The following letter was sent in November last year to President S R Nathan to plead for clemency for Yong Vui Kong.
Clemency for Yong Vui Kong
In 2005, the Rotary Club of Sandakan, Sabah, launched an Education Care Programme in Sandakan. Its report stated:
Sandakan: You do not have to look to other countries to find the poor and the unfortunate. Dig a little deeper into our backyard and you will find hordes of unfortunate children who are victims of circumstances. The Rotary Club of Sandakan has found such children scattered around Sandakan, and who live as far as mile 30. They were born poor. Four children were found living in a small wooden shed by themselves under the care of relatives. They have no choice but to do adult chores like washing clothes, ironing, cleaning, etc with their small bare hands. Fortunately, food is still available. Others are not so lucky. The everyday menu often only comprises steamed rice, topped with Maggie noodle to taste. On good days, they will be served the occasional fish, which is often only sufficient for a cat’s tummy. Going to school is no luxury. Two siblings, one is twelve years old and another, in Standard One, have to wake up at four every morning and walk to the bus station by 5.00 am to catch the public bus to school. The journey to school takes an hour. These children are not orphans but owing to their family’s financial constraints and more often chaotic parent relationship, they have been neglected and deprived.
This was the world that Yong Vui Kong was born into in 1988. He was a child eager for education; eager to escape the privations that his unfortunate history had thrown upon him. At ten years of age he could no longer continue his education. His father had left the home and his mother became sickly.
Initially, he became a kitchen help. But he fell into bad company. His so called “Big Brother” used him as a runner to collect bad debts. From collecting, he was slowly tasked to deliver “gifts”, some of which were colourfully wrapped and which Vui Kong would carry as an instruction from his “boss”. This young boy obeyed the instructions of his “Big Brother”.
In June 2007, still a boy at nineteen, he was convicted under the Misuse of Drugs Act for the 47.25 grams of heroin he had in his possession. Vui Kong had fallen into the hands of a drug trafficking syndicate. There were discrepancies in his case. He initially said he stood to receive $2000 for delivering the package but later alleged he lied. The testimony of his co-accused was damning.
His lawyer tells us he has been reformed while in detention awaiting his sentence. He now counsels other inmates. He is clear that he did what he did to help his mother make ends meet. To afford fish on more than just the good days. Undoubtedly, Sir, he is guilty. Our laws are very clear to those who can read the warnings on our immigration forms and displayed clearly at our immigration checkpoints. Singapore has never prevaricated about the penalties for drug trafficking. But perhaps Vui Kong never read those signs or heeded the warnings. Perhaps he could not read the languages they were written in. Perhaps, like many children, many poor people, or many illiterate people, he never paid any attention to officialdom. For reasons good or bad, clear and unclear, honest or dishonest, Vui Kong committed a crime that carries the highest penalty in our courts. Due to his youth, trial judge, Justice Choo Han Teck, asked the prosecution to consider reducing the charge against him but this was refused. Vui Kong was nineteen when he heard the death sentence passed against him.
All human beings desire to live the good life. Including Vui Kong. Growing up as he did in that poverty-stricken shantytown in Sandakan, he also dreamed of working hard, earning money and keeping his mother in comfort. Sadly, to many, the opportunities available to do so never come. Some of us slog all our lives at back-breaking jobs to make ends meet. To some of us never come the opportunities to break out, to break free. But we try. As hard as we might we try to relieve ourselves and our families of suffering. And perhaps Vui Kong was one of those.
There is no doubt that he is guilty under the Misuse of Drugs Act, though whether he knew what he was actually doing, whether he was in full control of his faculties to resist, whether he was mature enough to think through the implications, confident enough to say no to his Big Brother, brave enough to believe there was another way, a legal way, a safe way, to carry his mother, his brothers, his sister out of their grinding poverty, we cannot know. The poverty that means you only have instant noodles to savour the steamed rice. The poverty that means you stop school so that you can do the family chores. The poverty that results in childhood neglect and a bleakness that deadens the human spirit and creates in it a desperation to survive, to find happiness anywhere, to find comfort. Ultimately, who knows whether Vui Kong knew what he was doing and decided to take a chance? Who knows if his poverty was enough to put himself beyond caution? Who knows if he was blinded to the promise of riches, even if a meagre two thousand dollars?
I am fortunate enough never to have been tempted by the lure of easy riches. I never had to walk miles to school but only to the end of the driveway to be picked up by a school bus. I never had to do my own chores as a toddler because there was a domestic worker to do so. I always had more than Maggie noodles to enliven my rice. But Vui Kong didn’t. Living in a shantytown, his mother eking out an existence close to the very threshold of human misery, who knows what desperation prompted him to do what he did, if indeed he knew what it was he was doing? Who indeed. But our mandatory death penalty takes the just and careful consideration of these matters out of the hands of our judges. Our law says that where you are convicted of a crime for which the penalty is mandatory execution, the judge is not entitled to look at the convicted person as a human being, with faults and failing that occasion crime but also strengths and goodness that can give rise to reformation, to rehabilitation.
Vui Kong is 22 years old. He has a lifetime of remorse ahead of him. We all know the salutary effect that regret can have on an individual. We all know how people can change, especially young people. Especially young people who have felt the heavy hand of the law upon them. So many of our drug rehabilitation centres which add so much value in curing drug addicts were started by former drug users. So much could be done for others by this young man who now knows how a chance mistake, a flash in his otherwise depressing life, could lead to the deepest, darkest nightmare. So much that Your Excellency can facilitate by exercising the powers constitutionally vested solely in your hands to be merciful to Vui Kong.
Because, with the testimony of a Vui Kong, I invite Your Excellency to think of the many countless similar young souls who could be saved from the detestable drug syndicates which prey upon our young poor with the promise of a quick buck. I invite Your Excellency to remember the privations of the early years of your late predecessor, President Wee Kin Wee, and how easy it might have been for President Wee to have found himself in Vui Kong’s shoes.
We live, Sir, in a very different world to the one in which the death penalty may once have been relevant. Or even effective. Time has had a most salutary effect on how we think about criminal behaviour, of punishment, rehabilitation and retribution. On 10 December 1948, the United Nations signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fifth Article of which says:
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
During the Ministers of Asian States Meeting in 1993 in the lead up to the World Conference on Human Rights, Asian governments reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They stated their view of the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights and stressed the need for universality, objectivity and non-selectivity of human rights. The ASEAN Charter, signed in 2007, point our nations, at Article 1.1, to the commitment to:
...promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, with due regard to the rights and responsibilities of the Member States of ASEAN;
One hundred and thirty-nine countries of our global family have abolished the death penalty. It is no longer found to work. It is an unhappy throwback to a much older yesteryear. There is no clear evidence that it is effective: of this point international organisations and many governments are convinced. And the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions stated in his 2005 report that the:
...mandatory death penalty, which precludes the possibility of a lesser sentence being imposed regardless of the circumstances, is inconsistent with the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Close as we are to the Golden Triangle and to the drug fields and drug barons of Myanmar, Singapore is in an especially vulnerable position to prevent drugs reaching our shores. But the evidence is now clear: the death penalty - and indeed the mandatory death penalty - does not contribute to the fight to do so.
Your Excellency, the law in Singapore is by no means absolute on this point. It allows that persons under the age of eighteen at the time of the offence and pregnant women may not be sentenced to death. Commutations of death sentences have occurred in our history, with the last being handed down from the hand of your predecessor, President Ong Teng Cheong, as recently as 1998.
Sir, for every Vui Kong that is killed in our name the drug barons will find another ten desperate, despairing teenagers. To kill Vui Kong is not to solve a problem. But to save his life will lift the enlightened tone of our judicial system deep into the ranks of the civilised nations of our world. At this late stage in your distinguished career, you have an opportunity to carry out a profoundly significant executive action whose repercussions will reverberate far beyond our tiny shores. You have the chance to firmly entrench your name in the hearts of every Singaporean who knows instinctively, as I fully believe you do, that the mandatory death penalty is as dismal as it is ineffectual. You have the ability to make Singaporeans truly proud to be Singaporeans, to lead in the field of compassion and mercy. You have the chance to say, on behalf of all Singaporeans, that we believe in the dignity and nobility of human beings, in the ability to be redeemed, to change for the better. And you would have saved a boy from dying.
Sir, in August last year, together with eighty or so fellow Singaporeans, I attended a gathering at Hong Lim Park to call upon Your Excellency to spare the life of this boy. The strength of feeling against the death penalty, the commitment to doing away with it was strong. Vui Kong’s brothers attended the gathering and his lawyer spoke movingly of his life then and now. Sir, I am a social worker, as you are. The very taproot of our profession is the belief that people can chance for the better and improve their lives as well as the lives of others. We believe in this potential springing from the wellspring of humanity. I know that Vui Kong can change for the better. I truly believe you do too. As a social worker who has ascended to the highest office in our land, you have a singular opportunity to express the values that have motivated our profession for as long as human beings have extended a helping hand to one another.
I do not know Vui Kong personally. Neither does Your Excellency. But I invite you to do what you know in your heart to be right. I invite you, on behalf of all your fellow Singaporeans, to exercise the power that should return solely to your hand, to save a young life. Do not, in our name, condemn this boy, Yong Vui Kong, to be killed.
May I thank you for your time in reading this letter.
*Note: The author understands from yesterday's Court of Appeal verdict that the President does not possess the power of clemency.