For the past week, this little red dot has been abuzz with news about Jabing Kho. A 31 year old Sarawakian, sentenced to death after causing the death of Chinese national Cao Ruyin while robbing him.
On the 17th of February, 2008, 8.19pm at the open space near Geylang Drive; Kho was armed with a tree branch, together with Galing Kujat with a metal belt buckle, another same-aged Sarawakian, robbed Chinese nationals Cao Ruyin and Wu Jun.
Cao was hit by Kho on the head at least three times, suffering 14 fractures on the skull – he died 6 days later. Wu fled from the scene and called the police, suffering minor injuries.
Kho and Galing took a phone from the victim, worth $300, which was split among the 2 and 3 other friends, each pocketing $50. The remaining $50 was spent on food and drinks.
The (many) Sentence(s)
Kho and Galing was convicted of murder under under section 300(c)of the Penal Code (Cap 224, 2008 Rev Ed), and sentenced to the mandatory death sentence.
In 2011, Kho and Galing appealed. Galing was successful. He was now convicted of robbery with hurt, sentenced to 18.5 years jail with 19 strokes of the cane. Kho’s appeal failed.
However, on the first day of January, 2013, the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill 2012 came into force. In particular, it made the death penalty non-mandatory in certain cases of murder, allowing judges the discretion to mete out life imprisonment with caning.
Punishment for murder
Whoever commits murder within the meaning of section 300(b), (c) or (d) shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life and shall, if he is not punished with death, also be liable to caning.
Therefore, Kho was eligible for resentencing. Kho appealed and was successful. He is sentenced to life imprisonment with 24 strokes of the cane.
The prosecution appealed on the basis that Kho’s attack on the victim was “extremely vicious”. In 2015, the appeal was allowed. Kho was once again sentenced to death. On 19th October, 2015, Kho’s application for clemency was rejected. Just 2 days before Kho was to be hanged in November 2015, he applied and was given a stay of execution.
In 2016, Kho applied to the Court of Appeal to review its earlier decision. It was dismissed. Clemency was applied again but the President made it clear that his decision to reject the clemency in October 2015 still stands. A stay of execution was applied yet again.
In the morning of the 20th of May, 2016, a five-judge Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal. Regarding the multiple times Kho and the many lawyers that have helped represent him, the judges slammed them for an abuse of the court process – repeatedly attempting to delay the execution despite not having any new arguments.
At 3.30pm, 20th May, 2016, Kho was hanged in the Changi Prison Complex.
Why Death for Kho?
The sheer brutality of Kho’s actions can be seen in the injuries done to Cao. Kho hit Cao at least 3 times in the head (this was described in the court as Kho ‘raining’ blows on Cao), causing 14 skull fractures. It was alleged that Kho continued his blows despite Cao being immobilised on the floor. Galing also described Cao’s head as ‘cracked open’. Kho, therefore, demonstrated far more brutality than was needed to achieve his original intention of robbing Cao.
After the Penal Code was amended to allow judges the discretion to mete out life imprisonment instead of death in certain cases of murder, Kho was the first to be tried and sentenced under the amended Penal Code. Kho’s case will therefore set a precedent for future murder cases to be benchmarked against. A sentence too lenient (life imprisonment) would mean that a case proven to be as brutal will not merit the death penalty. Therefore, the death penalty in this case will at least discourage potential murderers from committing a crime that is at least as brutal as Kho’s.
Not every murder is equal. Anders Breivik, a Norwegian terrorist who opened fire and killed 77 and injured over 300, including innocent teenagers will be seen as more heinous and evil than Kho. Breivik was sentenced to life imprisonment (capped at 21 years, renewable for 5 years at a time afterwards). Norway is a country that prides itself on human rights. As a society, Norway has abolished the death penalty since 1979 and its judiciary system is aimed at the rehabilitation of all criminals. In fact, there is no life imprisonment at all – the maximum sentence is 30 years. This is the Norwegian sociey’s decision. Maybe the average Norwegian thinks that 21 or 30 years in jail is appropriate for Breivik. Ask the average Singaporean, and you will get a completely different response.
What about us? Every society needs to decide for itself if the particular crime is ‘serious’ enough to warrant a particular punishment. In Singapore, we have adopted a system where potential criminals must understand that if they commit crimes, their punishment will be no less than the damage they will have caused. In fact, a survey conducted by The Straits Times suggest 95% of Singaporeans support the death penalty.
The Arguments Against Kho’s Death Sentence
Kho was likely in a drunken state and therefore he was not in full control of his actions. This argument cannot stand as Kho was able to recount the event in detail, suggesting that he was clear-headed at that time. It must also be made clear that self-induced intoxication cannot be a mitigating factor. If it were to be a mitigating factor, all potential murderers should drink before committing crimes in hope of a lesser sentence?
Kho was relatively young at that time and was sincerely remorseful, and there was even a ‘dent’ in his forehead after praying too many times in asking for forgiveness. Young age and remorse are mitigating factors.
As a whole, activists against the death penalty are of the opinion that the death penalty should be abolished because of the following reasons:
1. The death penalty is irreversible, and if executed on an innocent person, the mistake is permanent.
2. A civilised society cannot continue espousing the death penalty.
3. The death penalty is not proven to be a strong deterrent against crimes.
Countering reason #1, as of July 2014, all cases given the death penalty must be put through a series of checks and confirmations, minimising the incidences of the innocence being wrongly executed. The trial judge must submit the notes of evidence and a report to the Court of Appeal, which will confirm or dismiss the death sentence. This decision is then forwarded to the Minister. Lastly, this is forwarded to the President, who will then issue an order for the sentence to be carried out, or for the convict to be pardoned.
Countering reason #2, the benchmark of a civilised society does not depend on whether specific laws are in place.
Countering reason #3, it is indeed true that the death penalty is not proven to be a strong deterrent against crimes. But it is true that it at least deters some crimes. On that basis, it means that there are potential victims being saved because of the presence of the death penalty. To me, while all lives are equal, the lives of victims are more equal than the lives of murderers. I extend this to bolster the argument against reason #2. For a society to be civilised, which is defined as a society where social, cultural and moral developments are advanced, certain conditions must be in place first. These conditions include, first and foremost, security – where people are able to live life without fear of being killed on the streets, living life the way life should be lived. Kho committed the robbery at an open public space, where members of the public walk freely every single day. He and Galing deliberately sought out easy targets – people walking alone or with only one other companion. The victim could have been anyone.
Our homicide rates are low, about 0.3 per 100,000 people. As a society, we intend to keep it that way and make it even lower. Any potential move that will bring us away from that direction is a big no-no.
Kho’s death is a tragedy, as with any other loss of lives, human or otherwise. Cao’s death is an even bigger tragedy caused by Kho’s act. The death penalty that was meted out was right on the account that it sent a strong signal to any potential criminals that they cannot expect the law to hand down a sentence that is less severe than their crimes. At the same time, the sentence reassured Singaporeans that we remain a society that adopts a zero-tolerance stance for any crime – the court process cannot be abused.
Lastly, I must say I am disgusted by Kirsten Han’s attempt to downplay Kho’s actions and glorify him. To say that “Jabing died in all our names, the least we could do is see these photos and know his face”, is utter disrespect for the victim, Cao, and Cao’s family. I agree that both Kho and Cao’s family are utterly hurt by what happened. But regardless of Kho’s intentions, Cao and his family suffered a huge wrong they had done nothing to deserve. The only mistake he did that night was in deciding to take that particular path near the open space at Geylang Drive. It could have been anyone. But it was Cao. Worst still, Kirsten Han suggests that Kho’s death is something that Singaporeans disagree with. Most Singaporeans certainly do not think this way, not when it could have been any of us.