by Arna Delle-Vergini
Winter, 1986. I was fifteen years of age – a permanent resident in the land of forgotten gods. It is an age when you discover that the world has let you down – before even beginning and without even trying – and you’re mad about it. You can’t talk to anyone about it either really. The adults around you KNOW NOTHING! Your house is a veritable prison. Disappointment hides in every corner. Even the décor lets you down.
Suddenly the familiar sounds of the house begin to grate on you. You switch off. You check out. You play another Bob Dylan song or maybe Neil Young because you’re feeling mellow. You play Kate Bush for profundity or David Bowie because he spins you out. Violent Femmes takes care of your two remaining mood states – angry and angrier, and, if you want to really make a statement, you play Tom Waits, because everyone in the house hates him, but no-one can argue with poetry.
Every feeling had a song, every song had a message, every message meant everything but, paradoxically, nothing meant anything anymore. I was in hell!
Enter Brian and Kev.
First I hear, the Malaysians are going to kill two Australians and if we don’t act real quick they’ll be dead by next week. Everyone is following this on the news and everyone is suddenly forgetting how much TROUBLE I am being lately. What is the big deal? They are criminals aren’t they? Do we really care? Have I ever trafficked heroin? Well, have I? HAVE I?
No-one was listening to me. Really, for the first time in a long time.
There was a pall over the house. Things were quieter. Sadder. Barer. And yet, there was an extra presence in the home. There were suddenly two extra people – Brian and Kevin. How had they come to be here? How had they suddenly made it into my home where only my drama reigned supreme? I wondered about them. Who were they? Who were they when they weren’t on death row? Why did my Mum care so much? She explained it to me, over and over and the more she explained the more I knew that frankly, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared for two men to die in this way. I felt a dreadful anxiety, a crushing weight. Surely there was something I should do, but what could I do?
I knew things were really getting serious when Mum wrote to the Governor of Penang. She wrote: “I abhor the situation”. Other people wrote as well. Even the Foreign Minister. The question was, would the Governor of Penang receive the letter in time? I’m not referring to the Foreign Minister’s letter of course. That letter he would be expecting and probably would take no notice of. But would he receive my mother’s letter?
This seems unbelievably naïve now but I actually visualised the Governor receiving my mother’s letter, knowing in his very bones that my mother abhorred the situation and, suddenly appreciating the gravity of the situation, relenting and agreeing to grant a stay of the execution. Indeed, one night I had trouble falling asleep – what with the worry about Brian and Kevin – but I eventually comforted myself with the thought that this actually could be the night that they would be granted their freedom. Surely the post would have arrived by now.
The next morning I woke up to the news that Brian and Kevin were dead.
It was that quick. Suddenly I cared. Suddenly their lives meant something to me. Suddenly I wanted them in the house forever. Suddenly they were taken. Suddenly I was bereft.
I wasn’t quite sixteen. There was only so much I could take from this but what I took from it would stay with me forever. And it’s not the obvious lesson. I didn’t really come away with views about capital punishment. I didn’t think a great deal about politics and I cared even less about international relations. I didn’t have any delusions whatsoever that individuals could change the world – goodness, it was obvious that there were times where very little could be done.
But there it was – the lesson uncovered, bare. It was simply this: even when you couldn’t make a difference, even when it was impossible for you to change something, you still had to make a stand. You had to stand for something.
I never loved and admired my mother more than when she sent that simple letter to Malaysia; the whole time knowing that it would make no difference whatsoever, and yet, also knowing that if she didn’t write – if she sat and did nothing – she would not be able to forgive herself. I knew then, palpably, like I know now, palpably – that one can never stand idly by in the face of injustice. It’s not okay. It’s not an option. It’s not worthy of who we are.
On Monday 7 July 1986, Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, two Australian men found guilty of trafficking heroin in Malaysia were executed. At the time of their death, Barlow and Chambers pleas for a stay of execution were still pending in the Penang High Court. Bob Hawke, the then Prime Minister of Australia, called the hanging “barbaric” and yet the death penalty was not effectively abolished in Australia until 1985, the year before. Incidentally, the last man to be actually executed in Australia was Ronald Ryan, who was hung in Pentridge Prison in Victoria on the 3 February 1967.
It was a Friday.
Image from: Unspoken Codes
This blog was first published on 20 January 2014. It is re-published in May 2015 as history has a way of repeating itself.
Bloody Mondays is a three-part series describing how our regular blogger, Arna Delle-Vergini, came to be a lawyer. Come with Arna on this journey; unpacking some of the experiences and events that led her to choose a career in the Law over any other.