As the dust of Singapore’s general election settles, a forgotten side of Singapore continues to wage a quiet, uphill battle for change. Our guest writer, Kirsten Han, shares some recent developments about the death penalty for drugs in Singapore.
“I feel that… I…” Joanne Cheong breaks off, at a lost for words. She takes a moment, then blurts out, “I want them to give my brother back to me.”
Hearing these words made me flashback to about eight months ago, as Yong Vui Fung walked up the road towards the Istana clutching a folder of petition signatures to be submitted to the President. “What do you want to say to the President?” we asked her then.
“I hope he will not take my brother’s life away,” she said.
Both Joanne and Vui Fung are Malaysian citizens, one living in Johor Bahru, the other in Sabah. Both of them come from broken families, their parents divorced and estranged. But above that, there is something else that ties them together.
Both of them have older brothers who are on death row in Singapore for drug trafficking. And by the end of 2011, both of them might be grieving the deaths of these brothers.
Dying for drugs in Singapore
Singapore has always prided itself for its tough stance on drugs and drug trafficking. According to the Misuse of Drugs Act, if one is caught with above a stipulated amount of a controlled substance (such as 15g of heroin), one will face the death penalty.
This is a stance that the government has often justified as a “trade-off” to keep Singapore relatively drug-free.
The Singaporean public has largely bought into this line of reasoning, and many feel that the death penalty for drug trafficking is necessary for the safety of the nation.
However, there are a few issues of which the Singaporean population remains largely unaware:
1 . The Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) functions mainly on presumption clauses. For example, if someone is caught with drugs in his bag, the MDA presumes that the person knew that he had drugs in his bag, and presumes that he was carrying these drugs for the purposes of trafficking.
The onus is then on the person to prove that he did not know that he was carrying the drug, and that he was not carrying it for the purposes of drug trafficking.
This effectively turns the usual “innocent until proven guilty” scenario into a “guilty until proven innocent” one.
2 . The death penalty under the MDA is mandatory. Once the judge finds the accused unable to rebut the presumption clauses, he has no choice but to mete out the death sentence.
The judge has no discretion to consider any mitigating circumstances.
3 . Studies done in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States have shown that there is no concrete evidence to say that the death penalty actually works as deterrence.
Hong Kong, a small city somewhat similar to Singapore, does not have the death penalty, and yet the crime rate is about the same in both cities.
Therefore, it is actually inaccurate for the Singapore government to justify the death penalty as a form of deterrence.
Vui Fung’s brother: Yong Vui Kong
Yong Vui Kong was 19 years old when he was arrested in Singapore in 2007. He was charged with trafficking 47.27g of heroin.
At the time of his arrest, Vui Kong was illiterate. He had been raised by a single mother in a poor family, living in his grandfather’s plantation in a remote part of Sabah. At the age of 12 he had run away to Kuala Lumpur in the hopes of building a better life, and had fallen in with gangs.
The gang’s “Big Brother” then asked Vui Kong to begin delivering “gifts” to people in Malaysia and Singapore. Vui Kong eventually found out that these “gifts” were drugs, but his “Big Brother” told him that the penalty would not be very heavy, and that he would be able to earn a lot of money for his mother.
By the time Vui Kong found out about the mandatory death sentence for drug trafficking, it was too late.
Although he was due to be executed in December 2009, Vui Kong’s lawyer M Ravi managed to obtain not one, but two stays of execution for him, bringing up various challenges in Singapore’s courts.
However, all appeals have since been dismissed. The last appeal, asking for a judicial review of the President’s powers in the clemency process, was dismissed in April 2011. The Court of Appeal ruled that the President does not have the power to grant clemency, and has to act according to the advise of the Cabinet.
Vui Kong now has about two more months to submit his clemency petition.
The Save Vui Kong Campaign has launched the debate over the death penalty into the public arena in Malaysia. The Malaysian mainstream media has picked up his story, and there has been a large amount of support for him from members of the public.
In August 2010, his family submitted 109,346 petition signatures to the Istana, asking for Vui Kong’s death sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment. After Vui Kong submits his clemency petition, Singapore’s President S R Nathan will have three months to give a reply.
Joanne’s brother: Cheong Chun Yin
Cheong Chun Yin was arrested in Singapore in 2008, and charged with trafficking in approximately 2.7kg of heroin from Burma.
Chun Yin claimed that he had been persuaded by a regular customer of his pasar malam stall, “Lau De”, to smuggle gold bars from Burma in to Singapore for the purposes of tax evasion. Upon receiving the suitcase in Burma, he had checked it and felt that solid objects had been hidden in the lining. He thus assumed that these objects were the gold bars and thought no more of it.
When he arrived at Changi Airport, Chun Yin handed the suitcase over to a woman, and left in a taxi, believing his job to be done. However, he was arrested when alighting from a taxi in Arab Street. He was then taken to a flat in Toa Payoh where it was revealed to him that the suitcase he carried had contained heroin instead of gold.
While under interrogation, Chun Yin gave the authorities a description of “Lau De”, as well as both the phone numbers he had used. However, the Central Narcotics Bureau, or CNB, did not make any effort to investigate this man, or even to trace the phone numbers.
In his written judgement, the trial judge Choo Han Teck stated that “[i]t was immaterial that the CNB did not make adequate efforts to trace ‘Lau De’ or check on his cell-phones.” He disbelieved Chun Yin’s story, and handed down the mandatory death penalty. The Court of Appeal upheld the sentence in October 2010.
Chun Yin’s family, together with the help of activists in Malaysia and Singapore, have kicked off a campaign calling for a stay of execution, and for his case to be re-opened and re-investigated. On 27 April 2011, they submitted over 8000 petition signatures to the Istana, pleading with the Singapore government not to execute Chun Yin.
With a reply to his clemency petition (the final stage of any death penalty case) expected any day now, it is a last-ditch attempt by a desperate family to cling on to hope.
An uphill battle
Since the very beginning the anti-death penalty campaign in Singapore has been an uphill battle. The government staunchly defends its stance, and many Singaporeans are of the view that it is a necessary evil to keep the country safe.
With the mainstream media in Singapore largely controlled by the government and unwilling to pay much attention to the issue of the death penalty, it is difficult for there to be any debate or discussion in the public arena here. Most of the campaign efforts have been limited to the Internet and social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
But there are signs of increasing support among the populace. Events held at Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park, such as ‘Give Yong Vui Kong a Second Chance’, have had decent turnouts. A recent forum, ‘Drugs and the Death Penalty’, was held to a full house, with many new faces turning up to listen to panellists speak about the death penalty in Singapore and Malaysia.
The families and friends of death row inmates, too, have stepped up as lead figures in the campaign. At ‘Drugs and the Death Penalty’, six families of death row inmates turned up to support each other and share their experience, which is unprecedented in the history of
The anti-death penalty campaign in Singapore
Vui Kong’s family have been instrumental in the campaign for a second chance for him, especially in his hometown of Sandakan, Sabah. Chun Yin’s family have also organised their own forum in Johor Bahru, held in the very pasar malam where Chun Yin used to work, to mobilise their community in support of the campaign to save his life.
The anti-death penalty campaign is a difficult one. Each case is taken on with the implicit knowledge that we will probably not win. And yet we activists, together with the families and friends of the inmates, press on, fuelled by the belief that the death penalty does not work, and that one day change will come.
Kirsten Han has been involved in the anti-death penalty campaign in Singapore since early 2010. She is the co-founder of We Believe In Second Chances, a campaign focusing on people on death row, and is now actively pushing three cases: Yong Vui Kong, Cheong Chun Yin, and Noor Atiqah, a Singaporean single mother on death row in Malaysia.