“My son loves to help people,” Cheong Kah Pin tells The Online Citizen.
In fact, he believes that it is this willingness to help others that has led his son Cheong Chun Yin to where he is today – on death row in Changi Prison.
On 16 June 2008, 24-year-old Cheong Chun Yin (known to his family as “Ah Yan”) was arrested as he was getting off a taxi on Arab Street. He, together with 55-year-old Malaysian Pang Siew Fum, was charged for drug trafficking.
A suitcase that Cheong had passed to Pang at Changi Airport was found to contain 2.726kg of heroin hidden in a false bottom.
Under Schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, any person found in possession of more than 2 grammes of heroin receives a mandatory death sentence. Under the Mandatory Death Penalty, the judge does not have the power and the duty to take into account the personal circumstances of the offender.
Both Cheong and Pang were found guilty and sentenced to death under the mandatory death penalty in February 2010.
Smuggling gold bars
In his statement and throughout court proceedings, Cheong insisted that he believed that he had been smuggling gold bars into Singapore from Myanmar.
While running a DVD stall at the pasar malam in Johor he got to know an old man known as “Lau De”. “Lau De” told him that he was in the business of smuggling gold. Cheong said that he did not believe him at first, but did later when he met a man who claimed to have had just returned from a gold smuggling trip, and was decked out in gold jewellery.
“Lau De” offered to pay Cheong RM8000, with US$500 as pocket money for the trip to Myanmar, if he would carry the gold bars to someone in Singapore. Cheong, believing that it would not be difficult, agreed.
While in Myanmar, Cheong was given a black suitcase to bring in to Singapore. He said that although he did not see the gold, he felt the sides of the suitcase and got the impression that there was something hard hidden on each side. He thus assumed that the gold bars had been hidden in the lining of the suitcase.
Cheong carried the suitcase into Singapore through Changi Airport, handing it over to Pang Siew Fum in Terminal 2. He was later arrested and taken to Pang’s flat, where it was revealed that it was heroin, and not gold, that had been hidden in the lining of the suitcase.
“He did not know it was drugs,” says his father. “If we knew it was drugs, I would not have let him go. We know the penalty. Why would he go to his death so willingly?”
No financial difficulties
Cheong Kah Pin says his son was not having any financial difficulties. Between the two of them, they had been making more than enough money to get by.
After divorcing his wife, Cheong Kah Pin had also sold two houses – one in Johor and another in Ipoh. He and his ex-wife split the money, and the profit made was enough for him to purchase a new house for him and his son.
“Why would he want to traffic drugs?” he asks. “We have enough money of our own.”
In his statement to the police, Cheong said that he had agreed to smuggle gold bars because “I wanted to make more money so that I can save it up for my marriage with my girlfriend”.
He claims that he had been persuaded by “Lau De” to smuggle gold from Myanmar, and that if caught, there would only be a fine that “Lau De” would pay for. He therefore believed that it would be a relatively small risk to take.
Always happy, but too gullible
Cheong’s parents divorced in 2002, and his other three younger siblings – two sisters and a brother – went to live with their mother. He was the only child who remained with his father, and they set up a stall at the pasar malam together. After completing secondary school, he decided to help his father with the business full-time.
According to Cheong Kah Pin, his son had never mixed around with a bad crowd, preferring to return home to play computer games instead. Cheong has always had a cheerful disposition, and is incredibly willing to trust and help others.
“Oftentimes he would lend money to his friends, and they wouldn’t pay him back,” says Cheong Kah Pin. “But he would still help them if they asked.”
He tells us that even on death row, Cheong is eager to help others. “He asks me to bring music CDs when I visit him, so he can give them to the other death row inmates.”
He believes that it is his son’s gullible nature that led him to befriend and trust the people who talked him into going to Myanmar to smuggle gold bars. “He would never have knowingly trafficked drugs. He was just too eager to help people.”
Lack of search for “Lau De” deemed “immaterial”
While being questioned, Cheong repeatedly asserted that he had had no idea that the suitcase contained heroin. He also gave the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) officers the telephone numbers of “Lau De”.
However, he claims that they had done “absolutely nothing” to trace the whereabouts of this “Lau De”.
In his written judgements of the case, Judge Choo Han Teck stated that the evidence given by Cheong “did not create any reasonable doubt in my mind that he might not have known that he was carrying heroin.”
He also said that “[i]t was immaterial that the CNB did not make adequate efforts to trace ‘Lau De’ or check on his cell-phones. The absence of any trace of ‘Lau De’… was not taken as evidence in favour of or against either accused."
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, any person found in possession of more than the prescribed amounts is presumed to be trafficking. Furthermore, any person who is proved or presumed to have had a controlled drug in his possession shall be presumed to have known the nature of that drug. The burden of proof therefore rests on the defendant, as opposed to common law jurisdiction where the accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.
A father left alone
When Cheong had first mentioned travelling to Myanmar, his father had not allowed him to go. “I told him not to go, to stay and help me with the business,” he says.
“But later I thought that he was already an adult, and I didn’t want to control him too much, so I let him go,” he adds. “If I had known, I would never have let him go.”
Cheong Kah Pin now lives and runs his business alone. Every Monday morning, he rides a motorcycle across the Causeway in to Singapore to visit his son at Changi Prison.
“How can I not be heartbroken?” he says. “This is the only son I have by my side.”
He tries to fill his days with work, going to morning markets as well as the usual night ones. Occasionally he will also seek extra factory work, helping to guard vehicles.
He says that it is not because he needs the money, but because he cannot bear to spend time alone in the house he once shared with his son. “I don’t want to stay at home, staring at the ceiling and crying,” he tells us.
“What meaning would there be left for me, if I were left alone?” he asks. “A good, healthy child, used by others because he was too gullible. Life will have no meaning for me if I were left alone.”
Awaiting presidential clemency
Cheong’s case has already progressed to the last stage: the presidential clemency. His clemency petition has already been submitted to President Nathan at the beginning of this year, and is expected to be due back by the end of April 2011. If the petition is turned down, Cheong can be expected to hang in early May.
In August 2010, in response to lawyer M Ravi’s application for a judicial review of the President’s powers in granting clemency, the Supreme Court ruled that the President has no discretion under the Constitution, and specifically under Article 22P, to grant pardons. “The power to do so rests solely with the Cabinet,”High Court Judge Steven Chong said.
Although time is running out, his father refuses to give up. “If my son was a bad person and a drug trafficker, I would have nothing to say,” he tells us. “But he is not a bad person. He really did not know he was carrying drugs. How can his life just be taken like this?”
Malaysia also practices the Mandatory Death Penalty for drug-trafficking cases. On March 18, A Singaporean single mother was found guilty of drug-trafficking and sentenced to death. TOC will provide updates soon.