By Andrew Loh
As activists, both Singaporean and foreign, heave a sigh of relief that the Attorney General’s Chambers has issued a Certificate of Cooperation to death row inmate Yong Vui Kong, how does the now 25-year old Vui Kong feel about it?
Vui Kong was sentenced to hang for trafficking in 47.27g of heroin into Singapore in 2008. All his appeals were dismissed and he has since exhausted all his legal avenues to plead against his sentence.
It was only through a change in the law on the mandatory death penalty in Singapore in 2012 that he now has an opportunity to be spared.
Besides his family members, only his lawyer M Ravi is allowed to visit him in Changi Prison.
M Ravi took up his case just weeks before Vui Kong was scheduled to hang on 4 December 2009. Two days before that, M Ravi lodged a constitutional challenge on the mandatory death penalty, thus securing a temporary reprieve for Vui Kong.
A subsequent campaign involving activists, supporters and Vui Kong’s family members, lasted the next four years.
In the 5 years that he has been in prison, Vui Kong immersed himself in Buddhist meditation practice and studies. He has been so intensely occupied with this that on her last visit his sister urged him to take up other interests as well.
Vui Kong had expressed hope that he would be able to help spread the anti-drug message, if given a chance. This perhaps is not as remote as it seemed when he first expressed this two years ago.
On Monday, M Ravi filed an application with the courts for resentencing, which will be heard by the original trial judge, Choo Han Teck.
The Online Citizen (TOC) asked M Ravi, who visited his client last week, about how Vui Kong felt when he heard the news, and how he is doing in prison.
TOC: How did Vui Kong react when you told him the news?
M Ravi: He was extremely happy to see the prospect of not being hanged and be given a second chance.
TOC: What are the things he is looking forward to doing?
M Ravi: Vui Kong is interested in studying and in becoming a graduate. Just the possibility that he might live allows him to engage in the world and develop his interests. It will be very exciting to see how he chooses to embrace his life if given the opportunity. It is also humbling to think how, in his circumstances, he will reach out and grab onto life if he is allowed to live. Just that idea causes one to reflect: how many free people are embracing their time on earth like this?
TOC: How is his physical health?
M Ravi: Vui Kong is extremely thin. The clothing available at the prison no longer fits him, and he improvises by tying on trousers like a sarong. He eats very little and devotes himself to his spiritual practices; living a monastic life. Of course his family and I are encouraging him to eat more and to make a strong effort to take care of his physical health.
TOC: Does he still meditate?
M Ravi: He definitely does. Vui Kong is a devout Buddhist. His spiritual practice is what sustains him. It takes a very strong person to keep going under the circumstances Vui Kong has been living under all these years. He has lost his youth to incarceration and his circumstance reminds him daily that he may lose his life. However, we are a step closer to preventing him from being executed by the State.
TOC: It undoubtedly has been quite an ordeal for him to be on death row for so many years. What are his thoughts about this?
M Ravi: First, let me say that life in prison wears on every man and the experience on death row can be crushing. Yong Vui Kong has resided in Changi Prison since he was 18-years old and he became a death row inmate shortly thereafter. Five years, especially for a young person, is a long time to live in almost complete isolation from family and society, under constant surveillance with no privacy and no ordinary social interaction or environmental stimulus. Prolonged confinement under such conditions can be psychologically harmful to any prisoner. In the case of an individual on death row, they live with a constant awareness that they will be killed by the same government that has taken everything away from them.
In Yong’s case, he is very blessed to have family that visit him very regularly, and fight for him and advocate for him.
TOC: As his lawyer and as one who is at the forefront of the anti-death penalty campaign, what are your thoughts on this new development with regards to Vui Kong’s case, and on the death penalty as a whole?
I think that Yong Vui Kong and his family have very generously given us an opportunity to really examine the effects of our drug laws on the accused, on families and on ourselves. Yong has chosen to spend the remainder of his life living according to a spiritual path and his example compels us to ask spiritual questions.
Are we as Singaporeans satisfied to consent to so many young people being hanged in the gallows in our country? We have permitted this regime to continue as if these executions were happening in some alternate reality, as if we had no say in the matter. When you read Vui Kong’s story and you learn about his devoted family, you are no longer distant from the reality that we allow people like him to be killed by our government, in our names, because we say nothing in objection to their killing.
It is my hope that we never have another execution in Singapore. I hope everyone who is moved by Yong’s story, and no longer wants to be complicit in the death penalty regime, will join with local anti-death penalty groups in Singapore to call for an end to this brutal, tragic practice.