“Just like most Singaporeans, we never knew much about the death penalty and its applications in Singapore. Then came Yong Vui Kong.
His story was a wake-up call. Suddenly we realised that real people with real stories were being executed in our names. We decided that we couldn’t just stand by and do nothing, and so We Believe In Second Chances was born.”
Thus begins the self-introduction of the youth-led initiative, We Believe in Second Chances, on their About page .
On 11th September 2011, a Sunday, I turned up for a forum organized by Second Chances titled “Rethinking the Death Penalty” at Sinema Old School.
It seemed to me that the “Death Penalty in Singapore” is much like “Conflict in the Middle East”, in the sense that they both tend to be a conversation killer amongst friends.
They are oft-reported, over-exposed ‘issues’ that everybody has heard of since a long time back – in fact one probably hears of the Middle East every other day in the news – but if pressed, we have to confess that we don’t quite know the details and intricacies of the issues at hand but really all we really want to talk about now are the elections and establishment political figures because with these issues we can actually achieve some sort of therapeutic catharsis.
Indeed, there are socio-political interests and socio-political interests – cribbing about Tan Tan Tan Tan, or methodically picking apart the legalese that enshrouds this familiar stranger, the Death Penalty.
The First Speaker: M Ravi
Okay correction, it is actually the Mandatory Death Penalty. Lawyer-activist M Ravi, the first speaker, notes that many people don’t know that the Death Penalty (henceforth the DP) in Singapore is actually mandatory for certain drug-related and other serious crimes. I scribble this down dutifully in my notebook, trying to catch up with the legal complexities.
M Ravi also notes that despite the popular image of Singapore as a city with a low crime rate, we have one of the highest prison population rates in Asia (in proportion to total population). Singapore has 267 people in prison for every 100,000 people, Iran has 222, and Malaysia has 147. M Ravi pointed out ironically that our society seems in actual fact to be “highly criminalized”.
In addition, he noted that out of 11, 919 of our total convicted penal population in 2010, the total drug-related offender population is 6995.
Do these figures show a disproportionate amount of people facing drug-related offences? Is there an overcriminalization of drug-related offences? Does this actually mean that the “drug problem” in Singapore is not solved?
The typical profile of a death-row inmate : male, ill-educated, lower socio-economic class, racial/ethnic minority (Malay / Tamil). M Ravi also notes that many death-row inmates are also Malaysian Chinese men, thus he considers Malaysian Chinese an “ethnic minority” as well.
Does the Mandatory DP thus deter poor, ill-educated members of minority ethnicities, when we should really be targetting the “main guys” and not drug mules?
The Second Speaker: Thiru
The second speaker was a lawyer known as Thiru who noted that unlike M Ravi, he was not an activist. Thiru also noted that he does not agree with Ravi completely on the issue and generally expressed more positive feelings towards the courts’ performance on this issue.
He stressed that the credibility of the accused person was crucial in obtaining successful acquittals from the Mandatory DP.
For example, Ismil bin Kadar, who was convicted of the murder of Mdm Tham Weng Kuen in 2009 and sentenced to death, was subsequently completely acquitted of the crime by the Court of Appeal in July 2011. Justice C K Rajah had found that Ismil had an IQ lower than the average person, and noted that “the investigators were breaching criminal procedures”. “Ismil’s initial 2 statements recorded during investigations were not read back to him, nor were they signed by him. The Court noted the evidence of psychiatrists and psychologists that Ismil was prone to suggestions when under stress.” [Details obtained by handouts provided by Second Chances]
Citing Ismil’s case along with others, Thiru stressed that the legal system works.
Thiru also noted that the NUS Law Club had started Singapore’s chapter of the New York-based Innocence Project, which looks into wrongful convictions. (Currently, KRC has contacted its founder and we hope to either produce an article that elaborates upon NUS law students’ work under the aegis of the Innocence Project, or to work out some long-term collaboration where NUS law students simplify complex legal issues by composing palatable articles aimed at the general reader.)
Thiru noted that his biggest dissatisfaction with the system was that the investigation stage is sometimes not up to par, as in Ismil’s case cited above.
After the presentations, the father of Cheong Chun Yin, a Malaysian Chinese man who was arrested in June 2008 for smuggling drugs from Myanmar, stood up to speak to the audience.
Kristen, one of the organizers of Second Chances, subsequently also stood up to relate the details of Chun Yin’s case. Her articulate, non-sentimental relation of his case touched me as much as it puzzled me – the Central Narcotics Bureau apparently did not make any effort to investigate with the drug trader, despite having been given the name, physical description and phone numbers invovled, and High Court Judge Choo Han Teck stated in his written judgment that “[i]t was immaterial that the CNM did not make adequate efforts to trace ‘Lau De’ or check on his cell-phones.”
By the end of the forum, I felt slightly more enlightened, though I had now more questions than answers.
It was wonderful that the young organizers behind Second Chances picked these two speakers for the forum, because both speakers held views that differed significantly from each other in key respects, and overall proffered what I thought was quite a complex take on the DP issue – it did not allow for a simple stereotyping of the issue, and the contradictions and disagreements between both panelists allowed the audience to appreciate the nuances therein.
Perhaps more law students or lawyers can come forward to help mediate the knowledge gap between those with legal-know-how and those without, in order that our society can better understand the intricacies of our legal system.