Divided over the death penalty

Gregory Xavier

South-east Asian neighbours Malaysia and Singapore have had several political spats over the years, including long-running arguments over water supply and a territorial dispute over the Pedra Branca islets at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Singapore.

But it is a more emotionally-charged issue – the state- sanctioned snuffing of a human life – that is at the centre of a new storm brewing between the two countries, as activists rallying for the death of capital punishment rush to save the life of Yong Vui Kong, a 22-year-old Malaysian on death row in Singapore.

A group of Malaysian anti-death penalty campaigners protested outside the Singapore High Commission in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 10, submitting a memorandum to protest the denial of due process to Yong, who was just 18 when he was arrested in Singapore in 2007 for trafficking 47 grammes of heroin.

One member of the group, outspoken Malaysian Member of Parliament S Manickavasagam, said they would place a coffin outside the Singapore High Commission if Yong is hanged.

“We’re not talking about a political feud that doesn’t make sense to anyone but the Singapore and Malaysia governments,” says a Singaporean lawyer, Joshua, who declined to be identified in full. “We’re talking about a human life, and we should be more worried if there were no emotions, no public outcry.”

A 2005 survey by state-controlled newspaper ‘The Straits Times’ revealed that some 96 percent of Singaporeans supported the use of the death penalty, which is mandatory in cases of trafficking of more than 30 grammes of heroin. Possession of drugs to unlawful discharge of arms to murder are in the range of offences covered by capital punishment under the Penal Code.

But slowly, support for its abolition appears to be on the increase, with activists using online media like blogs and videos posted on YouTube and Vimeo to circumvent the strict laws on public protests and stranglehold of information by the state-run press.

The Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC), an independent group started in 2005 that calls for the abolition of the death penalty, has more than 1,400 members in its group on Facebook, a popular social networking website.

A heart-wrenching scene on Aug. 24, of Yong’s family kneeling outside the Istana in Singapore after they delivered a petition with 109,346 signatures, begging President S R Nathan to spare the life of the young man, was watched by thousands worldwide.

But in a strange turn of events, Yong’s lawyer was told that “the President has no discretion under the Constitution… to grant pardons.”

“The power to do so rests solely with the Cabinet,” High Court Judge Steven Chong told Yong’s lawyer M Ravi, a leading human rights activist here, who argues that comments made by Singapore’s law minister had prejudiced and compromised Yong’s constitutional right to an appeal for clemency.

“Yong Vui Kong is young. But if we say, ‘We let you go’, what is the signal we are sending?” Law Minister K Shanmugam told a public forum on May 9, according to local media reports. “We are sending a signal to all the drug barons out there: Just make sure you choose a victim who is young, or a mother of a young child, and use them as the people who carry the drugs into Singapore,” Shanmugam said.

“(Yong’s campaign) has been quite a journey and we have seen the campaign growing beyond our shores,” said the SADPC in an Oct. 10 statement to mark the World Day Against the Death Penalty.

“The support we have received from our Malaysian colleagues and their network is motivating and we will definitely continue our campaign efforts to keep Yong Vui Kong alive and to advocate for a second chance,” it added.

Indeed, the sentiment against capital punishment in this tiny but affluent island-state pales in comparison to the waves generated by neighbouring Malaysia. The ‘Save Yong Vui Kong!’ page on Facebook has gathered close to 21,000 supporters.

According to his lawyer, Yong has turned over a new leaf in the three years he has spent in prison.

Once a wayward teenager, Yong has immersed himself in Buddhism, shaved his head, and now teaches his fellow prisoners about Buddhist principles. The Chinese-speaking youth has also learnt to speak Malay and English while in prison, and wants to be an advocate against drug abuse, Ravi added.

Meantime, while the battle rages on to save Yong from the gallows, Malaysian activists in August asked the Singapore government to admit that it wrongfully executed 23-year-old Malaysian Vignes Mourthi in 2003.

The uproar follows new information revealed in a book launched in June, ‘Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock’ by British writer Alan Shadrake, which includes interviews with human rights activists, lawyers, former police officers, and the former chief executioner at Singapore’s Changi Prison.

According to Shadrake’s book, Mourthi was convicted based on a handwritten transcript of a conversation he had with an undercover officer. But the fact that the officer was facing allegations of rape, sodomy and bribery at the time he gave the evidence – and subsequently jailed for 15 months for bribery – was kept from the court.

“Singapore has murdered an innocent person in cold blood,” said N Surendran of Malaysian group Lawyers for Liberty.

But the Singapore attorney general’s office says the book casts doubt on the impartiality, integrity and independence of the country’s judiciary, and has arrested the 75-year-old author on charges of contempt of court and criminal defamation. He is out on bail.

“I don’t think the death penalty will be abolished soon, but the mandatory death penalty may go first,” Shadrake told IPS days ahead of his Supreme Court hearing on Oct. 18.


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