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A day in court with Yong Vui Kong

~ By Sarah D ~

It is a typical April day, as far as most April days go. The sun is out after a short outburst of pregnant skies and many Singaporeans are out going about their business. As befitting the time of the day, most are heading for lunch whilst discussing what to reward themselves after a half day’s work. However, the cacophony of happy, screechy tones and growling stomachs belie the impending horror that is about to befall one man – the pronouncement of exactly when he will die, a sentence that only an unlucky handful of Singaporeans would ever face.

Yong Vui Kong, a 24-year old from Sabah, is about to face the Court of Appeal at exactly 2:30 pm on Wednesday to hear if he would live or die. What did he do to earn this predicament? He acted as a drug mule for a Singaporean drug kingpin, transporting 47.27g of heroin into Singapore when he was just 19. As the amount trafficked exceeded the legally prescribed limit of 15g, Vui Kong was given the mandatory death sentence, against which he has launched his third appeal and possibly final appeal.

I arrive in court and take my seat in the public gallery which is fast filling up with young lawyers, media people and a few members of the public. I put down my bag and take out the Straits Times to read while waiting for the lawyers, judges and accused to arrive. Suddenly a policeman appears to tell me that I am not allowed to read the newspaper in court. What? Oh, nevermind! I mutter. It’s a worthless newspaper anyway.

After a few minutes the lawyers, both prosecution and defense, arrive and soon afterwards Vui Kong is led into the accused box via a hidden passageway. He is wearing a pair of overalls and a light jacket that shields him from the courtroom’s artificially stimulated cold that this air-conditioned nation is notoriously famous for. His legs are chained, an image that reminded me of the chained work elephants that I shed tears for in Thailand. He clasps his free hands together as if in prayer and bows several times to his lawyers who politely return his bows. He looks over at the public gallery, spies a few former cell-mates, smiles at them and bows again. They waved at him and smile broadly as if to assure him that all will be well.

Showtime

The three judges enter and all rise in a ceremonial bow.  

The Chief Justice begins his summation. All eyes in the court are on the Chief Justice and all ears are tuned in to the dear words that he is uttering. Words that could break the noose so to speak and give the misguided young man, born into poverty and led into crime as a result of his unfortunate social and economic circumstances, a second chance at life.

I look over at Vui Kong. He’s seated with his body oriented in the direction of the esteemed executors of justice his face bent low. The court appointed translator sits in front of him with a glass panel in between them. She mechanically translates the CJ’s English summation into Chinese, never stopping to ask the motionless, expressionless Vui Kong if her words are understood by him. Well, to be fair, that’s not her job. She’s paid to translate and by the speed and clarity of her tone, she seems to be worth the money.

Vui Kong continues to stare at the ground. Does he understand what is being said? Is he aware that the CJ is dismissing all of his lawyer’s arguments and hence sending him on a rendezvous with the hangman?

Apparently not. Even after the court rejects Vui Kong’s appeal against the death sentence, Yong bows subserviently to the hurriedly outgoing judges. He has not understood a thing! The educated legal jargon that has been thrown around the courtroom is not familiar to this convicted young man. The language of the law is not the verbiage of this uneducated young man, uneducated in the high flung language and convoluted articles and rules of the law. It looks like Vui Kong was never part of the entire court proceedings that had dragged on over the last four years to decide his fate. The legal speak had taken place amongst the legal practitioners, arguing over whether Vui Kong deserved to die. This becomes clear when his lawyer walks over to explain the court’s rejection of his appeal. He is shocked, upset and in total disbelief. He cannot understand why he, the mule, has to die while the man who told him to carry the drugs, alleged kingpin, Singaporean Chia Choon Leng, had all charges against him dropped. [Note: Chia is currently held under the Criminal Law Temporary Provisions Act which allows the state to detain him without trial.]

Blood Money

In countries such as Japan, Korea and Saudi Arabia, the concept of “blood money” exists where a victim or his family (in the case of murder) is given money by the perpetrator of the crime to compensate for the loss suffered by the victim or his family. In countries with legal systems based on Islamic Shari’a law, blood money is paid by the murderer to the murder victim’s family since Islam forbids the killing of a fellow Muslim unless if it happens by accident. Justice is meted out in the form of compensation, weighed in this case in financial terms, for the loss of life. This is social justice. You cannot bring back a life once lost. By killing the accused, you seek personal revenge. By killing the murderer, the victim’s family gets nothing, is not compensated for the loss - in this case, economic - that accrues as a result of the murder.

In Vui Kong’s case he is being killed because of the misery and ruin he will bring to the potential addicts and their families through his trafficking activities. However, Vui Kong has spent his prison time reforming himself. He has turned to Buddhism and has promised to dedicate the rest of his life to counseling prisoners and educating the public on the evils of drugs should he be given a second chance at life. And who better to educate potential abusers than a former trafficker. This seems like a good deal where a huge social and public good comes out of exercising humanity. It honors the pledges of our prison system which motto reads “Rehab-Renew-Restart”. Killing Vui Kong dishonors these earnest pledges of our prison system.

When Vietnamese-Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Van Tuong was about to be executed in 2005, PM Lee Hsien Loong said that the drugs he was caught trafficking would have destroyed thousands of lives thereby alluding that killing a drug mule like Nguyen would potentially save thousands of lives.

Will killing a drug mule like Vui Kong, whose place will be taken over by other socially disadvantaged youth like him lured by drug lords who often escape the long arms of the law, save thousands of lives? Will the hanging of Vui Kong decrease the incidence of drug abuse and drug trafficking in Singapore? Will I, as a Singaporean, enjoy a better life after Vui Kong hangs from the end of rope? I can only answer the last question.

The two times I saw Vui Kong in the Court of Appeal, his face has come to dominate my dreams. I am disturbed that this young man, born into dire social and oppressive economic circumstances, is now condemned to die. I despair that my beloved country will bear the curse of ending the life of this young man who could be rehabilitated to become a useful member of society. I cry that I will be scarred for life by the images of Vui Kong’s terrified face. I fear that my life will be made worse by the state-sponsored killing of Yong Vui Kong.

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