The death penalty in Singapore: Working with families
NOTE: I am a founding member of the anti-death penalty group We Believe in Second Chances. The following is an adaptation of a speech that I gave at the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign's workshop on advocating for the abolishment of capital punishment.
As a blogger and a journalist, my involvement in the campaign to abolish the death penalty in Singapore began with telling stories. In lieu of interviewing the death row inmates themselves – I have never had access to them in prison – I would work with their families to tell their stories, to humanise them and make sure that they would be more than a statistic or a small headline in the newspaper.
In 2012, a fellow volunteer and I travelled to Sandakan in Sabah to visit the hometown of Yong Vui Kong, then a young East Malaysian on death row in Singapore. On that trip, we were able to understand more about the lack of opportunities for young people in one of Malaysia's poorest states and about the cycle of violence and abuse that Vui Kong's family had to deal with. It gave us the opportunity to bring Vui Kong's story to Singaporeans who would otherwise have known little about him, but more importantly, it helped us understand the complex connections between crime, poverty, privilege and justice.
As I got more and more involved in the anti-death penalty campaign, I began to work with families in other capacities too; not just telling their stories, but also taking on more direct campaign work. The most comprehensive experience I've had on this front was with our most recent high-profile case, Kho Jabing.
As usual, I never actually got to meet Kho Jabing – the most we had were waves and nods of acknowledgement in the courtroom. So I worked closely with his sister Jumai and mother Lenduk instead. It was a very difficult experience for everyone involved, and ultimately ended in a lot of pain and heartbreak. But there was also a lot that we taught and learnt from one another.
Based on my experience, the most important thing one should keep in mind when working with families of death row inmates is that it is their campaign. Nothing happens without their consent.
This can be frustrating, of course, particularly when we have our own ideas about what would be the most impactful or most useful for a public campaign. But we need to remember that the family members are the ones who are living this nightmare. No matter how committed we might be to the cause, we will always be one step removed. But this is the family's reality; whether we succeed or not, they're going to be living with this forever.
Many of the inmates and their families that we've encountered have come from under-privileged, under-served communities. They can come from rural or semi-rural backgrounds, from broken and/or low-income families, with limited formal education. Many of them aren't fluent in English, and often find themselves lost in the legalese of court proceedings.
It's too easy to start thinking of these families as helpless and in need of someone to direct them. It's too easy to start feeling pity, rather than solidarity. It's too easy to mistake our privilege for superiority.
It's too easy, but it's also dangerous. Such a mindset colours the way we interact with these families and the way that we approach the campaign. (On a more strategic and political level, it also opens us up far more to accusations of manipulation of inmates' families.)
Death sentences disempower both the inmates and their families. It's incredibly disempowering to be confronted with this most harsh, most final punishment, to know that the legal process is stacked against you and that there is little chance to wrest a second chance out of a justice system so blinkered in its desire for retribution and some hypothetical deterrence.
The last thing these families need is to be further disempowered by condescension from the people they're working with. Instead, what we as campaigners need to do is empower them, to lift them up, to offer them options and create opportunities for them to say what they want to say, or do what they want to do.
This lesson was really brought home to me in my time with Jumai Kho, who has been nothing short of amazing and inspiring.
The first time we met, she barely spoke English, and had little idea of what to do to help her brother. She needed all the help she could get to figure out what was going on, and what to do next.
But the more we worked together, the more Jumai found her feet. She knew, better than anyone in the campaign, what her family wanted and needed. She knew, from her daily visits to Changi Prison, what Jabing's wishes were. She had been caring for her family and fighting for her brother since the day they received a phone call saying he had been arrested – long before any of us had heard about the case.
She didn't need coaching. She didn't need training. She didn't need people to make decisions on her behalf. She just needed to know the options before her, so she could choose the best course. She just needed the platform and the space, so she could tell the public what her family was going through.
So we had press conferences. We travelled from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and went all the way to the Malaysian Parliament. Before the flashing cameras and assembled journalists, before the parliamentarians at their roundtable, Jumai would speak for her brother and for her family. And her testimony was able to stir people and rally support in ways that none of us activists really could. We had the intellectual arguments, but Jumai had the heart.
This empowerment has other effects too, effects that go far beyond the campaign. It helps sustain hope, and gives everyone in the campaign strength to continue, even in the most gruelling of conditions. And if things don't end well – as was the case with Jabing – families at least know that they have tried everything they could. That might be cold comfort, but it's at least something to hold on to.
Every time I meet the family of a death row inmate, I learn something about love and strength and hope. And all I've had to do was be there and listen.