Category Archives: From Singapore to Sabah

From Singapore to Sabah: Vui Kong’s Mother

The following is part 4 of a series written from Sandakan, Yong Vui Kong’s hometown in Sabah, East Malaysia, by Second Chances co-founder Kirsten Han:

When Lianain Films went to Sandakan to shoot Yong’s Story in 2010, they paid a visit to Vui Kong’s mother. You can read Lynn’s blog post here. She writes about the little flat where she lives, about the anti-depressants that make her live as if in a bubble, about the fact that she still hasn’t been told that her youngest son is on death row.

Lynn took some photos of Vui Kong’s mother for her blog post. I don’t have any photos for this post; we didn’t get to meet her on this trip to Sandakan.

“My mother is in Kota Kinabalu,” Vui Fung tells us when we first meet up for breakfast.

Nyuk Yin, the oldest sister, lowers her voice and adds, “I was worried that something would happen in these three months. So I sent her to an aunt in Kota Kinabalu. In Sandakan, she’s alone in the day because we all have to work. I didn’t want her to be alone if something should happen.”

If something should happen. No one says it aloud, but judging from the sad nods around the table, everyone understands that Nyuk Yin is referring to Vui Kong.

It’s been almost five years since Vui Kong was arrested. His petition for clemency had been submitted last year. The President of Singapore usually issues a reply within three months – or so we understand – but nothing’s been heard for such a long time. Not just for Vui Kong, but for other cases like Cheong Chun Yin and Roslan bin Bakar too.

Everything is in limbo and no one knows what to think. Amidst all this uncertainty, the children do what they can to protect their clinically depressed mother from the painful truth.

When she went to visit Vui Kong in prison in 2009 – just before his original date of execution – he told her that he was only serving a short sentence, and that he would then be going to study Buddhism. He told her not to worry, but that they would never meet again.

According to Nyuk Yin, that’s still what she believes; that her son has gone to study the Buddhist scriptures. No one has told her the truth, because no one knows how she’ll react. She’s no longer living alone – her eldest and youngest daughter have moved in to be with her – but she still has to be on her own during the day.

On 12 May, NTV7 is broadcasting a documentary on Vui Kong. The first thought everyone has is whether his mother will see it. It’s decided that she probably won’t be watching NTV7 where she is. The sisters heave a sigh of relief.

From Singapore to Sabah: Vesak Day

The following is part 3 of a series written from Sandakan, Yong Vui Kong’s hometown in Sabah, East Malaysia, by Second Chances co-founder Kirsten Han:

The temple’s crowded. So crowded that we have to go to another (smaller) one, situated three floors up in a row of old shophouses. It’s Vesak Day today. Datuk Chua and Vui Kong’s family want to go to a temple to say a prayer for him, as well as take part in the ritual of bathing the Buddha on his behalf. They know it would mean a lot to him.

Vui Kong's aunt Mary and younger sister Vui Fung
Mary with Tawau MP Datuk Chua Soon Bui

Later in the day, Vui Fung takes us to meet Vui Kong’s godfather, who everyone calls Wah Suk. After Vui Kong left the plantation, he’d gone to stay in this man’s house. He moved about – either in Sandakan itself, or in Kota Kinabalu or even Kuala Lumpur –  in search of work, but often went back over a period of 7 or 8 years.

Wah Suk got to know Vui Kong as a small boy. When Vui Kong went with his mother to the market (where she worked at the time), he would play with Wah Suk’s sons. After Vui Kong left the plantation at about the age of 10, he stayed with Wah Suk whenever he was in Sandakan.

“Vui Kong’s a good kid. He was very filial. He said he wanted to earn money so his mother could live more comfortably,” Wah Suk tells us. “He said when he was grown up he would earn money to take care of us.”

After dropping out of primary school, Vui Kong worked various jobs – such as washing cars and working in kitchens – to earn money for himself and his family. He even went as far as Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur for work. “He was always trying to find work. He needed money, but he never stole. He always worked to earn money.”

It was the second time he went to Kuala Lumpur for work when things went wrong. He fell in with the wrong crowd, impressed and seduced by “very good friends” who took him out to restaurants and bought him presents.

“He valued brotherhood and his friends. He said they were very good to him, that’s why he trusted them so much,” Vui Fung says.

“He made the wrong friends and went down the wrong path,” Wah Suk keeps saying, over and over. “He doesn’t have a bad heart. He was very good to me. It makes my heart ache to think that he made this big mistake.”

“When I went to see him in Singapore 2, 3 years ago, he told me that I would have to take care of myself now, because he can’t take care of me anymore.”

Wah Suk looks at us, his brows knitted together. “Do you think Vui Kong has a chance?”

It’s a question we’ve been asked many times since we’ve got here. We never really know what to say, because it’s a question we often ask ourselves. All we can say is that we will keep on hoping, keep on telling his story, and never give up. And they should never give up on Vui Kong, either.

Wah Suk nods. “Vui Kong is a good kid. If there is anything I can do to help him, I’ll be there.”

He continues, “I hope the people of Singapore can help him. I hope they will help plead for a second chance for Vui Kong with the President. I hope the President of Singapore will look at Vui Kong’s circumstances, and at Vui Kong.”

From Singapore to Sabah: The Plantation House

The following is part 2 of a series written from Sandakan, Yong Vui Kong’s hometown in Sabah, East Malaysia, by Second Chances co-founder Kirsten Han:


The 4WD lurches and jolts as Vui Kong’s oldest sister Nyuk Yin drives us down the muddy, pitted country road towards the family plantation home. His youngest sister Vui Fung, his aunt Mary and I stand in a row in the back, holding on tightly and ducking palm leaves.

The house and plantation used to belong to Vui Kong’s grandfather. Vui Kong’s father would go away for long periods of time, driving lorries, leaving his wife and the children behind.

The public had got a brief view of Vui Kong’s childhood home in the Al Jazeera documentary Yong’s Story, but when Shelley and I came to Sandakan we wanted to see the place for ourselves. I wanted to be in that space, to walk around and get a feel for the place.

When we finally pull into the empty square of gravel and sand in front of the house, the first thing that strikes me was how run down everything is. I hadn’t expected it to be fancy or luxurious, of course, and knew that everything would be a little worn – none of the family had lived there for a long time. But one look at the place and one can tell it has never been much more than sparse and functional.

Many of the rooms have been locked up, or converted into storerooms. The room in which Vui Kong had slept with his family (mother and siblings) is now being used to store odds and ends, everything covered in layers upon layers of dust and grime.


We follow Nyuk Yin and Vui Fung round the back of the house and down the muddy path winding between old oil palm trees, dodging trails of purposeful red ants, swatting at the persistent mosquitoes.

They stop by a murky-looking pool. “This is where we bathed as kids, at about 11pm or even midnight,” they say. “Our mother would pull us out of bed and drag us here to bathe. We didn’t think about the snakes or mosquitoes or anything. It was cold, but if we cried or complained we would get scolded and beaten.”

It’s also down this path that the children had to walk every day to get to the main road, where they would wait for the bus to take them to the town where they attended school. It would take them about an hour to get from home to school.

Nyuk Yin takes me upstairs, pointing out little spots connected to Vui Kong and his many accidents: he fell down the stairs here as a toddler, when he just learnt how to walk. He fell through the hole in these railings to the ground below while playing as a kid. He fell off that tree while trying to pick fruit.

We test various doors to see what rooms we can get into. Faded photographs of her grandfather and her father’s family stare down at us from their place on the walls. Suddenly she sits down on the sofa.

“Once my little brothers saw my grandfather beating my mum up,” she says quietly. “Yun Chong and Yun Leong saw it. Vui Kong too. They were just little. Vui Kong was very unhappy to see his mum get beat up. That’s why they all really wanted to get money to get out of here.”

And get out they did: out of all seven Yong siblings, only two finished primary school. Everyone else left school early and ventured out to work. Older siblings like Nyuk Yin came back for the younger ones, taking them away from the plantation as soon as they could.

“We’d just sleep a few nights here, a few nights there, with friends and relatives,” Nyuk Yin says.

It was only after all the children had grown and got jobs that they were able to save up and buy their mother – diagnosed with clinical depression – a small flat to call her own. But Vui Kong has never seen the flat; by the time the siblings had found a suitable place, he had already been arrested.

“It’s kind of funny,” the sisters say. “Vui Kong never really had a home before. Now he has a home. But we can’t get him back.”

From Singapore to Sabah: “They can only accept.”

The following is part 1 of a series written from Sandakan, Yong Vui Kong’s hometown in Sabah, East Malaysia, by Second Chances co-founder Kirsten Han:

How many times have I told Vui Kong’s story? How many times have I written about his broken family, his lack of education, his impoverished childhood?

Too many times to count. But how much do I really know about Vui Kong’s past? How much do I really understand, when I’ve had such a comfortable childhood? So after Vui Kong’s last appeal was dismissed in by the Court of Appeal, I decided to make a trip to his hometown of Sandakan to see things for myself. To try – to the best of my limited ability – to understand where Vui Kong came from.

The Little Hong Kong

Sandakan is the second-largest city in Sabah, East Malaysia, with a population of about 480,000. Due to the large number of Cantonese immigrants who came to Sabah from the Guangdong Province in China via Hong Kong, Sandakan has apparently been nicknamed ‘Little Hong Kong’. But that’s where the comparison stops; there’s very little here that reminds me of bustling Hong Kong with its skyscrapers and harried, hurried residents.

There aren’t any skyscrapers here; there isn’t any need for them. Some of the rows of shophouses could do with fresh coats of paint. The thick, green foliage by the roads remind us that we’re not very far from rural, agricultural areas.

Sabah was once Malaysia’s richest state, but is now the poorest. The once prosperous timber industry has since dwindled, and although there is still quite a lot of palm oil production, jobs can be hard to come by and salaries are low. The young and able-bodied are leaving home for better prospects in bigger cities like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

“Many young people are going out to work. Some of them don’t ever come back,” we’re told. “We call Sandakan an old man’s town.”

Sitting in the empty club house looking out over an empty golf course, it certainly does feel that way. We’re whiling some time away having lunch with Vui Kong’s aunt and her friends before we meet up with Vui Kong’s sisters and start figuring out what the plan is for the next few days. They’re filling us in on the background of Sabah so we can understand the wider picture behind Vui Kong’s life.

Life was hard in rural Sabah when Vui Kong was a child. Parents were always trying to find ways to get money for their families; no one had time to watch the kids. Many children dropped out of school early. “The children lack education, they lack awareness about drugs and crime.”

“Richer families can afford to send their children overseas to Australia, to New Zealand, to study,” one of the younger men at the table tells us. “But the poor families cannot afford these things. They can only accept.”