Singapore’s Death Penalty Mimics That of Its Former Colonial Master

Changi Prison, where Singapore’s death row is located. Photograph Source: Waycool27 at en.wikipedia – Public Domain

“Singapore is Disneyland with the Death Penalty”

William Gibson 

The penal policy pursued by the UK in all its colonies included the death penalty.

Many of these colonies, while professing to be “anti-colonial” or even “post-colonial” have retained the death penalty after independence from the UK. To quote the Death Penalty Project:

Within the Commonwealth, consisting principally of former territories of the British Empire, a disproportionate number of countries continue to impose the death penalty. Only 37% of Commonwealth countries have abolished the death penalty in law, compared to 57% on a global scale. Many Commonwealth countries have also been vocal on the international stage in defending retention of the death penalty. In December 2016, half of the 40 countries that voted against a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on executions were members of the Commonwealth.

Singapore is one such former British colony retaining the death penalty. Last week it executed man– Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, a Malaysian national with learning difficulties– for attempting to smuggle 3 tablespoons of heroin in 2009, when he was aged 21. Nagaenthran was sentenced to death the following year, and spent more than a decade on death row before his execution.

Repeated pleas were made for Dharmalingam’s life to be spared, with international figures—   including EU representatives and UN experts, to the British oligarch Richard Branson and actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry– calling his case a “tragic miscarriage of justice”. International rights groups were unanimous in their condemnation of his sentence. Singapore’s chief justice, Sundaresh Menon, had previously stated that Dharmalingam had been “afforded due process”. Singapore is ranked by several international organizations as a “flawed democracy”—in giving Singapore this designation, the 2021 Democracy Index rankings published by the Economic Intelligence Units ranks Singapore 66th out 167 countries.

Singapore’s top judges are appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister. The 2020 Freedom in the World Index says that

The government’s consistent success in court cases that have direct implications for its agenda has cast serious doubt on judicial independence. The problem is particularly evident in defamation cases and lawsuits against government opponents…. judgments against the government are rare….

Support for the death penalty is high in Singapore (opinion polls show support for the death penalty at around 80% or higher), and the handling of Dharmalingam’s case added to the disquiet long felt in international legal circles about the country’s approach to drugs-related offences.

Singapore’s government maintains its severe drugs laws, including capital punishment, are the most effective deterrent against criminal conduct.

Dharmalingam had said he was strong-armed into carrying the package without having any knowledge of its contents.

Dharmalingam is reported to have an IQ of 69, a figure known to indicate a learning disability, as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It is open to doubt whether he had the slightest notion of Singapore’s laws regarding drug smuggling.

Neither the investigation into Dharmalingam’s case nor his trial made any explicit intellectual incapacity-related accommodations. Dharmalingam’s mother, Panchalai Supermaniam, said his psychological state had deteriorated while he was on death row. He was kept in solitary confinement, and she said he was at times confused and disjointed in speech. He did not seem to understand that he would be executed by hanging, she said. Instead, he would speak about leaving jail and enjoying his mother’s cooking at home. His family have said Dharmalingam was good-natured and kind but susceptible to being misled.

In 2009, Dharmalingam was employed as a welder in Johor Bahru in Malaysia, and badly wanted extra money to help his father, who was due to have heart surgery. Dharmalingam approached someone to give him a loan of about $125, his supporters say, and was subsequently coerced into smuggling the illegal package.

Dharmalingam’s mother filed a last-ditch legal challenge, seeking to stop the execution, but it was denied. Her motion pointed out that Dharmalingam may not have received a fair trial because the chief justice, who presided over his previous failed appeals, was attorney general at the time he was convicted in 2010, thereby creating a potential conflict of interest.

The same chief justice who faced the conflict-of-interest charge ruled, unsurprisingly, that the mother’s motion was “devoid of merit”.

Maya Foa, is the director of Reprieve (a legal charity that works against grave human rights abuses) said of Dharmalingam’s execution:

From rushed hearings to intimidation of Nagen’s lawyers, this case has laid bare Singaporean authorities’ hollow claims about affording due process. But this is a watershed moment. With Nagen’s plight igniting unprecedented protests in the country calling for abolition of the death penalty, it’s clear the tide is turning in Singapore.

Foa went on to say:

Capital punishment in Singapore disproportionately targets drug mules rather than the drug lords that traffic or manipulate them. Most of its victims are, like Nagen, poor, vulnerable and from marginalized communities. This is a broken system.

In a statement prior to Dharmalingam’s execution, UN human rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani voiced serious concern at the “rapid rise” in the number of execution notices issued this year in Singapore, primarily for drug-related offences.

On 30 March, after a lull of more than 2 years in carrying out executions, Singapore executed 68-year-old Abdul Kahar bin Othman for trafficking a total of 66.77 grams/2.355ozs of heroin. Kahar had been born in one of Singapore’s poorest neighbourhoods. He was one of 7 children, and when his father died at the age of 40, his mother became the family’s sole breadwinner by taking on low-income jobs. When he was a teenager the poorly-educated Kahar and his 2 younger brothers resorted to stealing food to feed the starving family. Kahar spent the rest of his life in and out of prison, mainly for drug-related offences. His criminal record made finding work difficult.

The last execution carried out in Singapore before Kahar’s was that of a 36-year-old Malaysian man Abd Helmi Ab Halim, for trafficking 16.56 grams/0.58ozs of diamorphine. Helmi was hanged on 22 November 2019.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.