UPDATE on Dec 11, 2009: Vui Kong’s appeal hearing has been set for March 15, 2010.

He looks a little less tired than when we first saw him. Still pale. Still as skinny. Still dressed in his standard-issue orange prison garb and grey jacket. He seems more relaxed today. Even manages a semi-wave at a familiar face in the gallery. His siblings have all shown up to support him. Their mother is also in Singapore, but the family has arranged for her to spend the morning at a temple. She still doesn’t know he’s been sentenced to death.

Their little sister sits directly behind me. She is 19. Just slightly older than him when he was caught. A tiny slip of a girl, she looks like she’s on the verge of tears. Throughout almost the entire hearing, she fixes her eyes on her drug-trafficker brother. She’s been told that as the youngest member of her family, it is her duty to take his ashes back to Sabah should the worst happen. Unless the court decides otherwise, he will hang on Friday. This, her third brother. Her favourite brother. This boy, who looks so alive right now.

It is hard for the family to understand the proceedings. They speak very little English. The legal arguments, already a challenge for any layman to follow, must surely sound like alien gobbledygook to them. They’re leaving it all to their lawyer. Trusting him to do his best. A day before, they had visited his office, bearing a thank-you note and a gift. A picture of Lord Buddha, hand-drawn by their brother in jail. He had embraced the faith after his arrest nearly three years ago. In a strange, roundabout way, his religion would save him today.

In April this year, the boy made a decision. He was going to be a good Buddhist. And that meant owning up to his mistakes. He told his then-lawyer to withdraw his appeal and in a letter to the court, said he was doing so because he no longer wanted to tell lies. Today, his new lawyer says he was deluded. That he had confused his religious duties with notions of legal reasoning. That the court should stay the execution and allow him to file a new appeal. There are vehement protests from the prosecution. A flurry of legal arguments. References to laws and procedures neither the boy nor his family can understand.

And then, there is the decision. The judges grant the stay and agree that the appeal should be allowed.

Relief. Chatter in the gallery. The family doesn’t quite understand what just took place. An extension. There’s been an extension. How long? Maybe a few weeks. The little sister takes her eyes off her brother for a moment, and for the first time the entire morning, she smiles. Their elder brother appears dazed.

“Miracle, it’s like a miracle,” he says. “He’ll have more time with our mother.”

Time. One precious month. Maybe more. Who would have thought it possible?

*Read more about the hearing here.
*Listen to Vui Kong’s story here.