Singapore: My journey with Vui Kong

Human rights lawyer M. Ravi tells Elias Tan how he got to know drug courier Yong Vui Kong, what inspired him to save the then 19-year-old from the hangman’s noose and how, in return, Yong has taught him the importance of perseverance.

Q. Now that Vui Kong’s case has come to a close, what are your thoughts on how the case progressed and how it has changed you as a person?

A. Vui Kong’s case is one Singaporeans should reflect on… our so-called love affair with the death penalty. Public opinion polls suggest that most Singaporeans favour killing people who have committed drug offences. Are we really a modern, educated and civilised society? Vui Kong’s case may mark a turning point… we can learn that we will not lose our well-ordered lifestyle as a result of allowing a drug courier to continue on living: that the entire structure of our metropolis will not collapse because a drug offence is not met with a killing; and that a mature society is one that can tolerate breach of the law without involving execution.

This case has taught me the values of perseverance and steadfastness in pursuing a cause. I did benefit immensely from the spirit of brotherhood in this fight for a fellow human being’s life and I’m privileged to be part of this struggle in seeking compassion from the State. The whole process has a humanising effect on everyone who participated in campaign.

Q. How did you get to know Vui Kong and what prompted you to go all out help him, even to the extent of campaigning to give him a second chance at life?

A. I learnt about Vui Kong’s case from a concerned activist lawyer. I immediately contacted Vui Kong’s previous lawyer and studied his background, making a trip to Sabah to visit his family and the kampung he grew up in. In my book, Kampong Boy, I have given a detailed account of my involvement in Vui Kong’s case. I came from a similar background and I could have been just like him.

Along with the fact that he was only 19 when he committed the offence, the case raised profound concerns of our criminal justice system in preventing our judges from looking at the extenuating circumstances. Together with other activists, I brought this case to Malaysia’s Parliament, lobbied and got the support of even the Foreign Minister of Malaysia. I’m also grateful to the London-based Death Penalty Project who engaged Edward Fitzgerald, a Queen’s Counsel, to assist me with my research pertaining to the various constitutional challenges.

Q. What do you find most rewarding while working on Vui Kong’s case?

A. The various constitutional challenges I brought before the Court of Appeal resulted in positive developments of the law, from review of clemency petition to the curtailment of prosecutorial discretion.

There were a barrage of criticisms from lawyers and the mainstream media that I was giving false hope to Vui Kong and his family. I’m glad that I did not succumb to those criticisms. While it was extremely difficult to continue fighting for Vui Kong when the last constitutional challenge failed, I am glad I stuck to my intuition and believed that there is always hope until the last day and we should never give up.

Aside from saving Vui Kong, there were 34 death row inmates whose executions had been delayed for almost three years as a result of the constitutional challenges launched. If not for these challenges, the 34 people would have been executed between 2009 and 2010.

I’m proud that Singapore had zero executions in 2010 when the Court of Appeal was deliberating Vui Kong’s constitutional motion against the mandatory death penalty. This contrasts with Singapore having the highest per capita executions in the world in 2004. I dedicate these achievements to my late mother who showered me with immense love.

Q. Has the courts become more careful in sending offenders to the gallows?

A. Certainly. The Courts are more careful.

In Vui Kong’s, there were two developments as a result of the pronouncements on his application to postpone his execution. Prior to that it was almost impossible to re-open a case. In this appeal, thankfully the Court ruled in his favour – that the finality principle should not be strictly applied to criminal cases in case the accused is wrongfully convicted.

Secondly, the Court ruled that if the accused has chosen to withdraw his appeal, it is compulsory for the Court of Appeal to review the lower Court’s decision. This pronouncement emanated from the fact that Vui Kong had initially withdrawn his appeal. Further developments were seen in Ismail Kader’s case where the Court of Appeal acquitted him as a result of the shoddy manner in which his statements were taken during interrogation. One can observe a momentum building up in the Court of Appeal towards allowing more discovery of documents in criminal cases so as to provide for equality of arms between the State and the accused during trial.