It was a clinical, bureaucratic process. Police officers collected identity cards and passports, taking down our details, down to home addresses and phone numbers. Lenduk and Jumai hovered behind Priscilla – a co-founder of the anti-death penalty group We Believe in Second Chances – as she spoke with the officers stationed outside the Istana, uncertain as to what to do.
As the padded manila envelope containing their letters – handwritten in Malay with printed English translations – was taken away for “security processing” before being taken to the President of Singapore, Jumai finally spoke up.
“She asks you to please help them, and help her brother,” our translator told the security officers.
It was then that Jumai quietly started to cry. Her mother Lenduk silently wiped away tears, rummaging in her handbag for a tissue.
Lenduk anak Baling, 53, and Jumai Kho, 27, had flown out from Sarawak the week before to see their son and brother Jabing, languishing on death row in Changi Prison. Donors had to sponsor their travel; the family could not afford the trip. But they had to see Jabing. It was possibly their last chance of seeing him alive.
Jabing, now 31, was first sentenced to death in 2010 under the mandatory death penalty after a 2008 robbery and assault of construction Cao Ruyin resulted in Cao’s death. His accomplice, Galing anak Kujat, was convicted of robbery with hurt after the Attorney-General’s Chambers reduced his charges. Gaming was sentenced to 18-and-a-half years in jail, with 19 strokes of the cane.
Back home in Sarawak, his family and friends were stunned to hear the news. Jabing’s involvement in a violent crime did not at all reflect the personality of the young man they knew.
“We found it very hard to accept,” Jumai said in Malay. “Jabing had never been violent.”
“He usually was the one who stopped fights,” her mother added. “Even his old schoolteacher was shocked.”
It was a harsh turn of events for the family. Although Jabing’s schooling had ended after Primary 6, his family still thought of him as their hope for a better life. There were few jobs in the village, and it was common for sons to venture further afield in search of brighter prospects. As the only son, this responsibility fell to Jabing.
“He’d worked as an electrical technician for two years at home, but the pay was really low,” Jumai said. “So he decided to come to Singapore, for the money and also for the experience.”
Amendments to the mandatory death penalty appeared to bring a reprieve for Jabing when it allowed his death sentence to be set aside in favour of life imprisonment with 24 strokes of the cane. But this relief was short-lived; the prosecution appealed, and the Court of Appeal bench sentenced him, once again, to death. The decision had not been unanimous: three judges decided that the death penalty was appropriate, two disagreed.
This back-and-forth has taken its toll on the family. Having already lost her husband, Lenduk found herself grappling with the emotional turmoil of watching her son’s life wavering on the brink of legalese and court judgements.
“We were very dissatisfied and disappointed to see Jabing’s death sentence get removed and replaced,” his sister said. “It seemed very random, as if the law didn’t take his life seriously at all. Any family would be upset.”
Jabing’s appeal had already been dismissed; a presidential pardon was his only hope. That was how Jumai and Lenduk found themselves standing outside the Istana one hot Wednesday afternoon, lost and distressed, waiting as people around them navigated a tedious bureaucratic process in a language they couldn’t understand. Although Jabing’s lawyers had already submitted his official clemency plea, his family had wanted to write their own letters to the President.
They left Singapore the next day, with no guarantees or assurances. It’d been a long, long time since anyone had received a pardon: almost two decades. Without her son, Lenduk returned to a life on a widow’s pension of 150 ringgit (out of which an inhaler for her asthma took 60 ringgit).
“When we went to see him, he said he was sorry for leaving us in the lurch. He didn’t intend to kill anyone,” Jumai said. “If he could just be allowed to live, it would be so much easier on my mother. She has been through so much already.”