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Families of death row inmates gather at private forum


Joshua Chiang /

The closed-door meeting addressed an issue not many in Singapore consider worrying enough to talk about: drugs and the death penalty. But the room was packed as more than 40 showed up to listen and share their views at a private forum organized by Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC) and Second Chances on Saturday.

Among them, relatives of six people sentenced to hang in Singapore and Malaysia for drug-related offences. These are six separate cases and prior to the forum, some of the family members were not aware that other people shared their plight. But by the end of the evening, one thing became alarmingly clear - the death row inmates all came from a relatively disadvantaged section of society.

Malaysian human rights lawyer Ngeow Chow Ying was the first to speak. She focused on the case of 28-year old Malaysian, Cheong Chun Yin, a drug mule whose execution is imminent.

Cheong was convicted of trafficking 2.7 kg of heroin into Singapore in 2008. When he was caught, he told investigators from the Central Narcotics Board he thought he was carrying gold bars into the country. He even gave them a name, “Lau De”. He told them the man arranged his trip to Burma to pick up the bag containing the “gold”. (read more about Chun Yin’s case here and here).

“He maintains that he is innocent,” Ms Ngeow said. “I believe him. I think most of us believe him.”

Ms Ngeow also spoke about the presumption clauses in the law which shift the burden of proof from the prosecution to the accused. “How can we, if you are caught, prove that you are innocent when the law already says that you are guilty?” she asked.

Chun Yin’s sister, Joanne, made a tearful plea for his life. “I feel that my brother has been misled,” she said. “I cannot believe that my brother could ever have done such a thing.”

But it was his father, Cheong Kah Pin, who had the audience in tears. “He would have done anything to help his friends,” he said. “He was just too trusting. Now that this has happened, he just tells me, ‘Dad, don’t be so sad.’”

Mr Cheong had arrived very early for the event. He cut a lonely figure, sitting outside the room before the start of the event. Prior to Chun Yin’s arrest, they had run a DVD stall together. They had also just moved into a new house in Johor Baru, Malaysia. When TOC visited earlier this year, Mr Cheong showed us Chun Yin’s room.  He had packed his son’s clothes away in suitcases. Out on the front porch, we saw Chun Yin’s motorbike gathering dust in a corner.

If anyone could understand what the Cheong family was going through, it was Singaporean Haminah bte Bakar (Inah). She stood up to tell the audience about her brother, Roslan bin Bakar, who is also on death row in Singapore.  Ms Inah said Roslan was convicted based on testimony given by others. Like Chun Yin, he continues to maintain his innocence.

“They framed my brother. Now I am so helpless, I don’t know what to do,” she said before breaking down.

Ms Inah’s outburst prompted panelist, lawyer M Ravi, to remind the audience about the importance of such gatherings to hear the stories of the affected families. “It is so important that you all listen to what they have got to say,” he said.

Mr Ravi also touched on the various cases that have come to his attention in recent months. “The denominator of all these cases is only one thing: they are extremely poor, disadvantaged sections of society,” he said. “What answers do we have as a society?”

He then moved on to the case of Noor Atiqah, a Singaporean single mother sentenced to death in Malaysia. Mr Ravi said she will be receiving legal support from human rights lawyers in London. He said, “The climate in Malaysia is much better, because Vui Kong’s case took the mainstream, [there is] a debate in Malaysia, and the Law Minister... has said that the death penalty should be abolished.”

The final panelist, Sinapan Sammydorai from Think Center Singapore, reminded the audience that although the death penalty was established in Singapore while still under British rule, “those countries that actually brought the death penalty, today have abolished or do not practise this death penalty.”

“The question of justice and unfairness is very real in Singapore,” he said. He pointed out issues of concern, such as the lack of evidence shared between the prosecution and the defence in trials, and the legality of entrapment exercises.

The evening ended with a call for the audience to support a petition asking the Singapore government to stay Chun Yin’s execution and reopen his case.

The Cheong family has, in two weeks, collected more than 5000 signatures. But time is running out and a decision on clemency is due the next week. If his plea is denied, Chun Yin could be hanged by mid-May.

Ms Ngeow told the audience that like most other drug mules, Chun Yin’s mistake was that he was too naive, “You don’t deserve to die because you trusted someone.”

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If you believe authorities should reopen Cheong Chun Yin’s case, please sign the petition here.

Read also: Drugs and the death penalty - "What can we do?"

The forum was organised by We Believe In Second Chances.