The Women Fighting The Death Penalty In Singapore

The recorders were laid out on the table, bright flashes from the photographers’ cameras bouncing off the white walls of the assembly hall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. On one side of the room, a small video camera was recording everything; as soon as the press conference was over, excerpts would be popped up on a news website.

Jumai Kho patted her mother on the back, comforting the older woman as she sobbed. Then she looked down at the notes she had carefully prepared the night before, leaned into the microphone, and began to plead for her brother to be saved from death row.

In 2014, according to Amnesty International, 22 countries recorded death penalty executions. One of these was the U.S.; another was the wealthy Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore, where the government and many members of the public fiercely defend capital punishment. Individuals are sentenced to death not just for murder, but also for drug and arms trafficking. It’s seen as the cornerstone upon which Singapore’s relative safety and security is built, and many hold a firm belief in the punishment’s supposed deterrent effect.

Yet the death penalty is fraught with problems. The law provides for a mandatory death sentence for some classes of murder, firearms trafficking, and drug trafficking, removing the discretion of judges and ruling out the possibility of considering mitigating circumstances. The presumption clauses present in the Misuse of Drugs Act also assume that one is guilty of trafficking, if one is carrying more than a stipulated amount of drug, unless proven otherwise. There’s no “innocent until proven guilty” in this area of Singaporean law.

Information about death row and its inmates aren’t readily available, but in the five years in which I’ve been involved in the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment as part of the group We Believe in Second Chances, I’ve observed many prisoners from underprivileged groups, especially ethnic minorities or low-income families.

I’ve also observed that the majority of those on death row are men. Some are hardened criminals, others drug mules or perpetrators of stupid, impulsive crimes like violent robberies that end in the death of the victim. They are husbands, fathers, brothers, sons — leaving women on the other side of Singapore Changi Prison’s walls to deal with the fallout.

Behind every death row inmate is a family that has committed no crime, and yet are put through punishing trials. Very often, like in so many other situations in life, women are called upon to perform this emotional labor — labor so devalued that we rarely recognize the extraordinariness of the demand we are making upon them. I’ve seen women endure humiliation, financial woes, trauma, and huge amounts of stress to do the best they can for their families. These stories are an inextricable part of the death penalty regime.

One Family’s Story

Jumai had always been close to her older brother, 31-year-old Jabing. Both were impatient babies born before their mother even made it to the hospital; he in a taxi and she in a sampan (a small wooden boat) while her mother was being rowed down the Baram River. The siblings, of both Chinese and Iban descent, spent their childhood living in a rural longhouse in the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak, neighboring Singapore.

Jumai left school in fourth grade; her brother had graduated and she didn’t want to go to school without him. Her father did his best to homeschool her, but that marked the end of Jumai’s formal education.

She was married at 16 and has two children — her son is now 11, while her daughter is 4. In 2007, her brother moved from Malaysia to the more prosperous neighboring city-state of Singapore in search of work that would allow him to better support his parents.

“I was proud of him, because Jabing got to travel. I thought that perhaps this would be a better path for my brother,” she told me through a Malay translator. “He called home very often; he would call my mother first thing in the morning, and before he went to sleep at night.”

Confident of her brother’s ability to care for their parents, Jumai settled happily into her family life. Her dream of being a chef was short-lived when a stall she and her husband opened ran into trouble and had to close down, but she was content to work on her family’s land planting fruits and vegetables for sale while caring for her children, she said.

One day in 2008, Jumai received a call from a police officer in Singapore. “He told us that Jabing was now in prison because of a robbery and murder case,” she recalled. “He said that if we wanted to know more we should go to Singapore, because his job was just to relay the message.”

Jabing and some friends had hatched a plan to commit a robbery, Jumai later learned. But when the original scheme was botched, he and another Sarawakian attacked two Chinese construction workers. They stole a mobile phone, which was sold for S$300 (U.S. $210) and split between friends.

The exact sequence of events was never established, but we know this: During the course of this impulsive robbery, Jabing picked up a piece of wood and hit one of the men over the head more than once. The man died of his injuries six days later, which led to murder charges for Jabing and his companion.

Jabing was first convicted of murder and sentenced to hang, but was later re-sentenced to life imprisonment with caning, following amendments to the mandatory death penalty regime. These amendments allow judges to choose between either the death sentence or life imprisonment (with caning, a brutal form of judicial corporal punishment) in all cases of murder except when the court finds that the defendant “had intended to cause death through the act by which death was caused.”

Dissatisfied with the High Court’s choice to re-sentence Jabing, the prosecution filed an appeal. He was then sent back to death row by a 3–2 split decision by the Court of Appeal.

The case shook up Jumai’s peaceful routines. Her father died not long after Jabing’s arrest, beaten down by health problems that she is convinced were caused by anxiety about his son. Left without a breadwinner to care for her, Jumai’s frail mother Lenduk anak Baling left her village home and moved in with her daughter’s family in the city.

“Before he died my father said, ‘Jumai, you have to take care of everybody,’” she said. “I said I would.” She’s been trying to keep her promise ever since.

Fighting The System For Justice

On the morning of October 26, 2015, I met Jumai and Lenduk at the airport arrivals hall in Singapore and bundled them into a taxi. Jumai handed me the letter from the President of Singapore, received the previous week, that had sent her hurtling back to Singapore:

I am directed to refer to the petition for clemency for Kho Jabing and to inform you that the President, after due consideration of the petition and on the advice of the Cabinet, has decided that the sentence of death should stand.
Yours faithfully,
— — — — — -
Principal Private Secretary
To the President

This refusal of a pardon came as no surprise — no clemency had been granted to any death row inmate for almost two decades. It was the final stage before execution, and set off a frenzied attempt to find last-minute ways to halt, or at least delay, Jabing’s trip to the gallows. At the heart of this whirlwind was Jumai, transformed by necessity into a campaigner.

Campaigning against a death sentence is not easy. It is physically and mentally draining for all involved, and tends to place the family of the inmate squarely in the public eye. Most of the cases I’ve seen as an anti-death penalty activist have had women in the family initiating and then spearheading this work, taking on the load on top of their existing responsibilities. There was a teenage little sister, forced to overcome painful shyness to canvass for petition signatures in the street. There was an older sister who risked financial ruin, taking out a huge loan so her brother could hire a good lawyer. Another sister once called up We Believe in Second Chances worried for her condemned brother’s teenage son. For each of these women — and the many more who are undoubtedly out there — the death penalty was not just a punishment for their loved ones, but a harrowing experience for them, too.

It’s easy to see why some families choose not to go down this path, and their decisions should always be respected. But Jumai chose to fight.

She reached out to members of the Malaysian parliament in her home state. She met with lawyers in the hopes that her brother could still be saved in the courts. She gave interviews to journalists, interviews which required reliving the pain of her family over and over again. She cared for her anxious and chronically asthmatic mother. She visited Jabing every day, giving him updates of activists’ efforts, and kept relatives back in Sarawak informed. She shopped for the clothes her brother would be allowed to wear before his hanging. She kept calm when the Court of Appeal ordered a halt to Jabing’s execution, less than 24 hours before he had been due to hang. On that day, the Malaysian High Commission in Singapore — who were, ironically, meant to provide support to the family — called to ask the family what they wanted to do with the prepared casket, since there would be no execution. An exasperated Jumai had to deal with them, too.

A day before the press conference in Kuala Lumpur — Jumai’s very first time in her own country’s capital — she asked to go see the Petronas Twin Towers, an iconic Malaysian landmark. “My children want me to send photos,” she said. She had been away from them for almost a month.

“It’s very difficult for me to leave my children behind. I know what time my daughter goes to sleep, what time she eats; it’s hard not to get worried because I’m so used to that routine,” she said. “It’s as if my family in [Sarawak] is on one side and Jabing is on the other side.”

Despite this, it has never crossed Jumai’s mind to give up, she told me. “My family has been very supportive, but I have to leave them back in Miri to help Jabing because I’m the only one who can do it. It’s better that I try everything I can now. Even if the judgement is not in my favor, at least I can say I tried. There is no use living in regret.”

After receiving an eleventh-hour reprieve, Jabing’s case was heard by the Court of Appeal — Singapore’s highest court — in late November 2015. At the time of writing, we are still waiting for the court’s decision on whether Jabing’s sentence can be revisited and perhaps even revised.


Lead image: Jumai Kho and her mother Lenduk anak Baling present the family’s plea for clemency on behalf of Kho Jabing to the President of the Republic of Singapore.

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