Thursday, January 27, 2011

Aljazeera Documentary - Yong's Story

In Singapore anyone caught with more than 15 grams of heroin faces a mandatory death penalty. No extenuating circumstances can be taken into account by the legal system and this, argues the UN special rapporteur, is a violation of human rights.

Now, the conviction of one young Malaysian man, Yong Vui Kong, sentenced to death after being found guilty of heroin trafficking, is forcing Singaporean courts to re-examine the law. Madasamy Ravi, Yong's lawyer, is fighting to make legal history as he takes Yong's story to the Court of Appeal.

Already his client's death has been postponed twice. Meanwhile Yong's brother, Yun Leong, is preparing the family for the possibility that Yong will hang. As Yong languished on death row in Singapore's notorious Changi Prison, filmmakers Lynn Lee and James Leong spent time with his family and legal team, watching the unfolding case of Yong Vui Kong.

In the following account Lynn Lee shares her views on Yong's story.

At first it was just a name. Yong Vui Kong. We first heard it in 2009, at a forum on the death penalty in Singapore. Yong Vui Kong. We were told he was a convicted drug mule from east Malaysia. He had been caught with more than 15 grams of heroin. He would most likely hang before the year was up. We shook our heads, made sympathetic noises. But really, it was just a name.

And then we saw him in person. A skinny kid in an oversized orange jumpsuit seated behind a glass enclosure, surrounded by prison guards. And the awfulness of his situation hit home.

We were told he had converted to Buddhism, had vowed to be good. We were told he was holding out hope for a second chance. It was hard not to root for him.This kid was going to die for a crime committed when he was just 19. He looked so helpless, frail almost, inside the sterile courtroom. It was hard not to feel sorry for him.

Over the months, as Vui Kong's lawyer obtained one stay of execution after another, tens of thousands of people rallied to his cause. These were supporters who had never even seen him in person. They went out in force, collecting signatures in support of a petition for a second chance for the kid. They blogged, made banners, composed songs, organised protests and sent hundreds of messages to his family members. They amazed us with their commitment and energy.

But why? Why this particular death row inmate and not anyone else? Singapore regularly hangs people for drug trafficking. So what makes Yong Vui Kong so special?

Perhaps it is his personal story, the awfulness of his past. He grew up in extreme poverty, dropped out of school when he was just 11. He was barely literate when he was caught - a lowly cog in a shadowy syndicate. He was so very young. He is so very sorry now.

It is hard to overstate the significance of Yong Vui Kong's case. It has forced many in Singapore to think about the fairness of the mandatory death sentence.

The government has vigorously defended its stance, with the law minister himself questioning the cost of letting a drug mule like Vui Kong go. The Court of Appeal here has also held that the mandatory death sentence is not unconstitutional.

But still, the debate rages on, and we suspect, it will do so for some time to come. 

In the meantime, the family continues to hold on to hope. No one expected in 2009, when Vui Kong's lawyer first walked into court requesting a stay of execution, that the kid would still be alive today in January 2011. But he is. And the story has drawn more attention than anyone thought possible. One of the reasons could be because of the numerous complex legal issues that the case has thrown up.

As Vui Kong's lawyer puts it, the battle is far from over. The judges have yet to release their decision on the latest challenge - a request for a judicial review of the law minister's statements and the president's powers.

For the family, it must be nerve-wracking, this ding-donging between hope and despair. Onlookers like us will perhaps never understand their anguish. But should the kid die, we too would be devastated. We would grieve not in the way the family would grieve. We would grieve because of what killing someone like Yong Vui Kong says about us, about the country we live in, about what we are willing to sacrifice, in exchange for our sense of security. 
For more information about Yong Vui Kong read Lynn's blog.

Yong's Story can be seen from Tuesday, January 25, at the following times GMT: Tuesday: 2230;Wednesday: 0930; Thursday: 0330; Friday: 1630; Saturday: 2230; Sunday: 0930; Monday: 0330; Tuesday:1630.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy Birthday, Yong Vui Kong

From Lianianfilms:Happy Birthday, Yong Vui Kong

Happy Birthday in advance, Vui Kong. When we first heard your name, we never thought you’d live to see 23. Never, at one stage, thought you’d even see 22. But here we are, three weeks into 2011 and you’re still alive. Hope is still alive.

Today, a bunch of us got together to sing you a birthday song and blow out a few candles on your behalf. Ravi said a prayer for you and all the other death row inmates inside Changi Prison right now. We hear you’ve been counseling quite a few of them.

Some people think it’s bizarre, outrageous even, that we should care so much about a drug trafficker. Kirsten and Damien, the two young Singaporeans behind the “Second Chances” campaign, have received countless hateful comments from strangers, simply because they believe you should live. Apparently, there are better things to do than fight for a criminal. Maybe so. But we are fighting for much much more.

Your case has reignited the debate over the mandatory death penalty here and given some Singaporeans at least, a chance to consider their stance on justice, fairness and mercy. It has forced me to think about the kind of society I want to live in.

There are many here who feel people like you deserve death because would-be addicts need to be protected. “Think of the lives he destroys when he brings in drugs,” they say. As if those who inhale, snort or shoot up have no choice in the matter at all.

There are no numbers to show that the MDP prevents drug trafficking. No studies to demonstrate that it works. How on earth did we get stuck with this kind of law? Is it effective, simply because the powers that be say so?

Because of you, we’ve learnt that Singapore’s constitution doesn’t protect her people against inhuman punishment. Because of you, we’ve also discovered thateveryone who’s ever appealed to the President for clemency, was really just barking up the wrong tree. It’s all a little confusing right now. I’m sure you never thought in December 2009 when you went to Court, that you’d live to learn all these things. But you have, and you’re still alive today. And for that, we’re all grateful.

Yun Leong tells me your mother visited you again in December last year. I wonder how she felt seeing you behind that glass wall? Did she ask why she wasn’t allowed to touch you? Does she know she’ll probably never be able to give you a hug again? Was she bewildered, surprised, angry? How does one begin to explain those strange prison rules to her?

In the end, I think, this is what puzzles me the most. We have already punished you, severely punished you for your crime - a non-violent, first offence. The best you can ever hope for is a lifetime in jail. You will in all likelihood, never be able to blow out candles on your own birthday cake, or celebrate Chinese New Year with your family, or do something as simple as hold your mother’s hand. And yet, there are people who say that such a punishment is just not good enough. Not harsh enough. What kind of vengeful, medieval society do we live in? What does killing you say about us?

A few days ago, we sat with Yun Leong on a bus as it trundled towards Changi Prison. Your brother is amazing. I cannot tell you how moved I am by his steadfast love for you - the way he sacrifices all his precious off days just to go visit you in jail. He’s never once given up on you, and neither has the rest of your family. They’ve seen how much you’ve changed, how far you’ve come. They’re all rooting for you.

We told Yun Leong about our birthday plans for you and his face lit up.

“Thank-you,” he said. “The best birthday gift my brother could ever have would be the chance to keep living.”

I struggled for an answer. Couldn’t find any. Unfortunately, we’re not the ones with the power to grant you that gift. But for your sake, and ours as well, I hope we’ll be here again next year, and the year after, blowing out more candles, singing songs and eating cake on your behalf.