Happy Birthday in advance, Vui Kong. When we first heard your name, we never thought you’d live to see 23. Never, at one stage, thought you’d even see 22. But here we are, three weeks into 2011 and you’re still alive. Hope is still alive.
Today, a bunch of us got together to sing you a birthday song and blow out a few candles on your behalf. Ravi said a prayer for you and all the other death row inmates inside Changi Prison right now. We hear you’ve been counseling quite a few of them.
Some people think it’s bizarre, outrageous even, that we should care so much about a drug trafficker. Kirsten and Damien, the two young Singaporeans behind the “Second Chances” campaign, have received countless hateful comments from strangers, simply because they believe you should live. Apparently, there are better things to do than fight for a criminal. Maybe so. But we are fighting for much much more.
Your case has reignited the debate over the mandatory death penalty here and given some Singaporeans at least, a chance to consider their stance on justice, fairness and mercy. It has forced me to think about the kind of society I want to live in.
There are many here who feel people like you deserve death because would-be addicts need to be protected. “Think of the lives he destroys when he brings in drugs,” they say. As if those who inhale, snort or shoot up have no choice in the matter at all.
There are no numbers to show that the MDP prevents drug trafficking. No studies to demonstrate that it works. How on earth did we get stuck with this kind of law? Is it effective, simply because the powers that be say so?
Because of you, we’ve learnt that Singapore’s constitution doesn’t protect her people against inhuman punishment. Because of you, we’ve also discovered that everyone who’s ever appealed to the President for clemency, was really just barking up the wrong tree. It’s all a little confusing right now. I’m sure you never thought in December 2009 when you went to Court, that you’d live to learn all these things. But you have, and you’re still alive today. And for that, we’re all grateful.
Yun Leong tells me your mother visited you again in December last year. I wonder how she felt seeing you behind that glass wall? Did she ask why she wasn’t allowed to touch you? Does she know she’ll probably never be able to give you a hug again? Was she bewildered, surprised, angry? How does one begin to explain those strange prison rules to her?
In the end, I think, this is what puzzles me the most. We have already punished you, severely punished you for your crime – a non-violent, first offence. The best you can ever hope for is a lifetime in jail. You will in all likelihood, never be able to blow out candles on your own birthday cake, or celebrate Chinese New Year with your family, or do something as simple as hold your mother’s hand. And yet, there are people who say that such a punishment is just not good enough. Not harsh enough. What kind of vengeful, medieval society do we live in? What does killing you say about us?
A few days ago, we sat with Yun Leong on a bus as it trundled towards Changi Prison. Your brother is amazing. I cannot tell you how moved I am by his steadfast love for you – the way he sacrifices all his precious off days just to go visit you in jail. He’s never once given up on you, and neither has the rest of your family. They’ve seen how much you’ve changed, how far you’ve come. They’re all rooting for you.
We told Yun Leong about our birthday plans for you and his face lit up.
“Thank-you,” he said. “The best birthday gift my brother could ever have would be the chance to keep living.”
I struggled for an answer. Couldn’t find any. Unfortunately, we’re not the ones with the power to grant you that gift. But for your sake, and ours as well, I hope we’ll be here again next year, and the year after, blowing out more candles, singing songs and eating cake on your behalf.