The Death Penalty for Poverty

Honor Fitzgerald examines how Malaysian citizen Yong Vui Kong was given a second chance on death row, and what the case could mean for justice, sentencing, and poverty

In 2007, Malaysian citizen Yong Vui Kong, at the age of nineteen was arrested for trafficking 47.27g of Heroin. As a naive and vulnerable fourteen year old he had fallen into the arms of a gang who promised relief from his poverty. Their leader showered him with luxury he had never known before. His single mother’s income of RM $200 a month (equivalent to £36) was not sufficient to provide for Vui Kong and his 5 other siblings.  In return he would deliver ‘gifts’ (drugs) to clients, unaware of their contents and equally unaware, like so many other youths that being a drug mule was punishable by death. By the age of 18, he was a drug runner transporting huge amounts between Singapore and Malaysia when he was caught and sentenced to death.

The Death Penalty Project – a charity, which works to put an end to the death penalty, managed to change the drug legislation in Singapore to match those of other countries. After the case was brought to the International Court of Justice. Yong Vui Kong’s proposed execution was a violation of his human rights and consequently his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment after four years on death row.

This case has set a precedent for greater attention to international human rights in Singapore, since the case of Vui Kong and the change to legislation, five other drug mules have been re-sentenced. It also highlights the need for social reform and the ineffectiveness of merely punishing crimes induced by poverty. Notably, Singapore does not have a poverty line, and so little attention has been brought to the plight of its poorest citizens. It is also the second most un-equal economy in the developed world, behind Hong Kong.

While the country has gained in wealth – with more than 17% of the city-state’s resident households having at least $1 million USD, the poor are forgotten and their plight is not measured. This ignoring of the poor seems shocking, yet are we beginning to develop a similarly casual attitude to the most vulnerable members of society, in Britain?


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