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I discovered the truth about Singapore's 'war on drugs'. Now I campaign against the death penalty

The Singaporean criminal justice system expected Yong Vui Kong to die for a mistake he’d made when he was just 19 years old. There are many other stories like his.

Listen to an audio version of this article.

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Anti-drugs poster, Changi prison, Singapore. WONG MAYE-E/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Anti-drugs poster, Changi prison, Singapore. WONG MAYE-E/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Yong Vui Kong was my first encounter with the death penalty in Singapore. I was 21 years old, and so was he. But we couldn’t be further apart when I sat in the public gallery of the courtroom and he in the dock, behind a glass pane. At that age I was considered by many older people as young, idealistic, naive, prone to mistakes and immaturity. Yet the Singaporean criminal justice system was expecting Yong Vui Kong to die for a mistake he’d made when he was just 19 years old.

Born to a poor family in the east Malaysian state of Sabah, Vui Kong was arrested in 2007 with 47.27 grams of heroin. Under Singaporean law, 15 grams and above is enough to attract the mandatory death penalty. Seeing his youth, the trial judge had asked the prosecution to consider reducing the charge, so he wouldn’t have to face the gallows.

The prosecution refused.

This is the reality of the ‘war on drugs’ in Singapore. An uncompromising attitude is sold as being ‘tough on crime’, and largely bought by the populace as the secret sauce to keeping Singapore the safe, relatively low-crime city it is.

An uncompromising attitude is sold as being ‘tough on crime’.

“When we talk about death penalty for drug traffickers, what are we talking about? The person brings across heroin enough to feed 950 people for one week, that person faces death penalty. People look at the drug traffickers that we impose a death penalty on. Very little of the literature focuses on the death penalties that drug traffickers impose on society,” said law and home affairs minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam at a question and answer session with university students in March.

This mentality makes capital punishment look like a logical trade-off; we sacrifice the lives of a number of nasty people for the good of hundreds or thousands. It’s taught to Singaporean children from a young age, with little critique or question.

This is how Singapore teaches children to stay away from drugs

By the time I entered the picture in 2010, Vui Kong’s case had been taken over by human rights lawyer M. Ravi, who had won him a stay of execution and was mounting a challenge to the constitutionality of the mandatory death penalty (which would later fail). Outside the courtroom, the long-running Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC) was doing its best to work within the limits of Singapore’s restrictions on advocacy, activism and protest to raise awareness of his case. By the end of that year, two 18-year-old students and I would set up We Believe in Second Chances, a campaign for Vui Kong meant to emphasise his youth through ours.

We had originally intended for Second Chances to just be a campaign for Vui Kong. But his story led to a deeper examination of capital punishment, criminal justice and drug policy, and we quickly realised that the issue went far, far beyond one young Sabahan.

We’ve since worked, or are working, with multiple families of death row inmates – we aren’t able to get permission from the prison to visit the inmates themselves. Some of these capital cases are for murder, but the vast majority were convicted of drug trafficking.

Proponents of the ‘war on drugs’ would have you imagine that the drug traffickers who are caught and put to death are murderers in their own right: evil, greedy criminals who care little for anyone or anything apart from enriching themselves.

If these cold-blooded hoodlums are getting caught and sent to death row, we’re not seeing them.

If these cold-blooded hoodlums are getting caught and sent to death row, we’re not seeing them. The people we see are scared, bewildered parents, siblings and partners, representing similarly scared and bewildered inmates desperate for a chance, any chance, to avoid a date with the long drop. They are often from ethnic minority groups, or low-income, less-educated households. Many of the families are broken or dysfunctional in some way: estranged parents and abusive environments.

Society might prefer to imagine that people offend because they are inherently malicious, but we more often than not see how different socio-economic circumstances create communities or individuals more vulnerable to being both offenders and victims.

There is Muhammad Rizuan, who languishes on death row because the prosecution chose not to grant him a "certificate of cooperation", a prerequisite before one can avoid the death penalty. In his case, we see people sent to the gallows not just for their crime, but for their subsequent lack of usefulness to the authorities. Yet how useful could a low-level courier really be?

There is Roslan bin Bakar, whose conviction relied more on testimony than hard evidence, showing that there are far more problems with the death penalty than its failure to deal with drug offences.

And then there is Yong Vui Kong himself, a boy from a plantation in east Malaysia whose journey to prison was paved with poverty, neglect, abuse and a dearth of opportunities beyond gang membership. (Fortunately for Vui Kong, changes in the law allowed his death sentence to be changed to life imprisonment with caning.)

It is unlikely that being ‘tough on crime’ would have saved any of these men from their current predicaments. There is even less evidence that being tough on these men, as part of Singapore’s ‘war on drugs’, will prevent any others from being recruited into drug syndicates, or abusing drugs themselves. As long as there are poor, under-served and vulnerable communities, drug lords will enjoy a steady supply of hapless young men and women to use as mules. And as long as we continue to execute these mules, we are shifting focus and resources away from the greater task of education, advocacy, rehabilitation and social justice that is truly important in addressing the problem.

Listen to a recorded audio version of this article courtesy of curio.io.

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.
About the author

Kirsten Han is a freelance journalist and activist based in Singapore. She is the co-founder of We Believe in Second Chances, a campaign for the abolishment of capital punishment, and volunteers with migrant rights' organisations. Her portfolio can be found here and she tweets: @kixes.

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