Former counsellor of death-row inmates on BBC's 100 Women list

Sister Gerard Fernandez worked with the prisons here as a death-row counsellor for more than 40 years until 2017. In that time, she "walked with" 18 inmates on death row, up until their executions. ST FILE PHOTO
Sister Gerard Fernandez worked with the prisons here as a death-row counsellor for more than 40 years until 2017. In that time, she "walked with" 18 inmates on death row, up until their executions. ST FILE PHOTO

A Roman Catholic nun has become the first Singaporean to make the BBC's annual list of 100 influential and inspiring women from around the world.

Sister Gerard Fernandez, 81, worked with the prisons here as a death-row counsellor for more than 40 years until 2017. In that time, she "walked with" 18 inmates on death row, up until their executions.

Among the inmates she has worked with were Catherine Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Kah Hong, the women who helped temple medium Adrian Lim to kill two children in Toa Payoh in 1981 in a ritual murder case.

The BBC's 100 Women list features girls and women aged 15 to 98 from more than 50 countries.

This year's theme for the list is "The Female Future", which asks what the future would look like if it was driven by women.

Besides Sister Fernandez, this year's list includes Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, the climate change activist who criticised world leaders in a speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit last month, and Malaysian transgender rights activist Nisha Ayub, who was sent to a male prison at the age of 21.

The BBC says on its website that many on the list are driving change on behalf of women everywhere.

"They give us their vision of what life could look like in 2030," it says.

SPREADING COMPASSION

I don't work for prizes and awards. I didn't think I'd get one at 81. There are many women who live their lives for other people every day, and I admire those who work for others. I'm happy to be able to spread care and compassion to others.

SISTER GERARD FERNANDEZ, who was surprised by the news of her making the BBC's 100 Women list.

Sister Fernandez told The Straits Times yesterday that the news of her making the BBC list came as a surprise. "I don't work for prizes and awards. I didn't think I'd get one at 81," she said.

"There are many women who live their lives for other people every day, and I admire those who work for others. I'm happy to be able to spread care and compassion to others," she added.

She co-founded the Roman Catholic Prison Ministry in 1977 and has explained that she counselled death-row prisoners because "the condemned need hope".

"We may condemn them, but God condemns no one who comes to him," she said in a report in January.

Journalist Heather Chen, 32, who works at BBC News, nominated Sister Fernandez for this year's list.

The annual list started in 2013.

Ms Chen, who attended a Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus school, heard of the nun as well as the Toa Payoh murder case growing up.

 
 

She said: "Her story was exceptionally strong because of how she would exhaust herself mentally for people on death row to help them accept their fates."

Last year, Sister Fernandez was featured in local film-maker Chai Yee Wei's short film Sister.

The film looked at Lim's accomplices Tan and Hoe, who were hanged in 1988. Sister Fernandez had spoken with the two women weekly for seven years, up to the moment they walked to the gallows.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2019, with the headline 'Former counsellor of death-row inmates on BBC's 100 Women list'. Print Edition | Subscribe