How many times have I told Vui Kong’s story? How many times have I written about his broken family, his lack of education, his impoverished childhood?
Too many times to count. But how much do I really know about Vui Kong’s past? How much do I really understand, when I’ve had such a comfortable childhood?
So after Vui Kong’s last appeal was dismissed in by the Court of Appeal, I decided to make a trip to his hometown of Sandakan to see things for myself. To try – to the best of my limited ability – to understand where Vui Kong came from.
The 4WD lurches and jolts as Vui Kong’s oldest sister Nyuk Yin drives us down the muddy, pitted country road towards the family plantation home. His youngest sister Vui Fung, his aunt Mary and I stand in a row in the back, holding on tightly and ducking palm leaves.
The house and plantation used to belong to Vui Kong’s grandfather. Vui Kong’s father would go away for long periods of time, driving lorries, leaving his wife and the children behind.
Wah Suk got to know Vui Kong as a small boy. When Vui Kong went with his mother to the market (where she worked at the time), he would play with Wah Suk’s sons. After Vui Kong left the plantation at about the age of 10, he stayed with Wah Suk whenever he was in Sandakan.
“Vui Kong’s a good kid. He was very filial. He said he wanted to earn money so his mother could live more comfortably,” Wah Suk tells us. “He said when he was grown up he would earn money to take care of us.”
As a young Singaporean, it’s hard to picture. But that’s why I went to Sandakan in the first place. To learn. To see. To understand. I’d spent so long talking about Yong Vui Kong, telling people about his life and his past and his circumstances. It was high time I saw it for myself.
It didn’t take long for me to realise that I was being introduced to a poverty I could never fully understand. It was beyond my experience, beyond the comfortable bubble of a middle class life in Singapore. But as I spent more and more time with Vui Kong’s family, as I spoke to people and walked the streets of the small town, I began to find something that I could understand and empathise with – the restless energy of the young, the desire to live bigger and do more.