It’s been a long six years for Cheong Kah Pin, and it shows. He looks far older than his 59 years, his face lined with worry and a perpetual anxious frown. But he looks far better than the last time we met, about two years ago. A little less upset, a little more willing and able to smile. He’s more chatty than he used to be as we sit in a popular eatery, waiting for activists and social workers to arrive.
There’s a good reason for this change. After six years of desperate fear, there’s now a light at the end of the tunnel for his precious son, Chun Yin.
Cheong Chun Yin was arrested in 2008, and later charged with trafficking 2.7 kilograms of heroin into Singapore. According to Singaporean law, anything above 15 grams is enough to attract the mandatory death penalty; once found guilty, the judge had no power to hand down any other punishment. Chun Yin was given the death sentence in 2010.
But Chun Yin insists he didn’t know he’d been transporting drugs. A regular customer at the night market where he’d worked in Johor Bahru (JB), Malaysia, had offered him an all-expenses-paid trip to Myanmar. The only catch was that he had to deliver a suitcase to someone in Singapore. Chun Yin says he was told that he was smuggling gold bars for tax evasion purposes – still an offence, but one where the penalty is a lot less serious than drug trafficking. He’d thought that the lining of the suitcase contained gold bars, not heroin. He’d just wanted a cool trip out of his routine life of hard graft in JB.
Chun Yin’s arrest changed his father’s life. Uncle Cheong’s divorce had been acrimonious; Chun Yin was the only child who stayed with his father. They were a team, living and working together day and night. Once Chun Yin was whisked away to Changi Prison, Uncle Cheong found himself alone. An old man in an empty house in JB, surrounded by his son’s belongings, reminders of what he had lost.
In 2012, the Singaporean government amended the mandatory death penalty regime. Judges were given limited discretion in sentencing: in some cases, they could choose between the death penalty and life imprisonment with caning.
The changes were not so straightforward. Judges would only be allowed this discretion if particular criteria was met. In the case of drug trafficking, the offender would have to be merely a low-level courier or drug mule, and also have provided “substantive assistance” to the authorities in disrupting drug trafficking activities. This “substantive assistance” – a term that has yet to be properly defined – would be rewarded by a Certificate of Cooperation (CoC), issued by the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC), also the prosecution.
For drug mules, the CoC is a ticket to a second chance, a shot at getting off death row. Yong Vui Kong, another young Malaysian man convicted of trafficking 42.27 grammes of heroin, received a CoC and became the first convicted drug traffickerto be re-sentenced to life in prison and 15 strokes of the cane.
As Vui Kong’s family heaved a sigh of relief, Uncle Cheong’s worries continued. Despite having provided investigators with a description and even the phone number of his recruiter, the AGC had denied Chun Yin a CoC.
It was starting to look like a done deal, a hopeless case. No one knew how the AGC had reached its decision. The whole process of awarding a CoC is frustratingly opaque.
As the days ticked by, we brainstormed ways to remind the public of Chun Yin’s story in the hopes of generating enough sympathy to launch some sort of clemency appeal.
“We were cracking our heads on what we could do to help,” said Rachel Zeng from the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign. “We talked about making a video montage of his life, and we were also working on reaching out to our Malaysian as well as regional counterparts for a public campaign on behalf of Chun Yin. We were thinking that it would be like the Vui Kong campaign all over again, but with the limitation of time,”
Uncle Cheong’s welfare was also a concern. He’d been a wreck since his son was taken from him. What would happen if his son was hanged?
“We were worried about him, as we are all aware of how heartbreaking the rejection of the CoC was to him” said Rachel. “It wasn’t easy at all. It was very emotional for some of us… after all, we have been working with Ravi and Uncle Cheong on this case for more than four years.”
Then came the surprise: on 18 September lawyer M Ravi was informed that Chun Yin had been granted a CoC. There’s still some time to go before the re-sentencing – at which there’s a small possibility that Chun Yin’s death sentence could be upheld – but there’s at least a chance that wasn’t there two weeks ago.
“Thank you, thank you very much,” Uncle Cheong said, over and over again, to all of us assembled at the eatery on Friday night. “I don’t really know how to speak. I just want to thank you for your help all these years.”
But things are far from plain sailing. Uncle Cheong’s life continues to revolve around his work and his son, the former to keep his mind off the latter. He still works at the night market, has started picking fruits to sell in the morning market, and volunteers at a small vegetable farm in Singapore. He makes the journey from Johor Bahru to Singapore by three in the morning every Monday, so that he can be the first through the door to visit Chun Yin in prison at about seven. He tells me that he only sleeps one to two hours a night.
“Now that he has this [CoC], I hope Chun Yin can come home sooner,” he told me. “I want him to come home soon. I wish I could see him have a family. Then I can go in peace.”
It’s difficult to break the news to him, but it’s unlikely that Chun Yin will be home any time soon. Life imprisonment in Singapore refers to one’s natural life, although there is the possibility of a review after serving 20 years. As things stand, the most optimistic outcome would be for Chun Yin to get a review in 14 years’ time.
“If he has to be in there for 20 years, what will become of me? Will I still be around after 20 years?” Uncle Cheong asks, wiping tears from his eyes. “I’ll be 80. Will I still be able to run around like this? Who will give me work? How can I retire? What will I do?”
No one really knows what to say. All we can do is lamely point out that 80 isn’t that old, not these days with longer life expectancy. That he needs to keep hoping, that he’ll see his son. That at least now there is hope when we had not dared to hope before.
This is the reality of anti-death penalty work in Singapore. Big hurdles, but encouraging victories. Holding on to hope wherever it can be found. And comforting a father, while trying not to imagine how many others on death row are still praying for a second chance.