A call for mercy. The family of Yong Vui Kong plead for his life outside the Istana.


Six of us gathered at a little café yesterday. The meeting had been planned days before. We were going to discuss logistics for a private photo presentation by our friend, Toshi Kazama. No one said anything else beforehand, but we also knew we would be talking about Yong Vui Kong. His case weighed heavily on our minds. We’d all been on tenterhooks for months, nervous about the outcome of his clemency petition.

These kinds of meetings can often be a little hard going. Difficult, because unlike many other causes, there are very few victories for activists fighting the death penalty. Yesterday though, we clinked glasses, took deep breaths and reminded each other it was important to be grateful for small victories. We even ordered multiple rounds of dessert. It was rare to feel hopeful as a group.

Yesterday, Singapore announced changes to our death penalty laws. Tiny changes to be sure, but still.

We’d heard rumblings in the morning. Talk that something significant was afoot. Bits of information started trickling out by mid-afternoon. We discussed it among ourselves, but didn’t dare say anything more. Didn’t want to hope. And then, the news broke.

In Parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean announced that the Mandatory Death Penalty for drug trafficking would no longer be used on couriers who have cooperated with investigators in a “substantive way”, or who have mental disabilities. In such cases, judges would have discretion to either impose the death penalty, or pass a sentence of life imprisonment with caning.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam, also said the MDP should only apply in murder cases where there was an intention to kill.


For months, we’d wondered what on earth Cabinet was doing with Vui Kong’s clemency petition. Why was it taking such a long time? What was happening behind the scenes?

Yesterday, we got confirmation about something we’d long suspected – that the hangman’s been sitting idle for a while now. A moratorium was imposed last July as a review of the Mandatory Death Penalty got underway. It will remain in place until the changes are implemented. Once this happens, former drug mules like Vui Kong and Cheong Chun Yin can ask to have their cases relooked.

A gathering of Cheong Chun Yin’s family and supporters.


Yes, we know we shouldn’t be overly excited. It really is just a teeny weeny baby shuffle forward. Lots of questions remain. How does one cooperate in a “substantive way”? Is it fair to cane a person with mental disabilities or put him away for life? What evidence do we have that the Death Penalty acts as a useful deterrent? What about the problematic presumption of guilt in the Misuse of Drugs Act?

A careful reading of the Ministers’ statements show they’ve barely softened their stance on the Death Penalty. The fact is, the Mandatory Death Penalty continues to apply in many situations. And in cases where judges now have discretion, the only alternative punishment they can mete out is a lifetime in prison and caning. The message is clear – the government isn’t changing its position. It’s just making a tiny tweak. Fine-tuning a system our leaders believe has served us well.

And yet, an obvious truth remains – as long as the death penalty exists, mistakes will inevitably happen. Human beings are fallible. Judges can err. Worse, the Mandatory Death Penalty makes it even more possible that innocent people will be killed in our names.

So there’s more work to be done. The battle isn’t over. Still, as a group, we thought it was okay to feel a little bit encouraged yesterday. We cheered because where there was once despair, we could now see a bit of hope for Vui Kong and Chun Yin.

Over the past two years, many of us have gotten to know their families, have witnessed their agony. We all spoke tonight of Mr Cheong Kah Pin’s tears – how he just can’t seem to stop crying. We tried to telephone Vui Kong’s siblings to tell them the news. They’ve stood by him, begged for his life at the Istana, collected thousands and thousands of petitions, and stayed united despite the pain. We thought they should know their actions have not been in vain.


Two-and-a-half years ago, when M Ravi first took on Vui Kong’s case, few expected him to get anywhere. I still remember how close it was. The boy was days from being killed, his family had made funeral arrangements, he had even signed documents to donate all his organs. But Ravi obtained a stay. And another. And fought and fought, despite criticism, despite accusations he was doing it for his own gain, was pulling a cheap publicity stunt. He even visited Vui Kong’s hometown, promised the family he would do his best, refused to back down.

Because we all believe in second chances.


It’s not been easy and today wasn’t a victory. In fact, the announcement came with an ominous warning:

“Concluding, Mr Teo said the government will monitor how the changes impact and influence the behaviour of the criminal organisations. If the situation worsens, it will consider tightening the provisions or making other changes.” – Today newspaper

For now though, we hold on to hope, and at dinner, allowed ourselves a second bite of dessert. This has always been a difficult fight. Some days have been harder than most, others, downright unbearable. We know better than to turn our noses up at small mercies.