Prejudicing a fair trial? The Yong Vui Kong case

“Yong Vui Kong is young. But if we say ‘We let you go’, what is the signal we are sending?”

With these words on 9 May 2010, Law Minister Mr K. Shanmugam tread where no right-minded Singapore politician ought to have gone – commenting and therefore potentially prejudicing an appeal before it had been decided in court. The effect of his remarks has even lead some voices to opine that the Minister could have been cited for contempt of court.

On 14 May 2010, Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, Justice Andrew Phang and Justice V K Rajah ruled that Yong’s lawyer M. Ravi had failed to prove that the mandatory death penalty for certain drug offences was unconstitutional, and duly dismissed Yong’s appeal.

Yong, a 21 year old Malaysian who was to be hanged last December for trafficking 47.27g of heroin secured a last minute reprieve after his lawyer successfully sought a stay of execution from the Court of Appeal. In allowing the appeal, the Court gave the accused the full measure of legal recourse, even though the stay of execution was rooted in a technicality. The effect of this reprieve on Singaporeans who kept an eye on this case was perceptibly positive. After all, a man’s life was on the line. It mattered that our judicial system was seen to be fair and just, technicality or not. By allowing the appeal in spite of a strong argument made by the prosecution, the Court of Appeal earned the social dividends that it deserved from the Singapore public.

But Shanmugam’s ill-timed remarks a mere week or so before the Court of Appeal’s judgment on 14 May 2010, effectively pulled the rug from under their feet. And thanks to Shanmugam, the Singapore judiciary’s has unfairly come under the spotlight, with doubts cast over whether the Law Minister’s words had any effect on their judgment.

A trite fact about the Singapore judiciary is that it interprets laws that are passed by Parliament. It has no powers to substitute the mandatory death penalty in drug trafficking cases with its own sentence. While many Singaporeans feel that the death penalty should remain on the statute books, many also opine that it is judiciary, and not parliament that ought to pass the death penalty. After all, that is what the judiciary – not parliament – is paid to do: Listen to all sides of a case, including mitigation pleas, and pass judgment fairly without political interference, and with an eye on what is in the best interests of Singapore. Parliament ought to have no business usurping this function, since in mandatory death sentence cases, mitigation is irrelevant and the judicial process concludes upon a finding of guilt.

Shanmugam did not really want to cover this ground in his defence of the death penalty at the Siglap South Community Centre on 9 May 2010. He laid out the largely non-existent dilemma of doing away with the death penalty, positing that letting one drug-trafficker go would invite 10 others to wreck havoc in Singapore. In shrewdly side-stepping the issue at hand, that of doing away with the mandatory death penalty and leaving the decision of sentencing drug traffickers to death to the judiciary, Shanmugam went on to spectacularly undermine his own argument warning that by removing the death penalty, “[w]e (will send) a signal to all the drug barons out there: just make sure you choose a victim who is young, or a mother of a young child, and use them as the people to carry the drugs into Singapore.”

The Minister ought to know that in spite of the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) much-heralded mandatory death penalty regime as the panacea to all drug-related crime, his words represent the precise strategy drug barons pursue. Young, vulnerable and desperate drug mules are the victims of choice in their game of chance. Sending young drug mules to the gallows in Singapore has not had a deterrent effect, since the supply line of drug mules, let alone drugs, is potentially limitless.

Does the evidence reveal a mind that knew exactly what it was doing, or was the mule in question a victim of circumstance? An enquiry into these questions are reason enough to conclude that the courts are in a better position to determine if a young drug mule ought to be sentenced to jail, upto 20 years, or have life taken away from him/her. A complex and difficult problem appears to have presented an excuse for a one-party dominant parliament to throw humanity, compassion and mercy out of the window, that too, at the judiciary’s watch. In ruling on 14 May 2010 that the door was now closed to appeals that cover the constitutionality of the mandatory death penalty, the Court of Appeal has effectively put the issue in parliament’s hands.

But this writer would argue that the rub of the matter goes far beyond the issues discussed so far. The PAP’s raison d’etre requires that the party build up and destroy bogeymen in order to legitimise its own existence and present the government as the protector of Singapore’s interests, culture and sovereignty. The opponents of the death penalty and separately, mandatory death penalty for drug offences are perfect candidates. Giving an inch to either group would only lead to a floodgates argument that can only engender calls for greater democratisation, mainstream media freedom and the like. Preventing this is an all-of-government effort, given that Shanmugam’s 9 May 2010 remarks were strategically rebroadcasted for wider readership through a Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release (,14940,).

The usual course of action involves obfuscating public interest through the state-managed mainstream media and playing up the allegedly insidious intentions of human rights and civil society activists as liberal idealists far removed from the unique local circumstances at hand and ill-equipped to understand what is required to run Singapore. To be sure, some human rights and civil society activists may well be too cocky and arrogant for their own good. But rather than to address, dissect or discuss arguments on the death penalty and mandatory death penalty, and present the issues for public scrutiny, the PAP-led government resorts to defining the problem in black and white, or fishing out red herrings, as Shanmugam did.

Yong Vui Kong has one more avenue before he is sent to the gallows. Clemency. While it is popularly thought that the Elected President of Singapore decides such appeals, in reality it is Cabinet that makes the decision, “recommending” a result for the President to announce. De facto and de jure power is in Cabinet’s hands. Shanmugam, as a member of the Cabinet, may well have shown Cabinet’s hand and prejudiced Yong’s clemency plea with his ill-timed remarks. Even worse, the disquiet over the Minister’s remarks could cause Cabinet to harden its position by denying clemency so as not be seen as wavering under pressure if and when the clemency comes up for consideration.

When contacted, a Law Ministry spokesman said that Shanmugam was responding to a specific question raised by a resident during the Siglap dialogue, and had only reiterated the policy and philosophy behind the death penalty and why Singapore adopted such a tough stance. The journalist who covered the event reported that the Minister did not want to speculate on the future of the (Yong) sentence. But by referring specifically to Yong Vui Kong by name, that is precisely what Shanmugam did. The Law Minister may well have a duty to his party to set out the government’s stand on the death penalty. But another duty seems to have eluded him – that of ensuring that the legal process in Singapore is not open to charges of political interference. After all, every Singaporean worth his or her salt would agree that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done.


Pritam Singh is the Founder of OpinionAsia and presently a Juris Doctor candidate at the Singapore Management University


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