A street urchin's journey to Death Row and back

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 24, 2013 

It was Wednesday, Dec 2, 2009. Yong Vui Kong's family had flown in from Sabah, not for a visit, but to make his funeral arrangements.

In two days, the young Malaysian, convicted of being a drug trafficker, was to be executed.

Today, he is still alive. And he no longer has a date with the hangman.

Two weeks ago, the 25-year-old became the first condemned drug trafficker to be spared the noose under changes to the law this year.

Judges now have the discretion to impose life terms and caning, instead of the mandatory death penalty, for drug couriers who help the authorities in a substantive way.

Yong will serve life imprisonment and receive 15 strokes of the cane. His family says he has become a devout Buddhist who hopes to counsel others against drugs, a major turnaround from his days as an illiterate street rat.

Bad company

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Yong's elder brother Yun Leong recalls how they grew up in a poor village in Sabah.

Their parents divorced when Yong was five. The seven children - Yong is No. 6 out of four boys and three girls - were split up.

Yong, his brother Yun Leong, and two other siblings were left to his mother, a dishwasher, to raise. Relatives took in the other siblings.

Yong dropped out of primary school, doing odd jobs from when he was 11 and squandering his income at game arcades. He soon started mixing with bad company.

"He liked to dye his hair, started smoking even though he was not old enough, and used a lot of vulgarities," says the 28-year-old Yun Leong, who has been working in Singapore as a chef since 2004.

At 17, Vui Kong left for Kuala Lumpur. His brother says: "He told me he would be selling CDs and his boss was generous with him.

"His boss was the one who paid for his passport. He bought him gifts, let him stay in hotels and took him to eat in restaurants he could not afford on his own.

"Perhaps that was how he felt indebted to his boss and did what he was told to do."

Yong rarely contacted the family after he moved out. "Then one day, I got a call from the Singapore police."

Brother begs for help

"When I saw him in prison a few days after the arrest, he was shivering and crying. He said he was very scared. He was told to bring something here and now had to pay with his life," says Yun Leong.

That something was 47.27g of heroin, which he was caught trafficking from Malaysia to Singapore on June 12, 2007. The quantity of heroin was well over the 15g which brought the mandatory death penalty. He was convicted on Nov 14, 2008.

His mother, in her 60s and suffering from depression, was never told about her son being sentenced to death. "I only told her that Vui Kong did something wrong and had to serve a long jail sentence," reveals Yun Leong.

But as Yong's case was later taken up by human rights activists, keeping the news secret from his mother became hard. The family begged neighbours not to say anything. As the Malaysian press swooped in, his mother stayed with an aunt in another part of town.

But never once did Yun Leong give up on his brother. "As long as he was still alive, I had to do something - whatever I could."

On Nov 28, 2009, he took his mother and sisters Nyuk Yin, 35, and Vui Fung, 23, to meet lawyer M. Ravi, an active campaigner against the death penalty.

Yun Leong says he got down on his knees, sobbing, and begged the lawyer to "please do something to save my brother".

The lawyer

Mr Ravi recalls that first meeting: "I saw the family - the mother was depressed and did not know what was happening. The sister was holding the white shirt that Vui Kong was going to wear on the day he was to be hanged."

He decided to take the case, pro bono, and filed an 11th-hour motion to revive an appeal that had been dropped in April 2009.

The stay of execution was granted on Dec 2, 2009.

Mr Ravi contacted international human rights groups such as Amnesty International and The Death Penalty Project, and lobbied Malaysian politicians.

In 2010, Yong's supporters, including former Sabah Member of Parliament Chua Soon Bui, presented a petition to the President appealing for clemency. There were 109,346 signatures.

All this went on even as Yong himself told Mr Ravi he had given up hope and that his new religion helped him reconcile himself to dying.

Mr Ravi says: "The worst, for me, was when we found out that the drug boss was going to live, and he was going to die."

Singaporean Chia Choon Leng, who allegedly asked Yong to deliver the drugs, is being held under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows detention without trial.

Mr Ravi went on to mount seven legal challenges and appeals. All were rejected, except for the very first, to revive Yong's appeal.

"Criminal lawyers I met told me not to waste my time," says Mr Ravi, recalling that he was criticised for giving false hope to a Death Row prisoner.

A matter of timing

But with every appeal and every challenge, Yong's execution date was pushed back.

In July 2011, the Government began a review of the death penalty laws. Yong was one of 35 Death Row inmates whose hangings were put on hold.

The changes to the law, giving judges discretion, were passed on Nov 14, 2012. A year later, on the same date, Justice Choo Han Teck ruled that Yong acted only as a courier, and gave him his life back.

Yong was in tears. Recalls Mr Ravi: "We couldn't speak. I was also overwhelmed."

But this is not the end. Mr Ravi says that given Yong's slight build - he is 172cm tall and weighs 47kg - he "will not be able to take the 15 strokes of the cane".

"I will be writing to the prison. Hopefully, they will allow doctors to certify this," he says.

Yong, who taught himself English, now hopes to counsel youth about the dangers of drugs while serving time in jail.

"He wants to study. He wants to be a role model," says Mr Ravi.

Yong's life sentence was backdated to the day he was charged in June 2007. While a life sentence in Singapore lasts a convict's natural life, he will be eligible for a review in 2027 - after serving 20 years.

His brother Yun Leong says: "I have immense faith in him, and that the family will be reunited then."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 24, 2013

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