By Kirsten Han
The road stretched ahead of us, curving gently along the private grounds of the Istana. It was hot and muggy, and the sky clouded over with an ominous grey as we walked from the main gate of the president’s official residence to the side gate along Cavenaugh Road. One large, heavy raindrop fell. Then a drizzle. Then it started to pour, and we were only halfway there.
Families of death row inmates are allowed to write and submit their own petition letters for clemency for their loved ones. Over the past five years my colleagues in the anti-death penalty campaign and I have accompanied families to the gates of the Istana – which houses the offices of both the president and the Cabinet – to personally submit these written pleas.
Muhammad Ridzuan bin Mohd Ali was arrested with his friend Abdul Haleem bin Abdul Karim in May 2010. The two men had agreed to buy one ‘ball’ of heroin from a supplier, intending to then repack the drugs and sell them. The supplier’s courier gave them a total of seven ‘balls’ instead, saying that others would later contact them to pick up the extra bundles of drugs. But both men were caught with all the drugs in their possession. They were charged twice: one non-capital charge for the ‘ball’ of heroin that they had bought, and one capital charge – as the amount of drugs was over the limit stipulated in the law – for the seven extra ‘balls’.
The two were convicted of both crimes. But Ridzuan’s family were in for a shock: Abdul Haleem was granted a Certificate of Cooperation by the prosecution, enabling the judge to re-sentence him to life imprisonment with 15 strokes of the cane, while Ridzuan was denied a Certificate and was sentenced to death.
It is this that weighs most heavily on his family’s minds. “Ridzuan told the [Central Narcotics Bureau] who gave him the drugs. He gave them a description, with full name and identification,” said his sister Noraisah. “I feel that this information is quite strong, and I don’t know why they said that they are still not happy with it.”
The Certificate of Cooperation is a relative new feature to Singapore’s death penalty regime. After amendments to the mandatory death penalty came into force in 2013, those convicted of drug trafficking are given the chance to escape the noose if they are found to be mere drug couriers, and are issued a Certificate of Cooperation indicating that they have “substantively cooperated” with investigators.
The pragmatic logic behind this system is to incentivise people to contribute to investigation efforts, and to reward those who help law enforcement reach the bigger fish. To put it bluntly, whether an individual lives or dies can come down to his or her usefulness to the authorities.
When talking about their loved one, Ridzuan’s family keep coming back to the lack of clarity when it comes to defining “cooperation”. In their eyes, Ridzuan provided the police with all the information he had – so why was that not enough to save his life?
“No one knows what sort of cooperation is ‘good enough’, and for this my brother is sentenced to death,” Noraisah said.
The two siblings were close as children, but didn’t grow up in the best of circumstances. Primary school reports show that he wasn’t the best of pupils academically, although his teacher described him as “an intelligent boy who loves games.” But schooling was interrupted once their mother remarried, and the two children went to Malaysia to live with their father.
“When [our father] was at work, we would be at home alone with nothing to do,” Noraisah recalled. Ridzuan was then 10 years old. The siblings eventually returned to Singapore and continued their education, shuttling between relatives’ homes. They often stayed with their grandparents, and also their aunt.
“From a young age I loved him very much,” said his aunt Rosenah, the twin sister of his mother. “He was together with all my sons. We were all very close… I didn’t give birth to him, but I feel like I have.”
Upon their mother’s second divorce, the family moved into a small rented room. That, Noraisah said, was when she and her brother started drifting apart. He often didn’t return to that small, cramped room, preferring to spend his time with friends instead. He was later caught with drugs, and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Ridzuan tried to make the most of a bad situation, studying for and passing both his N and O Level exams while behind bars. His family say that he emerged from prison a more reserved, mature young man.
He worked a variety of jobs, from construction to security. His cousin, Mohd Fairus, said that Ridzuan had been acutely aware of his family’s financial difficulties, and was willing to do whatever it took to help out. “As long as there is money, he is willing to do the work.”
But Ridzuan once again fell in with the wrong crowd, getting involved with drugs once more. For that, his family feels some guilt.
“I had my own personal matters that took my attention. Our family has its own problems, but if more people had been there for Ridzuan after he left prison maybe he might not have gone down this path again,” said Mohd Fairus. “We never encouraged him to do this. But he was already mixed up in it so it was very difficult to pull him out.”
The rain was pouring down. There were no bus stops and little shelter. Ridzuan’s mother, Roseni, stood with me under a big, leafy hedge. Her sister Rosenah was still struggling up the road, her tudung getting soaked through. Up ahead, Noraisah was determined to get to the gate where the letter pleading for clemency for her brother could be submitted.
There were no free taxis, nor were there any buses to catch. We were too close to the side gate – where the mail centre is located – to turn back, but would be soaked if we pressed on. In the end, we decided that Roseni and Rosenah would wait under the relative shelter of the plants, while Noraisah and I walked, dripping and blinking water out of our eyes, to the gate.
It didn’t take too long to submit the letter. Noraisah was registered with security and allowed to proceed to the mail centre to get the envelopes processed, ready to be handed over to the President’s personal assistant the next day. She came back out to the guardhouse as I stood under a fan, drying off.
It seemed too mundane and matter-of-fact an experience – there was no outward indication that the stakes were about as high as they would go. But for the family, it was an important task completed, a chance for hope.
“We just ask for life [imprisonment],” Mohd Fairus had told me when I met him in Ridzuan’s family home. “If they’re worried he will commit a crime again, let him have a life sentence. If he hangs it will destroy our family, especially his mother. It’s not easy to accept that your only son will be hanged.”