The wiser thing to do

Since the news broke on Tuesday that the Government was proposing changes to how the mandatory death penalty will be applied, reactions have generally been positive. Some have called for the total abolition of the death penalty altogether. That is the ultimate goal, of course – but it is also the hardest one to achieve. The fear, not just from the Government but also from the public, is that the complete removal of the punishment will mean a weakening of the deterrent effect. I will not go into that as much has already been argued against such fears.

Sometimes, I fear instead that we get lost in abstractions, or more accurately, abstract, intellectual arguments that we forget that there are real people involved – on both sides. The traffickers and those who are harmed by drugs. 

Those who are harmed can end up destroying their lives, their families, their communities and society at large.

The traffickers’ deaths leave shattered families too.

While one do not support drug trafficking, one would also be mindful that death is a truly severe punishment. And we should ponder on this very carefully before we support it, even for the most heinous crimes. It is easy for most of us to voice support for it because we are far removed from the reality of seeing it and experiencing it up close.

I’ve been fortunate, for want of a better word, to be able to see up things up close, as far as the convicted traffickers are concerned. You see the grief of family members of the traffickers. Drug mules, they are called. And it is hard. It is hard to see the tears and the anguish of fathers and mothers, of brothers and sisters, whose loved ones sit on death row – and indeed those who have been hanged.

Their grief is no less real or searing than the families of those who are victims of drugs.

And when you have seen it, you do not see the mandatory death penalty in the same way. You cannot. Which is why, in all honesty, when I read comments – senseless and even sarcastic comments – from those online who support the MDP, it makes me sad. Sad not because people are so insensitive, but sad because they are so ignorant. Sad that revenge or vengeance seems to have consumed them entirely.

To them, it is nothing more than a talking point, a venting point, an abstraction, an argument to be won. There seems to be a perverted joy in wanting someone to be hanged by the neck till he breathes his last.

Where’s the joy in such a thing?

Justice must be tempered with mercy. I am glad the Law Minister, K Shanmugam, expressed this – which, incidentally, was what our former first Chief Minister, David Marshall, had said.

I’ve been thinking about the changes to the MDP since the announcement in Parliament. Should I rejoice, be happy or should I condemn the Government for not going far enough?

The answer, to me, was simple: if Yong Vui Kong and Cheong Chun Yin, both on death row for drug trafficking, are able to have a second chance at life, it is a good thing. It really is as simple as that, for now.

And with the changes, the two persons do have a chance. From being a hair’s breath away from death, they are now a hair’s breath away from escaping it.

So, I am glad, and I appreciate the changes made by the Government.

The first priority, at least for me, has always been to save Vui Kong from being hanged. Considering that he came within mere days of being hanged in 2009, this chance that he may indeed escape death permanently was unthinkable even just weeks ago. I had been preparing myself mentally for his eventual hanging. I was just waiting for the President to reject his appeal and consign him to the hangman’s noose. And that would be that.

It would have devastated those of us who have been campaigning for his life to be spared.

So, I am thankful that there is light at the end of the tunnel for the two men and their families. A chance at reprieve. I am thankful because real flesh and blood will now have a real second chance at life. It is not about esoteric legal arguments, or even points of law.

It is about people, young boys and young girls, the uneducated, the disenfranchised, the naive, and yes, even the intellectually and mentally impaired. (There have been at least one case of Singapore hanging an intellectually impaired person, by the way.)

By no stretch of my conscience, and that of those who have so bravely fought in the campaign, would dealing death to these groups of people be acceptable.

The ultimate aim is to abolish the death penalty altogether. It’s still a very long road ahead to accomplish this. Perhaps circumstances will change such that this will happen sooner than we may expect. Until then, I am grateful for small mercies.

Most of all, I am appreciative that Vui Kong, especially, can at least breathe a sigh of relief, even if it’s a temporary one. From everything that I have been given to know and understand about him, he deserves a second chance – a chance not only to have his death sentence commuted, but a chance for him to do what he promised, namely, that he will spend the rest of his life to advance the message of the danger of drugs, if his life is spared.

And that certainly, to me at least, is a wiser thing to allow than to senselessly snuff out his life in the hope that it will scare others.

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