Fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

Fifteen Grams

by Chang Ya Lan

Over a home-cooked meal, she said to him, "My client lost his appeal against his death sentence today."

He looked up from his food and said, "Which one? The drug trafficker?"

"Yes. Kelvin."

"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that. What happened?"

"Well, you know that we've been trying to challenge the constitutionality of the Misuse of Drugs Act, right?"

"Constitutionality ... that's a big word."

"Ha ha, very funny. Anyway, we've been trying to get the Court of Appeal to agree with us that the provisions that impose the mandatory death penalty on anyone who brings more than 15 grams of heroin into Singapore violate the right to equality."

"We have such a right?"

"Yes. Article 12 of the Constitution. But I know you're just being a troll."

"Heh, sorry, I couldn't help it. So what happened?"

"The Court of Appeal rendered its decision today and we lost. Unsurprisingly."

"Sorry to hear that. Are you all right?"

"I guess so. Of course, I feel bad for Kelvin. I mean, he's what, 21? Twenty-one and sentenced to death. That's really tragic. But I'm also quite outraged by the Court of Appeal's reasoning."

"Do I even want to know? Will I understand it?"

"I don't even understand it. OK, I do, but I disagree with it so much that it makes me angry."


"Because the only basis for the Court's decision is that the law satisfies this rigid legal test. The "reasonable classification test." It's so … insubstantial. Our argument was that the 15-gram threshold violates the right to equal protection because it's illogical. And it's illogical because someone who traffics 15.01 grams of heroin will face the mandatory death penalty whereas someone else who traffics 14.99 grams of heroin will not. Isn't that plainly absurd?"

"I guess so."

"Yes, it is. Anyway, so that was the crux of our argument. But guess what? The Court of Appeal rejected it and said that the 15 grams differentia is constitutional because it satisfies the "reasonable classification test." It basically means that the classification is not arbitrary, and it furthers the purpose of the Misuse of Drugs Act, which is to stamp out the illicit drug trade. That's the whole reason it's constitutional. Isn't that outrageous?"

"I … don't know. You're speaking too much legalese for me to follow."

She scoffed. "Imagine how I felt when trying to explain to Kelvin what the Court decided."


My lawyer came last week and told me that the court rejected my appeal. I asked her why, and she said a lot of things about the law and a test under the law, and I asked her if she meant that I had to take a test? Did the court want me to take a test? Then she looked confused and said no, I didn't have to take any test, the court applied a test for cases like mine, and my case didn't pass the test.

I was never that good at passing tests when I was in school, but I was better than my brother. That's why I had a job, and he didn't, and because he didn't have a job, he had to borrow money from dangerous people when he lost money at the casino. Then he ended up owing so much money that he came to me for help. I had some money from the jobs that I did here and there, fixing computers for people, but it was still not enough. He owed about $30,000, and I only had $10,000 in savings. He is my twin brother, so I had to help him, so I asked a friend if he knew where I could get $20,000, and he told me that he knew someone who was looking for someone to do a big job to make big money. 

I asked my lawyer if I can tell the court that I didn't mean to do this crime, that I did it to help my brother, and she said well, you can tell the court, but it won't help because the sentence is mandatory. I asked what did that mean? She said it's compulsory. The court has no choice but to sentence me to death. I asked how can it be compulsory? How come judges don't have a choice? Isn't it their job to decide such things? She said it's just the way the law is. 


He was halfway through his plate of fried noodles. "Poor chap. He must have been devastated. To say the least."

She sighed. "Yeah. He just sat there kind of looking stunned. What was worse was telling his mother. She was crying so hard that I didn't know what to do—I just stood around kind of awkwardly."

"I don't envy you at all. I still don't understand why you take on these capital cases."

"They're important. It's important to challenge laws that are unfair. And maybe some poor bastard might escape the gallows."

"Why did he do it, this Kelvin?"

She sighed again. "Same reason why most people who bring drugs into Singapore do it. Desperation."


So I asked my friend what is this big job? He gave me the contact number of the boss who later became my boss. Just go to Vietnam and bring something back to Australia, the boss said. I asked what was this thing? He said it was "white." I heard this slang before in my neighbourhood while growing up. Sometimes when I was walking home from school with my brother, some drug dealer would come up to us and say, "You want some white?" We knew it was a really bad drug—heroin, cocaine, that kind of stuff—so I always ignored them, but sometimes my brother seemed curious to try what it was. I once saw him talking and laughing with some drug dealers when I came home from a movie with my girlfriend. A few weeks later, we stopped walking home together from school, and one day, I found him smoking some of this "white" stuff. It made him really ill. He had to drop out of school, and he couldn't find a job. It took him a few years to recover. Even now, I don't know if he has fully recovered. 

And now I had to bring it back to Australia to help him. I thought it was quite strange that I was doing this, bringing back the "white" that made him sick and which will make other people sick in order to help him. But I needed a lot of money quickly, and so when I asked my boss how much I will make, and he said I will make $50,000, more than enough to give to my brother to pay off his debts, I decided to do it. So I said OK, and my boss told me to take a flight he had already arranged for me. Australia to Vietnam. Transit in Singapore.

Then I got on the plane and went to Vietnam. My boss was already there, and when I arrived, he took me to meet some of his employees. They were all smoking the thing that I had to bring to Australia. They offered some to me, but I didn't want to smoke it because I knew it was bad from seeing what it did to my brother. But they forced me to smoke it. One of them had a rod and threatened to beat me if I didn't smoke, so I had to do it. I smoked three or four times and then I started vomiting. I really hated it, I felt so sick, and I must have passed out at some point because the next thing I remember, it was time to bring the stuff back to Australia.

My lawyer asked if I was nervous when I boarded the plane in Vietnam. I think I was; I don't remember because it was a few years ago, and I forget a lot of things when I'm in here. Time feels like nothing in here, like it's all the same, like yesterday is today and is also tomorrow. So I don't remember if I was nervous when I boarded the plane. Or if I was nervous when I landed in Singapore Changi Airport to change to another flight to Australia. I think I was. Otherwise how did the authorities know that I was carrying something illegal? But I remember feeling regret when the plane was almost in Singapore and an announcement said something about the severe penalties for drug trafficking. But I thought I would be OK because I wasn't bringing the drugs into Singapore, I was only transiting in Singapore and then bringing the drugs elsewhere. Is that trafficking?

My lawyer said yes, it is, Section 7 of the Misuse of Drugs Act says that I cannot import drugs into Singapore. But what if I'm only in transit? She said it's the same thing. Why is it the same thing? I am not even going to sell the drugs in Singapore. She said it's just the way the law is.


He started clearing the plates while she kept on talking. "I'm really angered by this. I just don't understand how the law can be like this."

"Like what?"

"So cavalier about who suffers as a result. When the Court said that the distinguishing criterion in the statute, in this case the 15-gram criterion, doesn't have to be the best way of furthering the statute's purpose, I was just like ... what the hell?"

"You lawyers are so hard to understand. Can you explain?"

"OK, I will try. So I said earlier that the courts use this "reasonable classification test" to decide whether a law has violated the right to equality, right?"

"Yes, I get that. And?"

"The test basically has two parts. The first part is that the classification in the law has to be intelligible, meaning it has to make sense."

"What's 'classification?'"

"Classification meaning the criterion in the law that determines who gets the death penalty."

"Oh, so it's whoever brings in more than 15 grams of heroin?"

"Well, technically, the classification is the 15 grams, as in the quantity of the drugs, but yes, more or less. And it makes sense as in it is obvious what 15 grams of heroin means."

"Yes, OK. Go on."

"Right. So the second part of the test is whether this classification has a rational connection to the purpose of the statute, basically whether the classification and the law's purpose are … well, whether there is a logical link between them. So in Kelvin's case, the purpose of the Misuse of Drugs Act is to stamp out the illegal drug trade and combat drug trafficking, yadayada. So the Court said that there is a rational connection between the 15-gram classification and the purpose of the statute."

"Um … why 15 grams though?"

She threw up her hands in exasperation. "That was precisely the whole point of our challenge. The Court just said that 15 gram is proportionate to the harm that will be done to society by illegal drugs. Then the Court actually said that this classification doesn't have to be the best means of furthering the law's purpose. In other words, there could be a better classification."

"So why didn't the Court of Appeal say the classification is not good enough?"

"Basically, separation of powers; you know, between the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of government. It's not up to the courts to decide this point."

"Oh. So what can they decide?"

"Legal issues. Like … whether the reasonable classification test has been satisfied." Here, she gave a short laugh. 

"Legal issues as opposed to what?"

"Social policy matters, such as, I don't know, what would be a better classification."

"I still don't understand what's the relationship between 15 grams of heroin and combating drug trafficking. Why not 16 grams? 20? 30? 

"Ask the Court of Appeal!"

"Well, what reason did they give? Surely they gave a reason?"

"They said 15 grams is broadly proportionate to the harm caused to society by drug trafficking."

"Oh yeah, you said that earlier. But why 15 and not some other number? That seems rather arbitrary to me."

"Now do you understand my frustration? Can you believe they sentenced Kelvin to death on this basis?"


I didn't even know how much of the stuff I was carrying. I just carried whatever my boss told me to carry and I just wanted to get the job done as quickly as possible, so that my brother can no longer be in debt. He was harassed by those dangerous people and was under a lot of stress, so I really wanted to help him. 

I didn't know I would get into so much trouble. A few years ago when the judge in the courtroom said that I was sentenced to death, I didn't even know what was happening. I thought maybe the judge was talking about someone else, someone else with my name but who was not me, because how could this be happening? I just wanted to help my brother, and now I was in this courtroom in a foreign country, looking at this judge who was telling me I was going to die. I tried to tell the judge that I was just doing it to help my brother, but he didn't want to listen, he just banged his hammer and said "court adjourned" and left. 

Before I was taken away to my cell, I saw my mother and brother crying. My mother was very loud, and she couldn't stand and my brother started beating himself. He just kept slapping his own head over and over and producing this noise that sounded like the noises that I sometimes hear around me in prison. I wanted to go and comfort them, but I was taken away by the guards. When they locked the door, I could only think about my mother and hear her crying, and I started to cry too and I thought I would never stop crying. 

I have been in this tiny cell for the past few years. It is very small. It only has one small window. At least there is some light. But I have nothing to do every day, just sit here against the wall and think. I have many thoughts. They always start off with "what if." What if this, what if that. What if I had never contacted my boss. What if I had found another way to help my brother. What if I had never been caught. What if I had carried a lesser amount of drugs. 

I asked my lawyer if she could save my life, and I remember she looked so sad, but she said she will try her best, she and her team will try their best, and for the past year, they have tried their best but the result was always the same. I asked her why, why is Singapore so harsh, I only made one mistake and I can't be forgiven? She just sighed and looked sad and said she was sorry, it's just the way the law is.


He had cleared the plates, and now they sat, eating some fruits. 

"So what are you going to do?" he asked. 

"Appeal to the President for clemency. But it's going to be rejected."

"How do you know that?"

"The whole point of the death penalty is to deter drug traffickers—Singapore takes a hard stance on this. The government will think that pardoning Kelvin will send the message that we have softened our stance against drug trafficking, which to them will undermine the deterrent value of the death penalty. So there's no way Kelvin will be pardoned. It completely contradicts the logic of the policy. So basically, his fate is sealed. It's the end."

"I'm sorry, baby. You tried your best."

"How sad, isn't it, that it's not good enough?"

"Well … like you always say, it's just the way the law is."


My brother blames himself for all of this. The last time he came to visit me—a few months ago—he looked fine at first, sitting there in the visitor's room, wearing a smart-looking shirt with a calm expression on his face. We even managed to talk for a while about things happening at home, like how he passed his night school exams, and this girl that our friend introduced to him. She was a cashier in the local supermarket, also Vietnamese like us, very pretty my brother said, very innocent and sweet. He said that he really liked her, and said it with this smile that made him look very happy.

Then suddenly, his face changed, and he looked at me with this look of pure sadness, and he started crying. Sorry, he said, I'm so sorry, I shouldn't be talking about all this when you are in here, facing … He couldn't speak anymore, just kept crying, and I wanted to reach out to comfort him but my hands were chained to the ground, so all I could do was sit there and say it's OK, it's OK, it's not your fault. 

It is my fault, he shouted. It is my fault that you are in here. He started shouting, crying, making so much noise that the guards came in and said he had to leave now, he was disturbing the prison. He didn't want to go at first, he started yelling at the guards, saying how can their country do this to me, how can the system sentence someone so young to death, I was only trying to help him. It was his fault, he said, they should sentence him to death instead, and I still remember how his face was scrunched up and wet with tears, as well as the look of hatred and guilt as he was dragged away by the guards. 

I wrote him a letter to say that it's not his fault, I don't blame him, I was the one who chose to do this. But I was disturbed after that. I felt anxious and uneasy, and I realised that it was because there was a part of me that blamed him for what happened to me. Why did he have to gamble and lose so much money at the casino and end up borrowing money from bad men? If he hadn't done that, I wouldn't be here now, in this tiny prison cell, waiting for my life to end. 

There was an anger within me after that. Many nights I couldn't sleep, and I stared into the darkness feeling depressed and hopeless. I didn't even want to see my mother when she came to visit me, and she flew here all the way from Australia. The only person that I saw was my lawyer, who came once every few weeks to keep me updated on my appeal. I didn't understand most of what she was doing, just kept hoping she could save my life, but she kept telling me not to expect anything, don't get my hopes up, Singapore's system is tough, but she will try her best. 

Last week, she said my appeal failed. It is funny to think about how I felt in the moment. There was some shock, some depression … but also a strange relief. Like this is finally over, I can stop waiting, stop hoping, because sometimes having the hope taken away from me over and over feels more painful than sitting here in this small cell with nothing to do but think and think and think and feel so angry and depressed. A few days later, she asked if I wanted to appeal to the Singapore President for him to spare my life. She said honestly that it probably will not succeed but maybe it was worth a try. 

I said no, I don't want to try anymore, it is too painful to keep being disappointed, I will accept my fate. I will just accept my fate. 


They were in bed; they had just turned off the light, about to sleep. 

"I feel so … helpless," she said.

"It's OK," he said, pulling her into his arms. "I know you, and I love you. You did all that you could."

"Why is it not enough? It's so unfair."

"It's OK," he said, wiping the tears from her eyes. 'It's OK. Just let it go."


Now I will try my best to find peace. To accept my fate. I committed the crime, so I have to accept the punishment. I know people think it is unfair. My lawyer thinks it's unfair. But always thinking about how unfair it is makes me feel angry and sad. I don't want to spend the last remaining days of my life feeling helpless and hopeless and so angry, like I was put on this earth just to suffer like this. 

I want to feel a sense of peace, to be grateful for the time I have left, to cherish the moments that I have with my mother and my brother. I want to tell them that I have accepted my fate and that I have found peace with it, so that they will not feel so sad, and so that they can find peace with my fate, too.

I have started talking to the prison pastor. I asked him how can I stop feeling so angry and hopeless? He said that I had to find it in me to forgive—forgive my brother, forgive my boss, forgive the system, forgive myself. How to forgive? I asked. He said, God has forgiven. If God can forgive, so can you.

If there is a God, please help me through this. Help me live my final days in peace and dignity. Help me face my death with calm and acceptance. Help me be grateful for having lived at all, and for the love from my mother and my brother, and my friends back home. Help me to forgive … to let go.

I sit on my bed, barely noticing the hardness of the metal bed frame. I take a deep breath to slow down my breathing. I think about all that has happened in my life, the future that is in store for my mother and my brother; and I find myself smiling.

ImageChang Ya Lan is currently doing her PhD in Law at the University of Cambridge. She is a writer at heart. Her work has appeared in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and she hopes to publish more of her writing. She loves literature, likes philosophy, enjoys tennis and running, appreciates a good glass of red wine, and finds pure peace and freedom in the simple act of swimming in the open sea.


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