Reprieve but living on borrowed time

Maxwell Coopers
Free Malaysia Today

Convicted Sabahan Yong Vui Kong may have postponed his date with destiny but the hangman’s noose is still hovering over him as he awaits the final outcome.

Once again, Malaysian Yong Vui Kong is supposedly “free” at last.

The Sabah native who is now languishing in Singapore’s Changi Prison has had his appointment with the hangman postponed – not once but actually three times if memory serves me right.

It is too soon to say that Yong may have made history but the decision to let him live just a little longer on presumed borrowed time is historic no less.

The very rare decision by Singapore’s highest court, the Supreme Court, to reserve judgment on Yong technically means the court is not going take the case any further and will only make a ruling later. That may not amount to a victory just yet, but a reprieve.

Those following the case will view the judgment with undisguised “relief” and triumph not just for Yong but for the many who had long argued against the use of the mandatory death penalty as a means to combat the republic’s drug menace.

Many within and without the legal fraternity have long argued that the use of the death penalty to stop drug smuggling is otiose and that the only way to wipe out the menace is through coordinated enforcement action by all affected nations on the drug barons operating out of Southeast Asia.

The city-state’s long, persevering human and civil rights activists led by lawyer M Ravi have long argued against the mandatory death penalty, saying it is inhuman and falls disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged.

Also weighing against the draconian measures was the city-state’s mercurial and ebullient criminal lawyer, Subhas Anandan, who has had a long running distaste for “the death of reason” in court deliberations.

“I’m not against the death penalty. There are certain offenders and offences that need the death penalty. But I’m against the mandatory death sentence”, argued Anandan in an interview with the Graduate magazine, a publication of the National University of Singapore Students’ Guild.

Flickers of hope

It is too early to predict if the ruling will be a sure-fire spark to ignite long simmering flickers of hope among the rest of Yong’s ilk now languishing in the infamous death row of Changi prison.

But it sure opens up the debate on how the clemency process should be deliberated in Singapore, which startled many in the country when it was learnt that the Cabinet ministers, and not the president as was previously thought, deliberate upon the clemency process and deliver the outcome!

Sure to taste and form, the new deliberations and trial by reason will be keenly watched by interested parties within the international community.

Things got a little more intractable when the nation’s Home Affairs Minister, S Shanmugam, commented publicly on Yong’s case, stoking claims of “prejudice” and presumed foreclosure of the case.

Singapore along with the United States remain as some of the last hold-outs of capital punishment.

Unlike the United States, however, Singapore mandates the mandatory death penalty for drug smuggling; the very offence Yong tempted providence with after he was caught trying to smuggle into the republic some four years ago.

His case has captured the imagination of the nation and though mainstream papers in the city-state have been sparse in their reporting – as compared to, if similar cases were to occur, say, in Australia or Britain – it is opening up an animated debate in cyberspace and also among the chattering classes.

Yet nothing belies the fact that Yong himself is turning out to be a cause célèbres of sorts. High-ranking Malaysian officials visited him and even Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman wrote a letter of clemency to his Singapore counterpart. Yesterday controversial writer Alan Shadrake was sitting in at his court hearing.

Yong may be guilty as charged.

What is not so clear is if the circumstances leading him to the death trap are as clear as the law that makes no distinction if he lives or dies.