Yong Vui Kong’s appeal hearing takes place at 10am on Monday, 15 March 2010.
By Andrew Loh
Yong Vui Kong was 12 when he left his grandfather’s palm oil estate “deep in the forests of Sabah” in Malaysia to strike it out on his own. He had had enough of watching his mother being abused by his grandfather and her relatives. He wanted to help her escape what he now calls “that place of pain”. And so, he made up a story. He told his mother that he had found someone who would take him in as a godson. But the truth was, his “godfather” ran an illegal gambling business. Vui Kong went to work for this man, hoping to save up enough money so he could rescue his mother.
He was eventually thrown out by his godfather. Vui Kong thinks it was probably because he was too small and skinny to be of any use. He ended up washing cars to survive, making about RM$3 a day. It was hardly enough to pay for food, let alone accommodation. He would often pester his friends to put him up for short periods of time. He lived like this for three years.
At 15, he made his way to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, hoping to find a better job. But things didn’t turn out the way he planned. He faced discrimination because he came from a small town and was often beaten up. He found work in a Chinese restaurant but was paid far less than his colleagues.
A local gang recruited him to hawk illegal video compact discs . Soon he was told to help collect debts. He was later given a more “important” job by his “Big Brother”, who promised to pay him handsomely. The man had treated Vui Kong well – feeding him, clothing him and taking him out to fancy restaurants. Vui Kong felt compelled to do anything “Big Brother” said. More importantly, he needed the money. His mother was suffering from severe depression and he wanted to help pay for her treatment.
He started delivering“gifts” to various clients. He did not know it initially, but the colourfully gift-wrapped packages contained drugs.
In 2007, Vui Kong was caught while making a delivery in Singapore. The police found 47.27 grammes of heroin on him. A judge eventually handed him the mandatory death sentence for drug trafficking.
In Singapore, hangings take place at dawn on a Friday. Prisoners are only told about their impending execution on Monday. Vui Kong broke down when he was informed that he would be put to death on 4 December 2009. He hadn’t seen his mother in more than two years. She was still battling depression and all through this time, the family had decided to keep the truth from her. But the thought of not saying goodbye was too much for Vui Kong to bear and his siblings decided to fly her to Singapore.
They finally met three days before the scheduled execution. It was an emotional reunion. Vui Kong knelt down before his mother, bowing to her three times. He then begged for her forgiveness and told her he had to “go away forever” to do “penance” for all the bad things he had done. He told her she would never see him again.
Did she understand the meaning behind his words? Perhaps we will never know. What must have been clear to her though was that her son had undergone a dramatic transformation. He had embraced a new way of life in prison and was now a devout Buddhist. He would wake up at 4am every morning to meditate and he eagerly sought the advice of the Buddhist monks who visited him regularly.
For the first time in his life, he was taught to discern right from wrong. He also realised that contrary to what he was told as a child, cigarettes were not the same as drugs. “If I knew they would harm anyone, I would surely not do the job,” he said in his clemency appeal to the President in 2009.
He found a friend in prison – a 22-year-old from Malaysia, who was also received the death penalty for drug trafficking. The boy would die just three months before Vui Kong’s scheduled execution. He was a trembling mess the day before the hanging. Vui Kong would later tell his brother that he stayed up all night comforting his friend, urging him to meditate so he could face his final moments with inner peace.
The next morning, the boy had to be dragged from his cell to the execution chamber, crying, wailing and begging to be freed and to be forgiven.
For himself, Vui Kong continues to hope for a miracle. He’s even started to learn English so he can better communicate with his lawyer.
“He is remorseful and feels he should be severely punished,” his brother Yun Leong explained, “but he wants to live so he can continue seeing us, seeing our mother again. He wants to keep learning and meditating and being a better person.”
When the court granted him a stay of execution in December, one of the first people to pay Vui Kong a visit was his lawyer. During the meeting, Vui Kong presented him a gift – a picture that had taken him weeks to complete.
“He would kneel for hours as he drew,” his lawyer said.
The picture is a colourful interpretation of one of the manifestations of Lord Buddha – he is standing at the gates of hell, saving souls from eternal damnation.
Photos courtesy of The Death Penalty in SingaporeTOC: The story of a boy