The funny thing about hope
Note: I am a co-founder and active member of We Believe in Second Chances, a group campaigning for the abolishment of the death penalty in Singapore.
"You know, before that day in court, my mother couldn't sleep," Jumai said as the two of us sat down to dinner on our first night in Kuala Lumpur. "Then after court, when we found out that Jabing wouldn't die on 6 November, she could sleep, she could smile, she could eat. She felt hungry again."
31-year-old Sarawakian Kho Jabing had been scheduled for execution on the morning of 6 November. His own government had indicated its unwillingness to act. It seemed as if we had come to the end of the road, and his sister Jumai and mother Lenduk began to steel themselves to say goodbye.
Then Jabing's (new) lawyer, Chandra Mohan, filed a last-minute criminal motion, and on Thursday morning – less than 24 hours before he was due to hang – the Court of Appeal ordered a stay of execution to allow sufficient time for the case to be prepared and heard. I felt myself let out a breath I hadn't realised I was holding. I don't think I was the only one.
The reprieve is a temporary one. Jabing and his lawyer have to be back in court on 23 November. If the Court of Appeal dismisses the criminal motion on the spot, the stay would be lifted and a new execution to be scheduled. If the Court of Appeal reserves its judgement, Jabing would have more time, perhaps even until the new year.
Some have commented that such a limited respite simply gives the inmate and his family false hope, setting them up for hard, painful fall. Anti-death penalty activists like us are accused of stringing the families on, rather than counselling them to accept the inevitable and deal with the pain.
But hope's a funny thing. It makes a difference, no matter how slim it is. And the families of death row inmates are well-acquainted with this phenomenon. After days, months, years of pain, they know what it's like to despair, to live with loss and anxiety. And they know how to make their own choices.
Jumai Kho has been holding her family together ever since her brother was arrested. "Just before my father died, he told me that I have to take care of my mother, my brother, my grandmother," she said. "I told him not to worry, I would take care of everybody."
She's kept her promise. Her mother, frail and worried about her only son, left her village to move in with Jumai and her family in Miri. On top of her mother, her grandmother and her own small children, Jumai also tends to 13 hectares of family land, growing fruits and oil palm to supplement her family income. Because of her land's proximity to water, the local government hopes to buy the land off her, but Jumai is stalling and unwilling to give it up.
"I told my father I will not rent or sell the land. This is for the family," she said. "I hoped that if Jabing could come home, he would take care of it like I've done. But maybe next time my daughter, or my daughter's son, will have this land."
Between these land worries and her brother's incarceration Jumai has had a tough time, but she doesn't complain. "I am grateful I have this life," she told me. "If I didn't have this life, I wouldn't know where to go. With this life, I know I have to keep going up, not down."
For her, any delay of her brother's execution is good news. She has long known that chances of saving Jabing from the gallows are slim. Yet she rushed to the Supreme Court to swear an affidavit when she was needed, showed up in court to be there for her brother, and made her first trip to the Malaysian capital in the hopes of lobbying for Jabing's life.
"We are willing to do, to try, anything," she had said in one of our earlier meetings, when she and her mother first arrived in Singapore after hearing Jabing's clemency had been rejected.
Throughout these intense two weeks I have not seen Jumai waver in her resolve. Shortly after the stay was issued, she told one of our volunteers that she knew not to hope too much. "But I'm glad we did this," she said. "Even if we fail in the end I will know we tried everything."
That's the funny thing about hope; you don't need a lot of it to keep going, and it's a world away from giving in.