‘I have to ask the man up there to forgive me’

Jeanette Tan

It was a question slipped in at the tail-end of a just over 20-minute interview with the media, but former president S R Nathan, surprisingly, didn’t turn it down.

It was a question about granting presidential pardons, during his 12-year term in office: Did he find it difficult and how did he feel about making that all-important judgement call?

He adopted a typical approach initially, detailing the process by which appeal cases for Singapore's prisoners on death row were brought up to him for review and to decide whether to grant a pardon from the gallows.

“The constitution clearly lays it down that I have to act on the advice of the cabinet, and the cabinet acts on the advice of the Attorney-General,” he said, explaining how the Attorney-General sifts through all the evidence available and makes a recommendation to the President.

“You have a right to question it… through the process, you determine whether all the facts have been taken into account, whether there’s anything that needs special consideration,” added the 87-year-old, who spoke across an unnecessarily-large conference table to a group of five reporters.

Nathan also explained that it is possible to seek an audience with the Attorney-General, and ask him to explain the case in more detail.

“In the submission, they can only make so much, but there is so much more beyond that. So that’s the process; I don’t want to get into the specifics,” he said.

This reporter probed further, though — and got a slightly warmer response.

The former president shared his thoughts about handling the task during his period of office, saying, “Of course it’s a difficult thing when it comes to the death penalty. It’s a matter of conscience. That’s the law… and you do your best to see that there is justice done.

“You are in no position to contradict the submission when you have not heard the case,” he continued with an increased degree of conviction, compared to his previous statement. “You can’t purely go on human emotions.”

It took a point-blank question to him about how he dealt with death-row appeals before he finally opened up.

“I have to ask the man up there to forgive me for what is done for the good of society,” he said, after a pregnant pause. “It doesn’t happen because we don’t like you. It happens because there are certain things that are done, and that’s the law, and there was a fair hearing.”

With 23-year-old Yong Vui Kong raised as one of the appeals he had to deal with during his time in office, Nathan seemed to add with a heavy heart, “A lot of emotion, a lot of families are involved… and especially in a drug case, think how many thousands will be affected.”

Singapore has not seen many presidential pardons in her time, with only six granted since independence, according to an Amnesty International report published in 1998, the year before Nathan took office as president for his first term.

The last known Singapore presidential pardon was granted by the late Ong Teng Cheong in June that year.