“I never really thought about it.”
That was the answer I gave my French teacher back in 2005 when he asked me if I supported the death penalty. I remember this exchange well, and have thought of it often this past year, sometimes with amusement and other times with shame.
I remember that he had been horrified. “How could you not think about something like this?”
I shrugged. I just hadn’t. I was 16, I’d just finished my O Levels and life was pretty good. I was making new friends in the first three months of junior college. I was going out shopping, watching movies, doing things teenagers do. I didn’t have the time to think about such serious, dreary, faraway things. I figured that I didn’t need to. I wasn’t planning to murder anyone, or traffic drugs, so it wasn’t ever going to affect my life.
In the 5 years since that exchange with my teacher, almost all my convictions have been put to the test. I kept finding myself in situations I had previously assumed with complete confidence I would never find myself in.
Between 2005 and 2010 life taught me this lesson: whatever has happened to someone else could just as easily happen to you. Don’t be too quick to dismiss or judge a person, because one day that person could be you.
On the 15th of March this year I was introduced to the siblings of Yong Vui Kong, and saw Vui Kong himself at his appeal. Although we come from completely different backgrounds and experiences, when I saw him the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Oh my God, he’s my age. A little twist of fate, and that could be me sitting in the dock.”
Vui Kong’s story changed it all for me. Seeing him that day, the impact and implications of the death penalty finally became real to me. And once I saw that it was a real thing affecting the lives of real people, I could not help but feel that the death penalty was wrong.
I started to read every news article I could find about Vui Kong’s case. I read up on past cases. I read up about the use of the mandatory death penalty in Singapore. I read the Misuse of Drugs Act. I read books about the death penalty in Singapore, as well as in other countries. I read Amnesty International reports. I read No Choirboy: Murder, Violence and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kuklin, a collection of stories of youth sentenced to death in America, told in their own voices. I wanted to understand as much as I could about every aspect of the death penalty: ethical, logical, legal, practical, etc.
In this way I learned more about compassion, forgiveness, mercy and humanity than I would have ever been able to learn in a classroom.
Together with Damien Chng, I set up We Believe In Second Chances because I sincerely feel that people can change, if only they were given the chance. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone deserves a chance to show that they are more than their worst acts.
As a young Singaporean, We Believe In Second Chances is a way for me to let my voice be heard. It is an opportunity for me to show my country that even though I am young, I am concerned about what is going on in society. And most importantly, it gives me a chance to try to save a life.
I really hope that you will join me.
Second Chances In The Park
Date: 19 December 2010
Venue: Speaker's Corner, Hong Lim Park
Time: 4pm – 6pm