Why Singapore hides the human face of the death penalty

Ben Bland
Asian Correspondent

The Singapore government does not want you to know that Yong Vui Kong, a 21-year-old Malaysian, may have seen his mother for the last time.

The Singapore government does not want you to know that in what may have been their final meeting, Yong knelt down and bowed to his mother three times through the glass pane that separated them on death row at Changi prison.

The Singapore government does not want you to know that Yong, who has become a devout Buddhist since being convicted of trafficking 47g of heroin into Singapore last year, has offered to donate his organs following his execution, which will be carried out in the next few weeks unless the courts perform an unprecedented about-turn.

The Singapore government does not want you to know that Yong came from a broken home, was a troubled teenager at the time of his arrest and had no previous convictions.

The Singapore government does not want you to know that the death penalty has a human face.

Singapore, like Malaysia, enforces mandatory death sentences for those convicted of drug trafficking. In the Lion City, that means anyone found trafficking more than 15g of heroin, 30g of cocaine or 500g of cannabis will be executed regardless of any doubts about the provenance of the drugs or mitigating circumstances.

The inflexible nature of the law means that no individual has to take personal responsibility for the application of this most draconian and irreversible of punishments. The judges (Singapore’s courts do not have juries) cannot take mitigating circumstances into account and are therefore spared the moral conundrum that such a decision ought to bring.

The Singapore government occasionally speaks out in defence of the death penalty, insisting that it is necessary to keep crime down and claiming that capital punishment has overwhelming public support.

But, paradoxically, the government is afraid to open the issue up to debate, trotting out its hackneyed argument about how controversial subjects such as the death penalty, religion or race relations should not be discussed in public for fear of fanning the flames of social tension.

Other than a five-year-old press release, issued to rebut a critical report by Amnesty International, the government refuses to publish statistics about its use of the death penalty. Even anti-death penalty campaigners in Singapore have no idea how many executions there are each year.

The state-controlled mainstream media rarely report on controversial capital punishment cases, other than to provide cursory summaries of court proceedings, as in Yong’s case. It’s a classic example of the self-censorship that pervades Singapore media, which I have written on recently.

In the words of Remy Choo, editor of alternative news site The Online Citizen, the mainstream media’s “see-no-evil attitude to glaring defects in our criminal justice system crosses the negligent into the realm of the unconscionable”.

Yong has received a rare stay of execution because of legal technicalities connected to his right to appeal. His final plea will be held in Singapore’s Court of Appeal on Tuesday at 10am.

Only a handful of last-minute reprieves have ever been handed down to those on death row. Barring such an unprecedented move, Yong will be hung at dawn on a Friday sometime in the next few weeks.

A gathering is being held at Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner on Sunday at 4pm as a show of compassion for Yong.


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