The young man who appears on the TV monitor is speaking to us from inside Singapore’s notorious Changi jail.
He is sporting a prison regulation shaved haircut and a white T-shirt bearing his inmate number (L218032018) and name: Ye Ming Yuen.
Yuen is a convicted drug dealer.
Normally, the Mail would not travel half-way around the world to conduct an interview — via a special video link — with such an individual.
But his story is uniquely compelling and not without mitigating factors.
London-born Ye Ming Yuen, 29, has also been ordered to serve 20 years in jail after being convicted of seven drug offences, including trafficking
Yuen, 29, was born and raised in London where his parents still live. He must also be the first former pupil of £37,000-a-year Westminster School to find himself locked up in top-security Changi.
He has been ordered to serve 20 years after being convicted of supplying cannabis and methamphetamines (‘crystal meth’ or ‘ice’) to his friends.
Yet, this is not why Yuen is at the centre of a diplomatic row between the UK and Singapore, which traditionally have close ties, or why he agreed to speak to us.
Any day, as part of his sentence, he will be escorted from his cell, taken to a ‘punishment room’ in the jail, stripped naked and strapped to a wooden trestle.
Two officers will then take it in turns to inflict maximum pain with a 4ft-long rattan cane, about half an inch in diameter, by flogging him 24 times across his bare buttocks, a fate also dished out to murderers and rapists.
Each stroke is called out by the warder: ‘One’ . . . ‘two . . . ‘three’ . . . after three strokes it is not uncommon for the prisoner to pass out.
Yuen’s ‘judicial corporal punishment’ – which will be inflicted by a ‘trained caner’ taught how to cause the most pain possible. Pictured is a Changi prison officer using a dummy to demonstrate how inmates are caned
Yuen will receive little warning of the caning, so he lives in a state of permanent anxiety; he has been prescribed sleeping pills and drugs to stabilise his mood.
‘Of course, I’m scared,’ he says hesitantly. ‘I’ve heard so many horror stories from fellow inmates who have been caned, of scars left on them, of canes breaking during the punishment and having to be replaced and how, after every few strokes, the caner is replaced to ensure each stroke is of the same intensity.
‘I am preparing for it as best I can. I think about doing breathing exercises between each stroke to help me deal with the pain. I just pray I don’t faint half-way through because I’ll have to return to finish my punishment later.
‘I know the skin normally tears after three strokes and that it will be very painful.’
His plight, revealed by this newspaper a week ago, prompted Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his officials to make it clear that Britain ‘strongly opposes the use of corporal punishment’.
Yuen (pictured at school), 29, who went to £37,000-a-year Westminster School, will be stripped naked and strapped to a large wooden trestle
In Britain, Yuen could have expected to receive a 12-month sentence at most.
He was a first-time offender and the quantity of drugs seized was relatively small. He was also using drugs himself and might have escaped jail altogether in this country if he had been prosecuted for the lesser offence of possession rather than supply, as is increasingly happening.
But ‘soft justice’ Britain is in the grip of a violent, and often drug related, crimewave which is claiming young lives on an almost daily basis, whereas Singapore, with its unflinching, uncompromising approach to law enforcement, is one of the safest places in the world.
The treatment meted out to individuals like Ye Ming Yuen, barbaric by western standards, is why many Singaporeans feel they can stroll the streets and ride the subway in comfort and safety at midnight.
On a human level, though, few outside the former Crown colony, in South East Asia, would wish to inflict such retribution on him, on anyone, whatever the circumstances. The perverse twist is that it was the colonial British who introduced caning to Singapore in the first place.
This is the first time Yuen has spoken publicly about his fate. He is allowed two visits from his family and friends per month — a 20-minute face to face meeting in prison (via a telephone through a glass screen. He is not allowed to touch or hug visitors) and a 30-minute ‘tele-visit’ like this.
Yuen, who has been in Changi since February last year, sleeps on a bamboo mat on the concrete floor of the cell he shares with three other inmates and where he is confined for 22 hours most days; there is no window.
He is woken at 6am and beds down at 9.30pm. He is allowed, twice a week, an additional hour, outside his cell to attend Bible classes. A small selection of books (most recently Game of Thrones) and board games are available to him.
Yuen, who has been in Changi since February last year, sleeps on a bamboo mat on the concrete floor of the cell
Breakfast is white bread and jam, lunch usually rice and curry, with supper a variation of lunch, with meat, or fish and two pieces of fruit, plus the occasional sweet treat.
Changi holds some of the most dangerous criminals in Singapore, an island city-state, including death row prisoners. Yuen originally faced the death penalty (hanging is the method of execution) but the capital charge was dropped because the amount of the drugs involved was below 500g. But Yuen says he feels safe.
The old Changi jail was demolished and replaced with a high-tech mega-prison complex in 2004. Behaviour is monitored by a computer system that detects high intensity and erratic movements — such as a fight.
Many British servicemen were held in Changi by the Japanese in World War II prior to being shipped north in cattle trucks to work on the Thai-Burma ‘death railway’, the subject of the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Though conditions have improved, the name Changi remains synonymous with brutality. Between January and October 2016, the latest figures available show courts in Singapore handed down caning sentences to 1,257 criminals, of which 987 were carried out in that time. Many were performed at Changi, where staff, often skilled in martial arts, practise their ‘art’ on dummies and sandbags.
Yuen must also be the first former pupil of £37,000-a-year Westminster School to find himself locked up in top-security Changi
Yuen made it clear he was seeking justice, not sympathy, and is writing to the president of Singapore to plead for clemency. ‘Look, I’ve done wrong and deserve to be punished,’ he admitted. ‘But my sentence is excessive. I don’t want to be here for 20 years.’ Asked what he thought would be fair, he replied candidly: ‘Eight years and fewer strokes of the cane.’
He pointed out that a ‘child rapist sometimes gets 18 strokes and I’m getting 24.’
Before being detained at Changi, Yuen enjoyed almost rock star status as a club DJ in Singapore. He was known as DJ Ming. The ‘best DJ in Singapore,’ according to a leading magazine on the island.
Yuen’s profile picture on Facebook shows him with a carefully gelled quiff, and other photographs on social media, taken on planes and in hotels in Europe and South East Asia, offer a glimpse into his seemingly jet-set lifestyle.
Changi holds some of the most dangerous criminals in Singapore, an island city-state, including death row prisoners
It was a journey which began in south west London, where Yuen lived with his family. He has two sisters; his father, Alex Yuen, is a businessman who, after arriving in the UK from Singapore where he grew up more than 50 years ago, did well enough to send his son to Dulwich prep school then Westminster, where he excelled.
Yuen gained 11 GCSEs — four A*s, six As, and one B. It was also at Westminster, however, that he ‘got in with the wrong crowd’ (his father’s words).
In 2007, it emerged that Yuen was wanted by Scotland Yard over an alleged forged driving licence ID scam — sold to pupils at other top fee-paying schools so they could buy alcohol and cigarettes. Yuen, then aged 17, ran away to Singapore where his mother comes from, and began working for his uncle, who owned a club.
But a newspaper eventually managed to track him down. ‘I was making about £1,000 a week, but I was just being silly with the money,’ he was quoted as saying at the time. ‘I spent lots of it on computer stuff and the rest taking my friends out.’
During our interview yesterday, Yuen said he actually began dabbling in drugs when he was at Westminster; first cannabis, then cocaine, to give him ‘confidence’
Ironically, he said, one of the reasons for going to Singapore was because he thought it would be more difficult to buy drugs.
In 2007, it emerged that Yuen was wanted by Scotland Yard over an alleged forged driving licence ID scam
But despite the island state’s strict drugs laws, its vibrant nightlife, in which he worked as a resident DJ at many top clubs (Home, Zouk, and most recently, Canvas), introduced him to easily available recreational substances; he was spending about £150 on ‘Ice’ (methamphetamines) before he went to prison. He said his drug addiction made him forget the importance and love of his family.
‘My father has just turned 70,’ he said. ‘I have not seen him for five years. I wonder whether I will ever see him again.’
Mr Yuen, who has been refused a visa to visit Singapore, believes his son was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. ‘My son is a criminal,’ he said. ‘He knows that. He knows he has to serve time. But the issue is his sentence, which is excessive.
‘The people he was selling drugs to, six or seven friends, were expats and rich Singaporeans who work in the media and advertising, and they are the people who introduced Ming to the drugs, drinking and gambling in Singapore.
‘He also co-operated with the police by giving them the name of his supplier, which put him at risk of reprisals.’
Not everyone will sympathise, but wouldn’t any loving father speak up for his son? Mr Yuen is also helping him launch a fresh appeal. ‘I am encouraged that Mr Hunt (the Foreign Secretary) got involved,’ Yuen said. ‘The British Government and the British High Commission here have been very supportive. They sent me cards and presents at Christmas.’
Yuen gained 11 GCSEs — four A*s, six As, and one B. It was also at Westminster, however, that he ‘got in with the wrong crowd’
Public opinion, in Singapore has not been on his side. On a Facebook group called ‘Singapore Matters’, there was a strong defence of the punishment handed out to Yuen. ‘Don’t do drugs and you’ll be fine,’ declared one contributor. Another posted: ‘Fantastic!’ Example of Singapore’s success at handling drug related offenders! Think twice before doing sh***y business!!!’
This is made chillingly clear to anyone visiting Singapore. Stamped on the immigration cards, in red capital letters, it says: WARNING. DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW.
Only three months ago, a Malaysian drug trafficker was hanged in Changi prison, and hundreds more have been caned.
Graphic accounts by those who have experienced the ordeal appear in an Amnesty International report. ‘I was shivering and perspiring with fear, recalled one prisoner . . . I screamed and struggled like a mad animal . . . It went on, one stroke, one minute, some lashes fell on the same spot, splitting open the skin even more. I felt giddy and went limp on the trestle at the last stroke.’
There is also testimony from a ‘whipping officer’ who, at one time, was meting out 100 strokes a week. ‘The power behind an ordinary whipping comes from the wrist, arm, shoulder and swing,’ he wrote. ‘ You have to do it with a lot of power, the harder the better.’
Human rights groups say the practice violates international law and breaches the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Yuen says he ‘is holding up well’ but is not hopeful of receiving clemency. ‘When I am awake at night I think about my future,’ he revealed. ‘My 30s will have gone and I may be too old to have children when I come out.
‘The caning is scary and I don’t want it. But I’m most concerned about the length of my sentence. You can’t get time back.’
Source: Daily Mail | BBC News & Gossip