The long, agonising wait on death row

Chong was caught in 1987, and convicted and sentenced to death in 1992, which means he had spent almost 37 years in prison.


Trials and tribulations: Chong (left) talking about his ordeal in prison to Benjamin in Johor Baru. — THOMAS YONG/The Star

May 24, 2023

KUALA LUMPUR – For 31 years, Chong Yun Fak’s life was neither here nor there as he sat on death row.

The follies of youth – he wanted to make a quick buck peddling drugs – landed him in prison when he was caught red-handed with 220g of heroin during his third dealing in 1987.

He was 26 years old then.

Chong was subsequently convicted and sentenced to death in 1992, which meant that he had spent almost 37 years in prison before he got a second chance in life, thanks to a royal pardon.

He was released from the Simpang Renggam prison last month after Johor Ruler Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar approved his clemency appeal.

In an interview, Chong, 63, looked back on his prison years and how his life fell apart. His wife left him, taking along their three kids.

“They were all so young. I could barely remember them,” he said.

Chong was matter of fact as he recounted his years on death row.

“It was an agony not knowing when your turn would come to be hanged.”

Death row prisoners, he said, do not carry out any work or pick up new skills while doing time. And he had a cell to himself.

“We were just passing time, waiting to be hanged,” he said.

“During my 37 years in prison, I knew of about 50 people who were hanged. At least 90% of them died because of drug offences. The rest were murders.

“One of the youngest to be hanged was 30 years old. He was caught with a large quantity of drugs when he was in his 20s.”

Some of the inmates, he said, were allowed a final handshake the day before the execution.

He found this unsettling initially “but after sometime, I just became numb to it”.

Chong said he had gotten to know some of the men as they had shared the same block.

He drew comfort from visitors like his mother and six siblings, especially during Chinese New Year celebrations.

He also had the opportunity to pick up Buddhism from several visiting groups.

Recalling how his life began to unravel, Chong who studied up to primary school, said he had been jobless in 1987 when his friend suggested that he turn to drug trafficking for a quick buck.

He earned about RM1,000 from each deal. But soon, his buyer was caught, leading to his arrest that same year.

He also maintained that he never consumed drugs himself.

Chong said he was held in remand at the Ayer Molek lock-up for five years before the court found him guilty and sentenced him to death in 1992.

He lost his appeal two years later. It was during this time that his marriage ended.

Eventually, he was transferred to the Kajang prison until 2012 before being moved to the Simpang Renggam prison until April this year.

The clemency and subsequent release happened on April 23.

“It was simply a miracle. I had given up all hope. I thought I would die in prison,” Chong said.

Furthermore, it was his eighth appeal. All the previous ones were rejected.

Chong thanked the Johor Ruler, Geha Bodhi Care Centre friends, Skudai assemblyman Marina Ibrahim and his family, especially his mother, for not giving up on him.

These days, he is devoting all his time to taking care of his 85-year-old mother. There is a snag, though, to this new lease on life.

Chong, who was diagnosed with stage four nose and throat cancer last year, said: “I do not know how much time I have left but I want to spend my remaining days taking care of my mother.”

His mother is unaware of his illness.

“I also reunited with my three children, who have their own children now. I just want to spend the rest of my life around the people who care about me,” he said.

And he wants young people to stay away from drugs whether through consuming or trafficking.

“Once you’re caught with it, your life is ruined forever,” he said.The prison warden’s parting words to him will always stay in his mind: “Never commit any crime. Don’t return to prison.”

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