Chilling Letter Details Execution of 'Intellectually Disabled' Inmate

"A letter informing a family that their loved one is going to be hanged, followed by pages of COVID travel regulations and measures, is just awful."
"A letter informing a family that their loved one is going to be hanged, followed by pages of COVID travel regulations and measures, is just awful."
A policeman patrols Singapore's High Court, which hears death penalty cases and appeals. Photo: AP / ED WRAY

“Please be informed that the death sentence passed on your son, Nagaenthran A/L K Dharmalingam, will be carried out on 10 November 2021 (Wednesday),” the official letter from the Singaporean government read. 

The matter-of-fact declaration was how Madam Panchalai Supermaniam, from the Malaysian city of Ipoh, was informed this week of her son Naga’s upcoming execution by hanging in the city-state. 


He was arrested in 2009 at the age of 21, and charged with importing 42.72g of diamorphine—a strong opioid often used to treat severe pain caused by cancer. During his trial in 2019, he denied knowing the contents of the bundle strapped to his thigh, and told the courtroom that he had delivered it “under pressure”. 

Despite being diagnosed with a borderline intellectual disability, with an IQ of 69, Naga was sentenced to death a year later. 

A copy of the actual execution letter. Photo: Supplied

A copy of the actual execution letter. Photo: Supplied

The letter, dated Oct. 26, was issued on behalf of the Singapore Prison Services, which runs all 14 prisons and drug rehabilitation centers across the island. On top of the distressing news, it also included pages detailing Singapore’s pandemic entry requirements and travel restrictions, which Naga’s family members must navigate if they wish to say goodbye in person.  

“A letter informing a family that their loved one is going to be hanged and asking them to make arrangements for his funeral, followed by pages of COVID travel regulations and measures, is just awful,” said local activist Kirsten Han, who has spent the past decade campaigning for the abolishment of the death penalty in Singapore. 

Han told VICE World News that she was currently in touch with Naga’s family back in Malaysia and has been supporting them with the extensive paperwork confronting them. She added that they are struggling to cope. 

“To visit their son before his execution, his family will have to book PCR tests in Malaysia and Singapore, figure out where they can stay, and are expected to serve a 10-day quarantine, as well as transportation to and from the prison,” she said.


“They also have to make sure they have travel insurance and go through the entry approval application and health declaration processes, and there is the question of how they are supposed to be able to suddenly afford all these costs.” 

“It never ceases to horrify me just how clinical and administrative this cruelty is.”

She also added that it was “a lot” for the family to take in — on top of distressing news about a loved one’s execution. “It’s inhumane,” she said. “But it never ceases to horrify me just how clinical and administrative this cruelty is.” 

The Hope and Sorrow of Visiting My Son on Death Row

When made public, the heartless nature of the execution letter drew heated reactions from Singaporeans. State-backed research regularly indicates strong public support for the death penalty in the city-state. But one criminology study surveying 1,500 Singaporeans, published by the Singapore Management University in 2018, painted a more nuanced picture.

“There was a much lower support for the death penalty when respondents were faced with scenarios of cases — all of which would have merited the mandatory sentence under the current Singapore law,” the research stated.  

“The support for the death penalty in Singapore is not as strong as it appears.”

On social media, many Singaporeans condemned the decision to execute Naga, calling it “morally wrong.” 


“What purpose does the execution of a mentally disabled person serve? For that matter, what purpose does the execution of any drug mule serve,” wrote political commentator Ariffin Sha in a Facebook post. “We are killing people who are young, impressionable and naive. Killing them does not act as a deterrent, especially not to those who will most likely end up replacing the replaceable.” 

Others called out the casual tone of the execution letter. “It’s upsetting to see that this is the way our government thinks that justice can be served,” wrote one Singaporean on Instagram. 

In Singapore, which is party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the law allows an accused person to be acquitted or released from charges if he or she was found to be “suffering from abnormality of mind”.

Naga was referred to clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, with one doctor concluding that, among other things, “[the appellant’s] borderline intelligence and concurrent cognitive deficits may have contributed toward his misdirected loyalty and poor assessment of the risks in agreeing to carry out the offence”.

Rights group, Lawyers for Liberty, said in a statement issued after the execution letter was made public this week: “Nagaenthran is no ordinary death row prisoner; he suffers from mental disability, with an IQ of 69 — his condition is diagnosed and certified by a qualified Singapore-based psychiatrist.”


Han said that the inmate’s “low IQ and impairments” were not sufficient in the eyes of the court to qualify as “abnormality of mind”. Court documents seen by VICE World News showed that Naga had exhausted all his court appeals, as well as an appeal to the president for clemency.

In a brief phone call with VICE World News, Naga’s lawyer M Ravi reiterated his continued efforts, but could not share further details as his team was still “finalizing legal challenges.” Crowdfunding efforts have been set up to help support the family with expenses.

Singapore prides itself on its low crime rate and credits this to a controversial, hardline approach against illicit drugs that authorities say is “comprehensive, holistic and zero-tolerance.”

The death penalty is mandatory for anyone caught importing or exporting anything more than very small quantities of illegal drugs. The majority of executions in Singapore are for drug trafficking. 

“Singapore’s heavy reliance on draconian laws and policies have not only failed to tackle the use and availability of drugs. They also give zero effective protection from drug-related harm and instead facilitate a raft of human rights violations,” Chiara Sangiorgio, Amnesty International’s death penalty advisor previously told VICE World News. 

Singapore’s cruel, uncompromising implementation of the death penalty has been highlighted in other cases in recent times. In May 2020, a 37-year-old Malaysian man was sentenced to death by hanging after he was initially found guilty of heroin trafficking back in 2011. The sentence was controversially delivered remotely, via Zoom

Another Malaysian, a 41-year-old man from the southern state of Johor, was sentenced to death earlier this month for smuggling 1kg of cannabis across the border. 

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