Mixed blessings

For some on Singapore’s death row, recent changes to legislation offer hope, but campaigners stress that the law is vague and will not guarantee justice

Written By:
January 9, 2014
Mixed blessings
Eternal flame: anti-death penalty activists light candles for a death row inmate, outside Singapore’s Changi Prison. Photo: AP

Yong Vui Kong fell to his knees when he heard the judge’s verdict. The Malaysian had spent the past five years on Singapore’s death row, but now he had been granted clemency; his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane.

This judgment was made possible by amendments to Singapore’s death-penalty legislation voted in by parliament on November 14 of last year. According to these changes, judges now have the option to impose life sentences with caning if those convicted of drug trafficking fulfill certain criteria: if they have provided substantial assistance to investigators and if they are found to have been couriers only. Those with mental disabilities may also be spared if their disability is found to substantially impair their judgment.

Singapore’s government sees this development as a fine-tuning of their well-known “zero tolerance” stance against drug trafficking. When presenting the amendments in parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said: “The changes announced today will sharpen our tools and introduce more calibration into the legal framework against drug trafficking, and put our system on a stronger footing for the future.”

But a new sentence does not necessarily mean the end of suffering: Caning is no trivial matter. Like capital punishment, corporal punishment has been a controversial issue in Singapore. Only 33 countries retain judicial corporal punishment, and critics claim that the violence meted out upon male inmates amounts to torture.

“Prison is supposed to rehabilitate individuals and help restore these people back into society when they are released. I am not sure how the violence and mental and physical trauma of caning can seek to achieve that purpose in the most holistic sense,” said Rachel Zeng of the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign. “Criminals do not need to be killed, tortured, humiliated or treated violently in order to bring justice to the society at large or to the victims and their families.”

“How is caning someone who is going to spend the rest of their life behind bars offering any sort of deterrent effect?” asked Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. “It’s ridiculous and unnecessarily vindictive. Human Rights Watch’s view is that the corporal punishment practiced by Singapore constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and should be stopped immediately.”

Furthermore, the requirement of providing investigators with “substantial cooperation” is seen as a problematic way of deciding whether a person will face the most severe of punishments.

“Whether a person lives or dies is based on how useful they are to the state in achieving certain ends, which, in the first place, is based substantially on factors outside of their control,” said Damien Chng, co-founder of We Believe in Second Chances, an anti-death penalty group originally set up to work on Yong’s case.

“This is a major problem because it assumes that all persons caught with drugs are guilty,” said Zeng. “What if they do not have the slightest knowledge about what they have in their possession?”

The case of Cheong Chun Yin, another Malaysian on Singapore’s death row, could potentially illustrate such issues. Cheong was convicted in 2008 of trafficking 2.7kg of heroin. He claimed – and continues to claim – that he had believed them to be gold bars, not drugs.

Cheong gave investigators whatever information he had, such as the name and description of the man who had recruited him, as well as his phone number. Investigators did little follow-up; a judge at his trial said that this was “immaterial” to the determination of Cheong’s guilt. But the accused’s insistence on never having been involved in a drug syndicate has meant that he has little more to offer, and the Attorney General’s Chambers did not issue Cheong with a Certificate of Cooperation. Unable to fulfill the strict criteria of the amendments, Cheong’s future looks bleak.

Drug mules – those tricked into transporting drugs – might have little to offer in terms of information on the syndicate. In such circumstances, the amendments to the mandatory death penalty hold very little meaning.

M Ravi, Cheong’s lawyer, who had also represented and campaigned for Yong, is not ready to give up. “In any event, according to the trial notes, Chun Yin had given material information which was not acted upon by the authorities, which has now become material. This is a miscarriage of justice and the amendment to the Act has abysmally failed to take into account this matter,” he wrote in an email.

Ravi has approached Malaysian members of parliament for assistance, hoping to launch a campaign to save Cheong’s life. For anti-death penalty activists on both sides of the Causeway, the amendments to the mandatory death penalty have not brought an end to their work; they have merely provided new hurdles to overcome.

Read more articles