A post marking the World Day Against the Death Penalty.
There are checks, so many checks. Layers of security and gates and searches to go through before they finally lead you to a long corridor. The walls are painted pale yellow and the smell is hard to describe. Sharp and sour and distinct, it hits you the moment the guard opens the heavy door. A quarter way down that corridor, there’s a loud slam. It feels like a bad cliché. Inevitably, one of us will mention the stench.
What is it? Dunno. Disinfectant? Can’t be. It’s awful. Yeah.
It’s always the same, this routine. We’re always slightly nervous and we always take the same wrong turn towards the wrong building before doubling back again. The walk from the prison’s front gate to Cluster A is long and un-signposted. Hard to imagine how someone like Cheong Kah Pin found his way around the place the first time he visited.
In the past year, I’ve been to Death Row at Changi Prison four times. Twice to see Chun Yin, and twice, Vui Kong. I suspect I might go again, am not looking forward to the trip. It never ever gets any easier. You’re on edge before the visit, depressed and emotionally exhausted, after. I’m allowed in because I’ve been volunteering my time with lawyer, M Ravi – one of just a few instances my law degree’s come in useful. I don’t do very much, mainly help out with translations as Chun Yin and Vui Kong barely speak English. Ravi works pro bono for both these clients so every bit of support he gets is useful.
The interview room is small and not very comfortable. A glass pane separates us from the inmates. Vui Kong always walks in serene and composed. Palms together, a deep bow, before sitting down. Chun Yin, on the other hand, likes to enter with a wave and a loud hello. His family says he hides his pain behind a huge grin. “He always tells me things will be fine,” Old Mr Cheong recounts on several occasions. “He’ll say, never mind, it’s OK, Papa, don’t be sad never mind.”
“Never mind, never mind…” The first time I hear it, his lips tremble, and then a smile. “It’s OK lah.”
Ravi isn’t obliged to visit either inmate. They’ve already gone through the appeals process, their cases, finished. I can’t divulge what gets discussed at these meetings, although I will say Ravi is always careful not to give anyone false hope. He sees Vui Kong and Chun Yin because he knows life inside is monotonous and dull. He knows his visits are a source of comfort. Talking can be therapeutic. And so he lets them talk. And the more I listen, the more I am convinced, neither of these men deserves to die.
This fight against the Death Penalty is a thankless one. You’ll always meet someone who will tell you you’re misguided, always battle the perception that every death row inmate is a hardened criminal who deserves to be executed, and you’re always always bracing for pain – the anguish in Mr Cheong’s voice, Vui Fung’s bewilderment, Jesleen’s questions. How do you tell relatives of death row inmates to not give up, and yet warn them to be prepared for the worst?
Every condemned prisoner we’ve come across in our campaign has a family that’s still standing by them. They visit every Monday, make that awful walk to Cluster A, try to be brave, and carry with them an unbearable despair. Few people think about these families, at least not in Singapore. Here in my country, I’ve learnt, our overwhelming focus is on keeping our own streets safe and clean. We’re terrified of the chaos that we’re sure will ensue if we allow ourselves to go soft on criminals. Do we want our city awash with drugs, murderers in our midst, lawlessness to prevail? Who hasn’t heard the rhetoric?
But this is scaremongering, and I’m not sure why we’ve allowed ourselves to believe it. There are no statistics, no studies, no credible evidence to show that the death penalty works as a deterrent. In Singapore, we send more people to the gallows for drug-related offenses than for serious crimes. The ones who pay the price are lowly mules like Vui Kong and Chun Yin. Our laws presume that a person with more than a certain amount of drugs must be trafficking. Once found guilty, the only sentence a judge can mete out is death. His hands are tied.
To say that the law is flawed is an understatement. It is ridiculous. It assumes that executing someone, anyone is better than not catching anybody at all. It makes it so very easy for us to send innocent people to the gallows. The fact is, we’ve likely done so already (see Iwuchuku Amara Tochi), and will likely do it again (click to read about Chun Yin and Roslan bin Bakar’s cases). And we do this even as we name orchids after known drug lords and our government cozies up to the Burmese regime. We are all hypocrites. We choose the status quo because it makes us feel safe. But why should anyone have to die so we can feel a certain way?
Often, anti-Death Penalty campaigners are told to think of the addicts and their families. Are they not victims too? Why are we not fighting for them instead? But why should we pin all the blame on the trafficker? What happened to personal responsibility? Ultimately, the decision to sniff, inhale, inject, swallow, is the addict’s own. Even more ludicrous, the argument that we’re killing mules for the potential harm they might cause. How can a trafficker do any damage if he is already caught? Who specifically, are the victims?
Beyond that, there’s also the fact that addicts get plenty of help from the state. There are rehab centres, counseling services, halfway houses, programmes to get victims back on their feet again. Addiction is an ugly thing. And I am glad that the state believes in second chances for those who are struggling to turn their lives around. But why are the same opportunities not afforded mules like Vui Kong?
But what about people who are beyond redemption? Child rapists, serial killers, sadistic psychopaths, there’s an argument to be made that they deserve to die. I agree. I have no sympathy for them. They make me sick. I think of my family, the people I love. And if anyone should harm them, I too would want the person dead.
But I do not believe the state should satisfy my need for retribution. I say this not because I believe in forgiveness. I say this because I think that as long as the death penalty exists in any form, mistakes will inevitably be made. Judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials are after all, human. They can and will err. One innocent life lost, is one too many. I choose to forfeit my right to revenge for a conscience that is clear. When the state hands out the death penalty, it kills in its people’s name. A mistake once made, cannot be rectified. I do not want blood on my hands.
But I fear that there will ultimately be blood on our hands. We’re awaiting clemency decisions for Vui Kong, Chun Yin and Roslan. I think of their families as I write this. Vui Kong, whose sick mother still doesn’t know. Chun Yin, whose father hasn’t stopped crying since his arrest. And Roslan’s sister, Haminah, who is convinced her brother is innocent. I believe her, by the way. Or at least, I know the prosecution’s case is riddled with too many unanswered questions to be credible. But we are Singapore. And we are sure our laws work. Even if we have no proof. Even if they don’t make any sense at all.
I give Ravi a hug after my first visit with Chun Yin. I hope he senses my gratitude, this man who has fought so hard and so bravely all these years. This man who’s had his name dragged through mud, who has suffered emotional breakdowns because of the deaths he’s witnessed, who can sometimes be on edge and cranky, especially when the going gets tough. I understand him better now. I try to picture all the times he’s had to walk to Cluster A on his own, the families he’s had to console, all the times he’s lost. It’s a terrible battle to have to fight. Each setback inevitably results in a violent death.
“What to do?” Ravi says as we walk out the gate. “We have to keep going.”
I don’t say anything, but I know he’s right. It’s the only thing we can do.