Richard Branson
Richard Branson leads a group of prominent business leaders in an anti-death penalty campaign which prioritises working in countries that do not practice capital punishment. Photo: Courtesy of Virgin Group

Richard Branson Wants Singapore to Spare a Prisoner’s Life. We Asked Him Why.

In an interview with VICE World News, the billionaire anti-death penalty activist highlighted the case of an intellectually disabled man sitting on death row.

It was through international headlines that Richard Branson learned about an especially disturbing death penalty case unfolding in Singapore. 

He read the chilling details of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam’s story—from the cold-hearted execution letter that his family in Malaysia received in October, to Nagaen’s history of learning difficulties and mental illness. The case troubled Branson, a vocal anti-death penalty advocate and founder of the Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty movement, spurring him to issue a public statement in November calling on Singapore’s government to spare Nagaen’s life. 

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“When I heard about Nagaen’s case, it had every single reason for this person not to be executed,” Branson told VICE World News in an interview ahead of Nagaen’s appeal hearing on Jan. 24—one that will determine whether the now-34-year-old lives or dies. 

“It’s incredibly clear that Singapore must not proceed with the execution of a man who may not have fully understood the consequences of his actions, nor his rights in court.” 

“When I heard about Nagaen’s case, it had every single reason for this person not to be executed.”

In 2009, at the age of 21, the young man from the Malaysian city of Ipoh was caught by Singapore immigration police trying to smuggle 43 grams of heroin into the city-state through a land border. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to death a year later under the Misuse of Drugs Act. 

Assessments by psychiatrists stating that he has “intellectual disabilities” and a lower than average IQ of 69—something his family and defence team say was exploited by drug traffickers when convincing him to carry the narcotics—have done little to spare his life.

Activists in Kuala Lumpur gather in support of Nagaenthran outside the Singapore embassy. Photo: Mohd RASFAN / AFP

Activists in Kuala Lumpur gather in support of Nagaenthran outside the Singapore embassy. Photo: Mohd RASFAN / AFP

Although Singapore is party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, high court officials have upheld Nagaen’s execution. For the past 11 years, Nagaen has remained on Singapore’s death row, where his family say his mental health has gradually declined. He was originally scheduled to be hanged on Nov. 10, but a minor miracle saved his life as the execution was postponed after he tested positive for COVID-19

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The British billionaire reiterated calls for the Singapore government to spare Nagaen’s life ahead of Monday’s crucial hearing. He also said that the killing would only “cast serious doubts” on Singapore’s global reputation as a country that claims to “uphold international agreements.”

“It’s also worth remembering the main countries that still have the death penalty: China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran,” Branson said. “They’re not the best bedfellows for Singapore, a sophisticated country, to be in the same bed with.” 

Branson, who founded the multinational venture capital conglomerate the Virgin Group in 1970, has been leading his high-profile business-backed campaign against the death penalty since March last year, calling for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide. 

It has drawn support from hundreds of influential business leaders across the world, including Meta (formerly Facebook) COO Sheryl Sandberg, Ben & Jerry’s co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, and Malaysian tycoon Tony Fernandes of regional airline AirAsia. 

“There's no question that my business leaders do take these things into consideration when talking about future investments. If you've got one country that does the death penalty [and] another that doesn't do the death penalty, you've got a choice of where you're going to put new offices,” he said. 

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“You definitely take that seriously into consideration and I think the hundreds of business leaders who signed up [for my campaign], all of them will take that kind of thing into consideration.” 

Nagaen's sister holds up a childhood photo of him. Photo: Mohd RASFAN / AFP

Nagaen's sister holds up a childhood photo of him. Photo: Mohd RASFAN / AFP

Branson’s partner, Celia Ouellette, also said that Singapore’s leaders should be “thinking hard” about the impact Nagaen’s execution would have in terms of the city-state’s image and reputation. 

“Business leaders are very similar to state leaders in that respect because they must weigh the risks and benefits of taking actions that will very negatively portray that business or that country,” Ouellette told VICE World News. 

“The expectation of business leaders is not only to take a position, but to take a very public position and to use their platforms for good. What is the perception that [governments] want to give to the world? What are the reputational risks that they're willing to take in order to demonstrate that they are a good place to live and do business?” 

The pair said that they were also calling on more business leaders from Asian countries like Vietnam and China, which executes more people each year than the rest of the world combined, to join the cause.

Branson also highlighted the firm action he took after the brutal killing of Saudi Arabian journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2018. 

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“We cancelled a big contract with the Saudis because of it,” Branson said. While he says he doesn’t intend to cut ties with Singapore, he wants to use his influence to “try to change minds.”

Even after laws were passed in 2012 to remove the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking and murder in certain circumstances, Singapore still embraces capital punishment, with ruling party politicians leaning on opinion polls and public surveys that claim to show strong support for executions.

Branson revealed that he received a letter from Singapore’s home affairs ministry in response to his November public statement about Nagaen’s execution. While not revealing the letter’s full contents, he said that he “believed the government to be mistaken” with regards to its pro-execution arguments. 

“I had a long letter from the Singapore government putting [forth] their arguments about this particular issue,” Branson said. “The Singapore government would do very well just to get rid of the death penalty altogether.” 

“The Singapore government would do very well just to get rid of the death penalty altogether.”

Branson appealed to the humanity of politicians in Singapore, urging them to consider what they would want for their sons if placed in a similar situation. But even in the unlikely event that Nagaen receives a reprieve, Branson says it’s Singapore’s underlying approach to crime and punishment that’s in need of overhauling.

“Governments just should not be in the business of killing people,” he said. “It's an inhumane practice that has no place in modern society.” 

Additional reporting by Sally Lee. Follow Heather Chen on Twitter