[Photo above: Family photo; Ridzuan, second from right]
Under Singapore’s death penalty regime, and contrary to what some may say, there are no winners, only victims.
As the crowd of family and friends kept vigil outside the walls of Changi Prison, one among them was especially affected by what was going to transpire – the execution of her brother.
Minutes later, at dawn, Muhammad Ridzuan’s life was snuffed out by a long drop through the threshold in the hanging platform with the noose tightened around his neck.
This is Singapore’s preferred method of state-sanctioned killing.
The official time of death: 6.39am.
The gruesome end came after a 7-year battle by lawyers and activists, along with supporters and loved ones, to save the 32-year old’s life. Ridzuan, along with his friend Abdul Halim, was arrested in 2010 for trafficking 72.05g of heroin.
The two men faced a main capital charge of trafficking above the statutory limit of 15g of heroin, for which they were both sentenced to death; and also a second charge of trafficking less than 15g of heroin, attracting a sentence of 20 years and 15 strokes of the cane.
Halim, however, escaped the death sentence because he was granted a Certificate of Cooperation (COC) by the Public Prosecutor, and used it to successfully apply to the courts to commute his sentence to life imprisonment with 24 strokes of the cane.
To be issued a COC in drug trafficking cases, the convict would have to have only played the role of a mere courier at the time of arrest, and that the information he provides to the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) must have helped disrupt drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore.
Both Ridzuan and Halim, the Public Prosecutor decided, had fulfilled the first requirement; but only Halim had met the second criteria.
Ridzuan’s death sentence thus remained, despite subsequent challenges in the courts to question the Public Prosecutor’s decision to deny him the COC. The court had decided that the Public Prosecutor had no reason to reveal its deliberations with regards to this, in this case.
Ridzuan’s appeal for presidential clemency was also rejected, and with that he had exhausted all avenues of reprieve.
It is now barely 3 weeks after that sombre morning of Friday, 19 May, at Changi Prison.
Ridzuan’s sister, Noraisah Bte Md Ali, 29, struggles to come to terms with the reason for her brother’s premature death – namely, the denial of the COC to her brother.
“It is very difficult,” Noraisah tells this writer, her voice choking with emotion. “Ridzuan had cooperated with the CNB, but they say it is not enough. We were hoping that Ridzuan would get a second chance. It is unfair.”
Her brother was not the main person involved in obtaining or receiving the drugs from the supplier, she explains. It was Halim who had liased with the supplier, or “jockey”.
When he was pursued by CNB officer after having collected the drugs, Halim ended running into Ridzuan’s home.
Ridzuan, who had been sleeping earlier, was wondering what had happened, as Halim threw the drugs on top of a cupboard and suddenly proned himself on the floor. Soon, the CNB officers followed and arrested both Ridzuan and Halim.
Ridzuan had been on death row since 2013, and the 7 years in total he has been behind bars had taken a toll on him – and his family.
Nevertheless, Noraisah, who is married with two children, says she never gave up hope, even as she stood outside Changi Prison that morning her brother’s life was ended. She had prayed, as the inevitable moment approached, that the president would order a stay of execution.
But that miracle never came.
She had done everything she could, keeping her promise to her brother who had pleaded with her to do her best to help him obtain the COC.
“Ridzuan was remorseful,” Noraisah says. “He wrote a letter to all his friends and asked them to forgive him,” she continues. “Ridzuan changed… he was very different. He was always thinking of his family, he’s always praying, he kept telling his friends not to do what he did.”
Ridzuan told her that if his death sentence was commuted, he wanted to get married, to settle down, to see his mother, and spend time with his family.
Her brother had also taken to praying and reading the Qu’ran and fasting while in prison.
So it was especially tough for her when the final days arrived.
Noraisah had received a call from the Prison Service to visit her brother on Monday. They had told her to bring her mother along as well. Noraisah knew that something was amiss.
It was later that she found out that Ridzuan’s clemency appeal to the president had been rejected and that Ridzuan would be hanged that Friday.
Ridzuan seemed to have resigned himself to his fate, even though he still held on to hope.
“He asked my mom and dad to give him their blessings,” Noraisah says of that last meeting. “He needed both parents’ blessings so he can go peacefully.”
She says she had never seen her brother cry all the 7 years he was in prison, but this day was different.
“Before we left, he held his hands to the glass partition, and so did my mom, my dad, myself, and we told him we would see him again,” Noraisah says. “I could see his eyes tearing and he held his hand to the glass partition and promised he would see us again. It was very hard for us.”
It is hard to find words to strengthen and comfort someone who knows his death is imminent.
But Noraisah tried to do that. “You’re a great brother to your sister, you’re a great son to mom and dad, a great uncle to your nephews,” she told her brother.
“Abang, abang, I will see again,” Noraisah told Ridzuan, using the affectionate Malay word for “elder brother”.
Noraisah says the hardest part that day was to see her brother being escorted away after the meeting.
“As he walked away, he raised his hands to do an act of supplication, as his eyes welled up. His last words were, ‘I will see you again in heaven’.”
Hangings in Singapore are normally carried out at 6am on Fridays, but the official record of Ridzuan’s death was recorded as 6.39am. Noraisah asked the religious counsellor who had been with her brother at those last moments about this.
“He told us that Ridzuan had fasted the night before, and had prayed,” Noraisah says. “The counsellor told us that he went peacefully, that he had broken fast by drinking holy water, and eating kurma, or dried plum. He was also reciting the Qu’ran as they brought him to the gallows.”
Just as dawn was about to break, Ridzuan breathed his last.
When her brother’s body was eventually returned to the family, it was surreal for Noraisah.
“On Thursday I talked to him, the next day he’s gone,” she says.
“His body was so cold when I held him.”
Her life has changed, Noraisah says, since that day.
She tried going back to her work as an administrative executive but could not last even a day, and had to quit despite her supportive colleagues who consoled her. The pain she felt consumed her.
“Everything, everything is different for me,” Noraisah says.
Her two sons, who shared a very close relationship with Ridzuan, have also been deeply affected.
Once, the teacher of her older boy, 12-years old, asked him why he had not been to school for a while and if his uncle was the one in the news. The teacher teared up when she learned that the boy’s uncle was indeed Muhammad Ridzuan.
The teacher later told Noraisah that her son didn’t want to join the class during lessons that day and chose instead to walk around the school alone, occupied in his own thoughts. He was missing his uncle.
On the Thursday when the family visited Ridzuan for the last time, before his death the next day, the children were asking why everyone was crying. The family told the boys that their uncle had an illness and that they were saddened by it.
It would be too cruel to tell the boys their uncle was going to be hanged. They would be too young to understand.
Ridzuan’s father too is traumatised by the death of his son.
“He sleep-talks and would call out Ridzuan’s name,” Noraisah says. “It’s really bad. In a way it’s getting worse because he is 72-years old… He would say, ‘My son, my son is really gone…’”
But the one who perhaps bear the heaviest burden is Noraisah herself.
With elderly parents and very young children to care for, along with a step-sister, and with the pain of losing her brother still so raw, Noraisah says she sometimes feel like she is losing it.
She tries to present a strong exterior in front of others so they would not suffer, but when night comes, she would break down as she thinks of her brother, whom she was very close to.
“Now I’m talking to you I’m ok, but when I go home…,” her voice trails off, as tears flow down her face.
“I sleep hugging Ridzuan’s shirt, the one he wore on the last Thursday (before his execution), the one in the photo. I hold his shirt and sleep… It’s really hard to …”
“Yesterday night, I really could not take it,” Noraisah continues. “I woke up at 3am and called my cousin and spoke to her. I told her that I can’t take this pain anymore.”
“I wish I could have held his hand and walked together til the end of his last breath but I know it’s impossible,” Noraisah says. “I wish I could be up there with him in a better place.”
“The inmates they sentence to death but the family members are suffering,” Noraisah says, referring to the authorities. “The burden post-execution is all on the family. So they don’t take any responsibility post-execution. The burden is heavier on the family, compared to if Ridzuan received the life sentence.”
She says no one from the authorities have enquired after them, or offered any word of condolence to them.
She relies on her husband, Ben, as a comforting shoulder and a listening ear. She would wait for him to return from work and confide in him, and she looks forward to the weekends when he would accompany her to the cemetery so she could pray at Ridzuan’s grave.
She is thankful that there were others who stood by her and her family and supported and comforted them. These included many of Ridzuan’s friends, the activists and strangers who approached Noraisah to offer words of solace.
The current Muslim holy month of Ramadan is different this year for Noraisah.
“This month of Hari Raya I told my husband that I didn’t feel like joining in the festivities,” she says. “I’d rather go to the cemetery, pray for him.”
But Ramadan and the experience with her brother’s death have brought her closer to God, which also brings her some comfort.
“Yes, it brings me closer to God, it has changed me a lot,” she says.
She says while it is hard to accept the fact of her brother’s death, she knows the pain will lighten over time and she would need to focus her energy on her family, especially her two boys who need her.
Now, all she has left of her brother are memories and a letter Ridzuan wrote her in the last days before his death.
“Once you receive this letter, I will be on my way to see God,” Ridzuan wrote in Malay. “To be honest, I can’t hide the sadness I feel… If you miss me, please read this letter. Please pray, take care of mom and dad, look after my sister… I have chosen this path and this is what I get in the end. Thank you for all these 7 years of visiting me… we will meet again.”