Dear Vui Kong,

Happy birthday, in advance. You’ll be 24 on the 19th of January. It’s a huge milestone. Outside here, your supporters are celebrating the fact that you’ve lived another year. Last time we met, I asked what you were planning to do on your birthday. You said you’d spend it thinking about your mother. You told me to urge your supporters to think of theirs too. I’m not sure if you saw it in my face, but your answer hit me, hard.

At 24, I too, was a disappointment to my mother. She had wanted me to be a lawyer but I decided instead to work at a TV station. There were tears and angry words. I think I broke her heart. But despite not living up to her expectations, I knew that if I worked hard at my chosen path, I could still make her proud. I had opportunities, a future I could plan for, things I could do to prove my worth.

For you, the toss-up is between a lifetime in prison and death by hanging. I cannot begin to imagine your anguish. No wonder you’re worried about your mother. No wonder your family’s kept the truth from her. How does one tell a woman her son has no future? No chance to build a career, have a family, explore the world, plan for retirement.

And yet, you say your life is full. You have your faith and your books. You are grateful to your supporters for their friendship, your lawyer for his tenacity, your siblings for their love. You say you’re learning to be a better person, that meditation makes you strong, that you’re glad you’ve found Buddhism.

I’ve always been amazed by your optimism, your ability to not be bitter. But during our last meeting, I also saw something that I had never detected before. I saw a flash of anger. And who can blame you, Vui Kong? I’m surprised you were not angry, earlier. I know I would be.

No, you’re not upset about the fact that you’re in prison. You’ve long said you believe no crime should go un-punished; that you’re prepared to die even though you want to live. You’re angry because like us, you recently learnt that your former boss – the man who told you you were not smuggling anything that would result in the death penalty – is being held in preventive detention. If you are not granted clemency, you will die. But your boss will probably be let off after a spell behind bars.

You’re upset and bewildered because it seems so unfair that mules have to pay for their stupidity with their lives, but masterminds like your boss are allowed to live. I agree. It doesn’t make any sense. What kind of message are we sending to the syndicates? Recruit more ignorant runners, lie to them, spread the risk, it’s okay to let a few die. So long as you’re not the one doing the actual trafficking, there’s nothing to fear.

If my government is serious about waging war against drugs, it should sever ties with Burmese drug lords, police our border more carefully, educate our youth and allow you to live so you can share your story with others. Instead, there’s an orchid named after Thein Sein, and young people like you are regularly dragged to the gallows. No wonder you’re confused. Ours is a crude sort of justice, so harsh, it’s almost medieval.

All I can say, Vui Kong, is I hope that sanity will win in the end. These past two years have shown me that there are people in Singapore who believe that our law needs to change, who believe in justice and who believe in you.

Your face lights up every time I tell you about the activists fighting hard for your life. I think it’s because it gives you comfort knowing that not everyone sees you as a hardened criminal deserving death. In a few hours, your supporters will gather once again, at Hong Lim Park. They’ll sing you a birthday song, cut a cake and sign a card. It’s a small gesture. But they’ll all be hoping for the one thing you want more than anything else in the world – clemency from Singapore’s cabinet.

You’ll still be in prison for a very very long time. But being alive will allow you to prove that you can be more than just an illiterate drug mule. You’re already taking baby steps towards improving yourself. You’re learning to read and write. You’re sharing your stories. You’ve repented. Given a second chance, I know you’ll do all you can to make your mother very proud.