You, Sir, are missing the point! — Adrian K.H. Lee
MAY 17 — After being convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to death on November 14, 2008 in Singapore, Yong Vui Kong and his supporters have pursued various avenues with the ultimate goal of ensuring his life is spared.
Many different parties — his relatives, lawyers including English barristers bearing the title of Queen’s Counsel, NGOs, and other concerned members of the public the world over — have invested their intellectual and emotional efforts into this cause.
Numerous appeals, a request for clemency to former Singapore President S.R. Nathan and a request for judicial review of the former president’s decision not to grant clemency have all been made. After over three years of lawyering, campaigning, and letter-writing, Vui Kong’s conviction and sentence remains unchanged. But his supporters keep trying.
The global concern and stubborn persistence of Vui Kong’s supporters speaks volumes about what is at stake here: a human life. It is all too easy to lose sight of this simple fact amid discourse on the legal and political technicalities surrounding this case, but this simple fact is and should remain at the core of any discussion on why his sentence should stand or why it should be commuted.
The starting point when it comes to a matter of life and death surely must be one of moral principle. This is rather tricky terrain, so an uncontroversial proposition seems a good place to start: the state must have some moral justification to take the life of a human being. Now a controversial proposition, and one that I do not necessarily agree with: the state is morally justified in killing as a punishment for murder. An eye for an eye. There’s an unmistakable symmetry there and it is (arguably) arguable that the punishment fits the crime. Proponents of capital punishment for murder would say that the murderer, quite literally, deserves to die. But no official in Singapore defending the sentence, nor any of the views I have seen proffered by those in favour of Vui Kong’s execution, has gone so far as to say that he deserves to die.
Why is this? Well, because he does not deserve to die. Even leaving aside his youth, naivety, vulnerability and upbringing, capital punishment is clearly inappropriate in principle. He tried to enter Singapore by car with 47.27 grams of heroin in his possession, and got caught doing it. What he did was not violent; he did not cause any fear or harm to anybody. There are of course serious negative consequences of drug use in society for which he would bear partial responsibility if he had succeeded in getting drugs into Singapore, but the potential harm lacks directness, is not measurable, is not clearly attributable, and is in a sense too abstract to warrant the death penalty.
A severe custodial sentence would be proportionate and appropriate, but the punishment of death does not fit the crime. It cannot be justified without reference to policy considerations and considerations of — dare I say it — convenience, external to the question of whether or not this young man deserves to die in principle.
For instance, Singapore’s Minister for Law K. Shanmugam stated in defence of the death sentence: “If we say we let you go, what is the signal we are sending?” A suitable response may be something along the lines of: “You, Sir, are missing the point! We are discussing my life and death here. I do not see how the signals you may or may not send are relevant,” the point being that if something as fundamental as taking the life of a human being cannot be justified in principle, then it should not be considered at all. If it is morally unjustifiable, policy considerations should lose all relevance. The law minister is not saying that this young man deserves to die but rather that he should die because if he does not then Singapore risks sending a message that it is weak on drugs.
On the point of deterrence, suffice it to say for present purposes that the gap between the actual and perceived effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent for any crime is in itself a controversial debate, and the link between capital punishment and crime prevention is tenuous.
Another common line of reasoning justifying Vui Kong’s death sentence goes something like this: “He knew the consequences of his act if he were to get caught, so he should live with them. If he did not get caught, he would have profited from his act.” Discarding the fact that Vui Kong pleaded that he did not in fact know the sentence, these observations do seem to be true. However, they do not go any distance whatsoever in providing any moral justification for taking the young man’s life. In the same way that one could not say it is morally right to hang a person for theft because it is the known punishment, so too the above line of reasoning inherently fails as a test of whether or not the death penalty is morally appropriate.
But alas discussion of these arguments in favour of Vui Kong’s execution — external to the question of whether or not it is correct in principle for Vui Kong to die as punishment for his offence — are tangential to the main point. He does not deserve to die and as a matter of moral principle death is not an appropriate punishment. Therefore the death penalty should be precluded simpliciter.
When a young man’s life is in the balance, only what is right and wrong should matter. Cast aside for a moment policy considerations, political pressure, populist demands and the stick-to-your-guns mentality which many quite understandably view as a sign of strength. When it comes down to the principle of the matter, the inevitable conclusion is that Yong Vui Kong does not deserve to die, and his sentence should therefore be commuted.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.