Tuesday, 3 October 2023

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Discretion to the judges – judgment reserved

By Kirsten Han
p style=”text-align: justify;”>It’s a “slippery slope” argued Attorney-General (AG) Walter Woon; the thin edge of the wedge which pitted the legislature against the judiciary. With the multiple notices around Singapore’s borders warning against carrying drugs, “no one can traffic drug by accident”, he insisted, and hence the mandatory death penalty is a necessity to keep the streets of Singapore clean.

As AG Woon was trying to make out his case, behind a glass partition with two police officers on his right and his left, sat Yong Vui Kong; who in 2007, when he was barely 19, became a drug mule, blindly following the instructions of his boss in Johor Baru to give ‘presents’ to people in Singapore. As it turned out, the ‘presents’ were 47 grams of heroin.

As Vui Kong sat meekly in the dock, trying to follow the hearing through the court appointed Mandarin interpreter, Mr M Ravi the defense lawyer for Vui Kong, engaged in a highly technical debate, that the mandatory death penalty is a “cruel and unusual” form of punishment, and that the court should be given discretionary powers in sentencing.

Mr Ravi argued that the judges should be able to make their own decisions based on the details and circumstances of each individual case.

He highlighted the fact that Singapore is one of only fourteen countries left in the world that has the mandatory death penalty, an extremely anachronistic law that does not reflect internationally held views on human rights.

Mr Ravi He also drew attention to his client, who was only 19 years old when he was caught in possession of 47g of heroin, saying that Vui Kong must be considered as an individual case instead of sending him automatically to the gallows under the mandatory death penalty.

While re-emphasising the centrality of his case that he is not arguing for the abolishment of the death penalty, but simply for the removal of the mandatory aspect of the law, Mr Ravi pointed out that no studies have proven that the mandatory death penalty is an effective deterrent when it comes to drug trafficking.

After both sides have presented their cases and arguments, the judges praised M Ravi for the effort he had put into his submission, and thanked him for providing the court with an update on current international practices with regards to the death penalty. They decided to reserve their judgment on the hearing until further notice.

If the Court of Appeal rules that the mandatory death penalty is incompatible with the Constitution of Singapore, it would signal a great change in Singapore’s legal system, especially in drug-related cases.

It is a change however which will require the parliament to pass it into law.


Sketches: Joshua Chiang

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