yong has “embraced Buddhism” and “his personality has changed greatly”. He also says “the prison wardens and priests dote on [Yong] because he’s now a very good kid”. If this is true, Yong is truly a new man.

3. Knowledge of the magnitude of the crime

Having no “prior criminal record” doesn’t mean that the offender is any less culpable. It is still possible for a first-time offender to carry out a crime knowing full well the impact of his actions.

According to the Straits Times:

“… Deputy Public Prosecutors Peter Koy and Stella Tan argued that some of the packets had their ends opened and Yong would have seen the drugs.  Perhaps most damaging was the evidence of Yong's accomplice Reggie Gwee Chin Hian, 22, who testified that he had received drugs from Yong five to six occasions between May and June last year [ie 2007]There had also been two past instances when the drugs were not wrapped when he received them” [4]

It appears that Yong had peddled drugs repeatedly over two months. He very likely knew what the packets contained, thus making him aware of the repercussions should he be caught.  I acknowledge that Yong “…was assured by his superiors that these drugs were of an insufficient quantity to warrant the death penalty”, at least according to TOC [5]. I also acknowledge that it might not have been easy for Yong to leave the shady business of drug dealing despite knowing the contents of the packets, since drug lords are not reputed to be benevolent or merciful. Yong also needed money to support his mother, who suffers from depression (refer to the video in [6])

In one of your articles, TOC referred to Yong’s “boyish frailty” [3]. I remain skeptical about the argument that Yong should be excused because of his youth.  Yong was 19 at the time of his offence.  Our law regards as minors those aged below 16 years of age.  Even younger people have been found to be capable of committing crimes consciously. For example, a 15-year-old recently solicited sex on the Internet[7].

In summary, my view of Yong is that he might not have had malicious intentions in peddling drugs.  He seemed fully aware of what he was doing, though he appeared somewhat helpless. I hope you will find this impression to be just.

I now conclude, contrary to my previous comment on “Irreligious”, that it will be more constructive for our society if Yong is given a chance to reform. My conscience is more important than my pride. If Yong is executed, it will be a sobering reminder that our law only takes into account the actions of offenders and not their personal situations.

I am done now discussing Yong’s case and would like to move on to the death penalty being a reasonable punishment for many drug traffickers. First, I’d like to quote this often-repeated anecdote of a reader who calls himself Andrew Chuah:

“I am [also prepared to]hang my former and only brother who is a top drugs syndicate member based in Penang and he is also very highly educated with top class university from Cambridge, UK and a Master from NUS and has tens of millions of investments in Singapore….”[8]

If this story is true, Andrew is talking about a drug lord who was not forced into the trade through pitiful personal circumstances. On the contrary, he has been blessed with financial riches and a good education. Despite this, he has consciously chosen to harm others through drug trafficking. This person deserves death because he seems so remorseless. It seems unfair to use taxpayers’ money to support him in jail. I will say once again that abolishing the mandatory death penalty is different from abolishing the death penalty altogether. The death sentence should still be a viable option as a form of punishment.

I’d like to share with TOC other arguments against the death penalty that I have come across online and how they have not convinced me. These arguments may or may not have been endorsed by TOC. I just want to share. Please do not take anything personally.

1.  The death penalty leaves no room for correction

According to Amnesty International: “Unlike imprisonment, the death penalty entails the risk of judicial errors which can never be corrected. There will always be a risk that some prisoners who are innocent will be executed.”[9]

Errors in sentencing do not discredit the death penalty itself, rather they call for greater care in handing out punishment to criminals.

2. The death penalty is inhumane and therefore should be abolished

Campaigners often use emotional language in their drive to abolish the death penalty. Note the power behind the sentiments expressed in “Irreligious”:

“How many more 20-year-old teenagers must we hang before we realise something is wrong with our justice system?”

“If you are the hangman standing in front of Yong at the gallows, would you have the heart to hang him yourself?” [1]

We are human beings with feelings, nothing wrong with that. It sickens us to see a person make the ghastly transition from life to death, and I have been a witness. Moreover, nobody likes to see young people die.  But the perceived cruelty of the death penalty does not automatically mean it is always undeserved. When meting out justice, we should not be totally affected by raw emotions.

I’d like to go on to my last point, which actually might be the most important. Does the death penalty deter drug abuse? I have found sources that explore the relationship between the death penalty for drug trafficking and the prevalence of drug abuse.  They are the UN’s Drug Report [10], cross-referenced with Wikipedia’s list of countries that sentence drug traffickers to death. [11]

According to the UN Drug Report, Iran, which has the death penalty for drug trafficking, heads the list of countries with the highest seizures of morphine and heroin. However, the rest of the list consists of countries which do not have the death penalty for drug trafficking.  The list for countries with the highest incidences of cocaine seizures is made up entirely of countries which do not have the death penalty for drug trafficking. Among countries with the highest incidences of cannabis seizures, only Indonesia has the death penalty for drug trafficking.  The results are the same for other lists - they are dominated by countries which do not sentence drug traffickers to death.

Clearly, there are points of contention. For example, I can question whether a high rate of seizure of drugs corresponds with a high prevalence of drug use. I can question too if the high rate of drug seizures is necessarily due to the death penalty, although it seems to be the case since such a pattern is seen throughout the various lists.

Given the limits of my abilities and time, I cannot analyse all the statistics. I only hope that the sources I have raised will be a starting point for the exploration of the effectiveness of the death penalty in deterring drug offences.

In summary, with regard to Yong’s case, I hope we can explore the possibility of giving him a lighter sentence in the hope that he will reform. I remain skeptical about certain arguments against the death penalty. I believe it to be a reasonable punishment for certain drug traffickers. Although we must consider mitigating factors, let us not be carried away by emotion as we do so.

In any debate, it is tempting to want simply to win the argument.  I believe the more important goal is to learn how to make our society a better place.  I hope my letter has been of some educational value. At the end of the day, all we want is for Yong and other drug traffickers to receive sentences they truly deserve.

Regards,

Lee Jin Fu Marcus

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Internet sources

  1. http://irreligiously.blogspot.com/2009/12/personal-appeal-to-all-my-friends-yes.html#comments
  2. http://theonlinecitizen.com/2009/12/calling-for-an-end-to-the-mandatory-death-penalty/
  3. http://theonlinecitizen.com/2009/12/toc-editorial-media%e2%80%99s-silence-on-yong-vui-kong-a-national-shame/
  4. http://www.straitstimes.com/Breaking%2BNews/Singapore/Story/STIStory_302234.html?vgnmr=1
  5. http://theonlinecitizen.com/2009/12/high-court-grants-rare-stay-of-execution-appeal/
  6. http://theonlinecitizen.com/2009/12/vui-kong-we-care-day-for-compassion/
  7. http://www.straitstimes.com/Breaking%2BNews/Singapore/Story/STIStory_412730.html
  8. http://theonlinecitizen.com/2009/12/m-ravi-speaks-on-death-penalty/
  9. http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ACT50/010/2007/en/f45ed09c-d3a2-11dd-a329-2f46302a8cc6/act500102007en.html

10.  http://www.unodc.org/documents/wdr/WDR_2009/WDR2009_eng_web.pdf

11.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_of_capital_punishment_by_nation

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The Online Citizen replies:

Dear Marcus,

Thank you for a well-thought out letter. We are heartened that you support giving Vui Kong a chance to reform instead of being put to death.

TOC has not publicly or officially taken a stand on the mandatory death penalty as yet, although we are concerned about the application of the mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers.  We will make our stand known in due time.

Thank you.

Regards,

Andrew Loh

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