“When we say mandatory death sentence it means basically judges don’t have discretion. Just close your eyes… and execute. Don’t have to look at the person’s background and all that.” M. Ravi, Yong Vui Kong’s lawyer.

Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian man, was arrested in Singapore in 2007, aged 19, for possessing 47g of heroin. Yong had dropped out of school early and had turned to petty crime as a way of earning money. At that time, under Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act, anyone found guilty of possessing more than 15g of heroin is presumed to be guilty of drug trafficking, for which the death penalty is mandatory. As Yong was not able to counter this presumption, the High Court convicted him in 2008 and he was sentenced to death. The court had no discretion to consider mitigating circumstances or pass a lesser sentence. 

Lawyers filed an appeal against his conviction but Yong withdrew it in April 2009, saying that he had embraced Buddhism and wanted to acknowledge his crime. Yong petitioned Singapore’s president for clemency on the basis of his youth but this was rejected in November 2009. 

Yong’s lawyer, M. Ravi, appealed against Yong’s sentence by challenging the constitutionality of the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking and seeking judicial review of the clemency process. But in May 2010, the Court of Appeal rejected the appeal. This was the third time it had rejected such a challenge since 1980. The Court ruled that the right to life in the Singapore Constitution did not imply a ban on inhuman punishment. It rejected the argument that customary international law prohibits mandatory death sentences as an inhuman punishment or a violation of the right to life. 

The application for judicial review of the clemency process had argued that the power to grant pardon had been prejudiced by public comments about the case made by the Law Minister, thereby undermining accepted principles of procedural fairness. This was dismissed by the High Court in August 2010. The Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal against the High Court’s decision in April 2011, clearing the way for Yong’s execution. The President can only exercise clemency following advice from the Cabinet and thus has little discretion in granting pardons. Clemency for a death sentence in Singapore has reportedly been granted only six times since independence in 1965. 


On 14 November 2013, Yong became the first person on Singapore’s death row to have their sentence reduced to life imprisonment and caning under the 2012 amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act

ADPAN: When Justice Fails – Thousands executed in Asia after unfair trials, (2011), p19-20 (

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