“You may leave now”

Kirsten Han

At first I thought I had misheard, or at the very least misunderstood. We had just trudged uphill in the oppressive Singapore heat for 15 minutes, the family laden with binders, boxes and stacks of papers. Everyone was covered with a sheen of sweat. And that was only just the tiniest fraction of what the Yong family had been through.

For them, and the many activists who have supported them, today was the culmination of at least 2 months worth of tireless, persistent effort. Yong Vui Kong’s family was on their way to submit the 109,346 signatures they had collected for the petition appealing to the President, and the Singapore government, for clemency. These signatures had been collected on the streets of Sabah and West Malaysia, as well as in Singapore and online.

While his siblings and close relatives had been walking the streets of Malaysia stopping everyone and anyone who would listen, Yun Leong – who is working in Singapore – had been going out on the streets alone during every lunch break, collecting signatures for the petition. He singlehandedly collected about 317 signatures. He was sick today, with a sore throat that made it difficult for him to speak. He said it’d been a long time since he’d slept well. But he was determined to keep fighting for his brother’s life. And today he was going to submit all these precious signatures at the Istana, in the hopes that 109,346 voices would be enough.

But at the back gate of Istana – yes, they weren’t allowed to submit the petition at the main gate facing the main road – the security officer of the Istana was brusque and businesslike. He, assisted by a colleague, accepted the petitions, turned on his heel and left, only pausing to say, “You may leave now.”

Understandably, the family was stunned and confused. Was that it? They had handed over their blood, sweat and tears of the past two months, but had not even had a chance to say a word. The man had taken hold of the most crucial appeal they had ever made to anyone in their whole lives, and had just walked away. Surely they should have been able to have said something?

“Can we just say a few words, a message to be passed on to the President?” Yun Leong asked Datuk Chua Soon Bui, the Sabah Member of Parliament who had accompanied the family, Vui Kong’s Singaporean legal representative M Ravi and Malaysian legal representative Ngeow Chow Ying to submit the signatures.

While they were deliberating this, the security officer, Corporal Marcus Chong, returned. He again told everyone that they had to leave. “Please depart from here.”

Vui Kong’s father came forward, wanting to speak so a message could be passed on to the President. Corporal Chong refused to listen to him, saying that they had already received the petition, and that the family should leave “for safety reasons”.

Upset, all six siblings, father and aunt knelt before the Istana, hoping to be heard. Hoping that someone, anyone, would listen to their plea, and spare their brother, son and nephew. But Corporal Chong returned again, and everyone was made to leave.

Deflated, disappointed and anxious, the family walked back in tears.

Later at the press conference, Yun Leong spoke. After thanking everyone for their support, he said, “Although this misfortune has befallen our family, we will keep on fighting. Until the last minute, or even the last second, we will not give up on my younger brother Vui Kong.”

I cannot even begin to putting myself in the Yong family’s shoes. I cannot begin to imagine the pain they must be going through. I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to be Yun Leong or Vui Fung – both have been so incredibly strong, for their brother and for their family. And I definitely cannot imagine what it is like to be Vui Kong, sitting in a cell waiting while people who have probably never even clapped eyes on him decide if he lives or dies.

Watching as the family knelt on the hot asphalt before the Istana, I could only feel ashamed of my country, and those who represent it. In fairness, Corporal Chong had not been rude, or abusive. He probably thought he was just trying to do his job. But it was the way he did it that betrayed the utter coldness of Singapore – by-the-book, inflexible and mechanical. All he was concerned about was getting everyone to go away. He had not even allowed the family a moment to grieve, or even wanted listen to what the family had to say.

All Vui Kong’s father had wanted to say was this: “Please ask the President to let my son have a second chance.

Is this what we have become? Ruthlessly efficient yet heartless automatons? Are we now so preoccupied with doing our jobs that we have forgotten what it is to show even a little bit of compassion to a hurting family? A family whose 22-year-old child we want to send to the gallows?

All they had wanted was to make sure that their plea had been heard by the representative of the Istana – was that really so much to ask? Was it really necessary to dismiss them without even stopping for the extra 10 seconds it would have taken to listen to Vui Kong’s father?

Also, why was it that the family was not allowed to submit the petition at the main gate? Why did everyone have to walk 15 minutes round the Istana compound to what was, frankly speaking, the arse-end of the Istana?

I suppose the authorities didn’t want any more media attention than was strictly necessary. The sight of the family kneeling before the Istana’s main gate in full view of everyone on the main road would probably have been unpalatable for them. And if that is the case, then my question is this: WHY?

If you are so sure that a young boy like Vui Kong must die for the greater good, then why the unwillingness to let Singaporeans be aware of his case? If you are so sure that the mandatory death penalty is justified and necessary as a deterrent, then why the need to hush all this up?

If you are so determined to take a life, then you sure as hell better have the guts to face up to the consequences. Don’t try to sweep everything under the carpet.

I also think of President S R Nathan. According to a report by ChannelNewsAsia yesterday, he’s in Shanghai, being impressed with the China pavilion at the World Expo and watching Kunqu opera.

I can’t help but wonder if he even knows of Yong Vui Kong. If he’s even heard his name. If he even cares that while he’s in Shanghai being wined and dined by officials and diplomats, a family is kneeling outside the Istana with heads bowed, begging for a life to be saved. I wonder if he’s outraged by the fact that the High Court has ruled that he has no power in granting clemencies, even though previous Presidents had been hailed for having exercised just that power. I wonder if he knows that people are calling for him to convene a Constitutional Tribunal.

How does he feel, knowing that he holds the lives of so many in his hands? How does he feel, knowing that he could change so many lives if he wanted to? Or does he not care at all?

I have no answers to these questions. Only the President has these answers. I am merely just one Singaporean citizen.

In this campaign to save Yong Vui Kong, there is only one thing I can still do. Like Yun Leong and his family, I can only keep fighting until the very last second.

Click here to read TOC’s report.

Click here to read The Straits Times’ 150-word offering: a piece they needed two reporters for.

More photographs of this morning can be found here and here.

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