Written by Andrew Loh (31 August 2011, posted in publichouse.sg)
Originally scheduled to be hanged on 4 December 2009, 23-year old Malaysian Yong Vui Kong is still alive today in Singapore’s Changi Prison. He sits on death row, awaiting the outcome of his final appeal to the President of Singapore for clemency which he submitted on 7 July this year. The President is expected to decide on the appeal in October.
Vui Kong, together with an accomplice, was arrested in June 2007 at Singapore’s Orchard Road shopping district with 42.27g of heroin.
He was 19-years old then.
All his appeals and constitutional challenges in the courts, through his lawyer Mr M Ravi, have been to no avail. Campaigns from activists from Malaysia, Singapore and international human rights organisations have all failed to persuade the Singapore government to stay its hand. The courts have upheld the death sentence passed on Vui Kong.
His family members, who have been visiting him in prison regularly, his lawyer and activists now wait with bated breath. The expectation is that the President, who acts on the advice of the Cabinet, will dismiss his appeal. If he does, Vui Kong could be hanged as soon as a week after the President’s decision.
Vui Kong’s case has been in the news since his arrest and more so since 2009 when he was first scheduled to hang. Much have been said and done to save him from the gallows.
There is a sense of fatalism among his supporters, that his death by state-sanctioned hanging is inevitable.
Can or will the new president be able to influence the cabinet in sparing Vui Kong?
President-elect Tan was a former minister himself, serving in five ministries and being a former deputy prime minister. He would have thus been privy to the internal cabinet discussions of past capital cases and the death penalty itself. It is, however, unclear what his personal stance on the matter is. Will it matter, anyway?
It could, given that Law Minister K Shanmugam, in seeking to clarify the roles of the elected president, said: “[A] president ‘who is wise, knowledgeable and experienced’ will be able to offer advice and would be more influential than another who does not possess as much experience or wisdom, all things being equal.” He said that “the president can give advice even on areas outside of his scope.”
Dr Tan is highly-respected by the cabinet, undoubtedly. Indeed, the Prime Minister himself, even if not explicitly, endorsed Dr Tan as his preferred choice for the presidency during the campaign. In addition, Dr Tan – a second generation leader – is a trusted member of senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew’s inner circle.
Now that he is president, Dr Tan’s views and words will carry more weight – even in areas outside of the scope of his office as prescribed by the constitution.
During his campaign and in his victory speech, Dr Tan promised to work with all sectors of Singapore society, and to listen to their concerns.
The question is whether his pledge extends to non-bread and butter, economic matters, such as the mandatory death penalty under which the courts condemned Vui Kong to death.
Dr Tan, who became a Member of Parliament in 1979 and joined the cabinet a year later, had served under four of Singapore’s presidents during his time in government. In those years, three of the four presidents granted six clemencies in total to death row inmates.
President Nathan is believed to be the exception, without having granted any appeals.
Signing the execution order for Vui Kong would be one of the first solemn acts of President Tony Tan.
Whether he does so will provide a clue on where the cabinet stands on the matter and if Singapore is ready to revisit the issue of capital punishment which, as some say, is based on faulty law and inadequate safeguards in the processes.
President Tony Tan is Vui Kong’s last hope for a second lease on life. Will the new president bring his influence to bear on the cabinet and persuade it to grant mercy and perhaps even to impose a moratorium on the mandatory death penalty?
Will our society be given the opportunity to discuss and decide if imposing mandatory death sentences, even on those as young as 18 – including girls – is justifiable and desirable?
Or will such solemn matters as ending the lives of the convicted be left in the hands of a few men in cabinet?