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.”