On August 30, Damien Chng was one of two young activists named the Most Promising Advocate at the Singapore Advocacy Awards.
He was awarded for his leading role in the anti-death penalty campaign We Believe in Second Chances, which played a part in Parliament’s partial reversal of the mandatory death penalty in 2012.
Chng has wanted to be a lawyer for as long as I’ve known him. I remember the first time we met in person, too: we were assembled at a cafe outside Plaza Singapura, getting ready to accompany human rights lawyer M Ravi and the family of then-death row inmate Yong Vui Kong to submit a clemency petition to then-President S R Nathan at the Istana. Back then he was a volunteer photographer for socio-political news site The Online Citizen, studying for his A Levels with his National Service ahead of him.
Law is a popular field of study and career path in Singapore. Some Singaporeans parents dream of their children becoming lawyers, even when said child is still in diapers. It is seen as a career for which a ton of kudos is due, not to mention a pretty steady – and probably fat! – paycheque.
But Chng’s motivations have little to do with parental pressure or money. “My aim is to be able to help the marginalised or vulnerable groups of people in society. Being legally trained is empowering because it allows you to provide people with a certain type of assistance that is not readily available,” he said.
This was something that he had begun doing even before law school opened its doors to him. Right after their A Levels Chng and his girlfriend Priscilla Chia – also a co-founder of We Believe in Second Chances – assisted Ravi with Yong’s case, helping out as legal assistants.
“Helping out with these cases before school started enabled me to appreciate the interplay between criminal and constitutional law, and how important it is for us to bear in mind that there are and should be limits to which we can go to criminalise particular acts,” he said.
"It feels like something you need to do...something you are doing for a brother"
When asked how it had felt to assist on Yong’s case, Damien fell silent for awhile. “It feels like something you need to do. Almost like something you are doing for a brother, as [Vui Kong and I] are almost the same age. He is definitely someone who doesn’t deserve the death penalty, so you know it’s the right thing to do.”
It was an important moment for anti-death penalty campaigners last year when Yong became the first convicted drug trafficker to have his sentence changed from death to life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane under the amendments to the mandatory death penalty.
But Chng doesn’t see it as a sign to rest on his laurels. “Getting him off means we can focus our attention elsewhere. We can’t let our guard down because some of the problems with his case apply to others on death row. So while I’m happy for Vui Kong my mind is already directed to the next person on the list.”
Chng has been keeping tabs on drug trafficking and potential death penalty cases, heading to the Supreme Court in person for important hearings. He takes note of the arguments made, the precedents set, always an eye on how court decisions affect the application of capital punishment in Singapore.
This persistent focus is motivated by a sense of injustice and unfairness within the system itself. "Offenders facing drug trafficking charges are, in certain circumstances, presumed to fulfil certain legal requirements that will result in a guilty verdict, unless they can show otherwise. This means that persons can effectively be presumed to be guilty before their guilt has been proven by the prosecution,” he wrote.
Keeping track of court judgements and new cases – on top of the gruelling schedule of a law student in a highly competitive environment – is a thankless task, one that sees the number of potential death row inmates adding up while the campaign trundles on with its limited ability to help any of them.
It would be impossible to keep track of every case, so Chng tends to focus on cases that might have an impact on Second Chances’ advocacy: “Keeping tabs on all the cases which have been re-sentenced under the new mandatory death penalty laws… allows us to provide a critique of these laws with information that is up to date.”
More challenges are looming for a young aspiring lawyer: there’s a glut of young law graduates and jobs are getting harder to come by. In this context, it’s understandable how law students can get paranoid, wary of burning bridges or rocking the boat too much lest it jeopardise their chances of getting a job.
What then for a young man who has already thrown in lot in with such a controversial, politically-sensitive cause?
“I cannot say for sure if it will disqualify me from working for certain firms, since I haven’t applied for jobs are been rejected on that basis,” he said. “I’m hopeful that there’ll be firms out there who see my advocacy as a positive thing and hopefully there will be vacancies when the time comes for me to find a job!”
Top photo from Vimeo.