As Malaysia promises to abolish the mandatory death penalty, Singapore is still maintaining its own capital punishment, which has been mainly used to target drug traffickers.
An activist wears a T-shirt with a sign against the death penalty during a protest against the death penalty at Speakers' Corner in Singapore on April 3, 2022. Photo: Roslan RAHMAN / AFP

As Malaysia Softens Death Penalty Stance, Singapore Sentences More to Be Hanged

“I'm hopeful that change will happen. What I worry about is how many more lives will it take for it to happen?”

Prison visits always fall on Saturdays. That’s when Nazira Lajim Hertslet is allowed to see her brother through a glass window. During these visits, they reminisce about old times, with her brother always advising her to be happy despite the circumstances. 

One Saturday last month, VICE World News followed the 62-year-old as she made her way to the eastern end of Singapore, where the country’s largest prison complex sits. She walked 30 minutes in the sweltering heat into the visiting center, located deep inside the compound. 

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“I want to visit my brother, in fact, every day because his days are numbered. He's going off soon if nothing is done,” Nazira told VICE World News. “I want him to be happy [with] what I've done for him. So at least my brother knows that… there is a family who still loves him.”

When her clemency appeal to the president was rejected in May, Nazira knew that there was almost no chance of saving her brother’s life. Nazeri bin Lajim, now 64 years old, was sentenced to death in 2017 for trafficking 33.39 grams of heroin. Having exhausted all legal channels for overturning his sentence, his execution hangs over his and his family’s heads—it could be months or years from now; it could be next week. 

Nazira isn’t sure when her next visit will be her last, but she still clings onto the hope for a miracle. 

“I know that the chances of [my brother] not going to be hanged is very slim. But I still do not want to give up,” she said. “I will fight for this system to be changed.”

Nazira is one of dozens of families in Singapore reeling from the government’s steadfast commitment to one of the harshest approaches to capital punishment in the world, despite a chorus of international condemnation and bubbling opposition within the country. In April, after a hiatus due to the pandemic, Singapore hanged its first inmate since 2019—and the executions have continued at a steady pace since. According to activists, another two men are set to be hanged for drug-related offenses this Thursday.

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Singapore is known for having some of the world’s toughest drug laws, and trafficking a small bag of cannabis, recently made legal in nearby Thailand, could get suspects sent to death row. The government has found public support with messaging that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to “minimize the harms of drugs on our society.” But general attitudes towards capital punishment may be changing. 

Over the past year, the city-state has seen rising grassroots opposition to the death penalty, most notably after executing two men earlier this year, one of them an inmate diagnosed with “borderline intellectual functioning.” Activists say that progressive developments next door in Malaysia, which announced further rollbacks to crimes carrying the mandatory death penalty last month, have further raised important questions about the future of the death penalty in Singapore. Despite this, authorities are digging their heels in. 

“As a Singaporean activist I am encouraged because I feel relief whenever I heard of the death penalty receding or being abolished in any context,” said Kirsten Han, a founding member of Singaporean anti-death penalty advocacy group, the Transformative Justice Collective. 

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“That said, I am not confident that Malaysia's announcement will make that much material impact in Singapore,” she added. “The Singapore government has shown no sign of stepping away from the death penalty.”

Until recently, Malaysia and Singapore were joined in their draconian approach to the death penalty, with both country’s harsh capital punishment approach rooted in British colonial-era laws. But the past decade has seen the two countries take divergent paths. 

Malaysia has been reconsidering the death penalty for years, since it first “seriously considered” abolition in 2012, said Malaysian authorities. In 2018, a moratorium was imposed on executions and drug trafficking was taken off the list of crimes punishable by death. Despite some opposition, authorities announced that the ultimate goal was to abolish the death penalty. 

Activists protest against the planned execution of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man sentenced to death for trafficking heroin into Singapore in 2009, outside the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur on April 23, 2022. Photo: Arif Kartono / AFP

Activists protest against the planned execution of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man sentenced to death for trafficking heroin into Singapore in 2009, outside the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur on April 23, 2022. Photo: Arif Kartono / AFP

Further steps towards abolition were made on June 10, when the Malaysian government announced that courts would be able to order different penalties for 11 offenses that otherwise merited a mandatory death sentence, including murder and terrorism. Lawmakers are also looking into alternative penalties for 22 other offenses that could currently merit a death sentence. 

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Describing this as a “positive development,” Charles Santiago, a Malaysian politician and chairperson at ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, told VICE World News that Malaysian lawmakers are starting to recognize the limited effectiveness of the death penalty.

“We have done this experiment with capital punishment for drugs for umpteen years. But we have not solved the problem of drugs,” said Santiago. “What we see is young people, poor people, [the] unemployed, are the victims of this process.”

But as Malaysia continues to reduce the role of capital punishment in its criminal justice system, to its south, Singapore has been hunkering down on state executions. In a heated interview with the BBC last week, Singapore's law minister K. Shanmugam reiterated that the death penalty remains a “serious deterrent for would-be drug traffickers.”

“To misquote a well-known quote, a single hanging of a drug trafficker is a tragedy; a million deaths from drug abuse is a statistic,” the minister said. “People focus on—and the BBC focuses on—this one person… What about the thousands of lives that are at stake from drug trafficking?”

His defensive comments come off the back of international scrutiny centered around Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, the Malaysian national whose case has galvanised Singapore’s anti-death penalty movement over the last nine months. Since his family received a cold letter informing them of his scheduled execution last October, Nagen’s case sparked intense anger both in the city-state and abroad—only intensified by the fact he only possessed an IQ of 69, considered “borderline intellectual functioning.”

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In the weeks after his scheduled execution was announced, Malaysia’s prime minister and foreign minister wrote letters requesting clemency. British billionaire and founder of Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty, Richard Branson, was among a chorus of international voices calling for Nagen to be spared—telling VICE World News at the time that his execution would “cast serious doubts” on Singapore’s reputation.

But Singaporean authorities refused to budge, and he was hanged on the morning of April 27. 

“I don't think there's an appetite within [the Singaporean] government to [abolish the death penalty] in the way they handled all these capital punishment cases so far,” said Santiago. “They're kind of gung-ho about capital punishment.”

But despite the ruthless image it seeks to portray, the Singaporean government is not totally immovable on the issue. In 2013 it amended its laws to make the death penalty no longer mandatory for drug couriers, under what authorities described as “specific, tightly defined conditions”—that is, if they were suffering from an impaired sense of mental responsibility, or had assisted the authorities in disrupting drug trafficking. 

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At that time, authorities reiterated that the death penalty would remain nonetheless. But activists hold out hope that legislative changes in Malaysia may cause Singapore to reconsider.

“The idea that we all need [the death penalty] initially was very similar, but somehow Malaysia decided we are beyond that,” said Dobby Chew, the Malaysian executive coordinator of the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network. “If we can move from it and prove the that criminal justice system still works, [and] works better without the death penalty, it will force Singapore to rethink their position.”

“I think it would [also] force Singaporeans themselves, the government aside, to rethink the death penalty and what it means for them.”

According to local activists, public opinion is already turning among Singaporeans. In April, shortly after the state conducted its first execution in two years, hundreds gathered at a public park that doubles as a state-sanctioned protest zone, holding placards denouncing the death penalty. The numbers represented a sizable showing in Singapore, infamous for its heavy-handed approach to dissent. 

“Every fiber of my being says that there's something fundamentally wrong about executions… A premeditated murder [by] an entire society on a human being is unacceptable.”

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“I was actually really surprised that so many people showed up,” said Han. “Nowadays there are more Singaporeans who, even if they are not anti-death penalty, are at least open to asking questions. There are more Singaporeans who are willing to come forward and say that the death penalty as a system is wrong and needs to go.”

But Singaporean authorities appear to be cracking down on the growing movement, enveloping prominent activists in costly legal fees and ambiguous investigations. Just last week, Han and fellow activist Rocky Howe were investigated by the police for holding allegedly illegal public assemblies, a charge that’s often levied against anti-establishment demonstrations. 

Meanwhile, M Ravi, a human rights lawyer who has been helping death row inmates in Singapore field desperate last-ditch attempts to overturn their sentences, is grappling with tens of thousands of dollars in court-ordered costs, after it was ruled that his applications to appeal death sentences were “improper, unreasonable and negligent conduct” and an abuse of the court process. 

Despite some successful attempts, it’s usually extremely difficult for Ravi to extricate death row inmates from their sentences. He says there are few other lawyers willing to take on these cases where “you have very little avenues to save them.” As Ravi deals with hefty legal fees, eleventh-hour court appeals, and grief-stricken families, he remains steeped in his conviction to do as much as he can.

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“Every fiber of my being says that there's something fundamentally wrong about executions,” said Ravi. “A premeditated murder [by] an entire society on a human being is unacceptable.”

But Ravi’s stance remains a bold one, and few in the legal profession in Singapore, even those who take on death row cases pro bono, share his sentiment. Luo Ling Ling, a lawyer who used to be an anti-death penalty advocate, found herself changing camps after years of working with death row inmates.

“They always had the choice, but they made the wrong choice,” said Luo. “I slowly evolved to accept the death penalty is unfortunately necessary because I cannot think of a better deterrence than that.”

“It’s very easy to just say, ‘I'm against the death penalty, it’s cruel, it’s inhumane.’ But I think it's tougher to come out and say that you support the death penalty because you don't want an increase in [death sentence] cases.”

That last idea, that the death penalty is an effective deterrent, is the pillar of the government’s argument in favor of keeping it—and it remains the most commonly cited factor in public polls where people express support for capital punishment. 

According to a 2021 governmental survey, over 80 percent of respondents believed that the death penalty deterred offenders, while 66 percent felt that the mandatory death penalty was appropriate for drug trafficking—all this despite there being a dearth of credible evidence that it deters crime. In fact, most punitive measures have been found to have little effect on preventing drug-related offenses, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

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Despite this, deterrence is regularly touted by the government, as it evokes emotive scenarios to reject anti-death penalty activists’ calls for a more human-focused judicial approach.

“If we removed the death penalty, I have no doubt, more drug syndicates and traffickers will bring larger amounts of drugs into Singapore, and Singaporeans and their families will suffer,” Shanmugam, the law minister, said in March. “We prefer not to have to impose the death penalty on anyone, but we have to continue to do what is best for us as a matter of policy.”

Despite her agreement with the deterrence point, lawyer Luo continues to defend those on death row—for whom it’s literally a matter of life and death—to ensure that her clients are afforded a fair legal process. 

“Because the sentence is so severe, all the more you must fight hard for these people,” she said. “You must not carry out the death penalty on someone who is likely to be innocent.”

But even for those guilty of their crimes, the line between victim and criminal isn’t as clear as most in Singapore would like to believe. Local activists say that, from their experience working with death row inmates and their families, the overlap between drug trafficker and drug addict is extremely high. Han calls this the “disjoint” between public perception and reality, where many assume “these men on death row are hardened criminals.” 

“That's one of the big misconceptions, that they are victims of drug abuse and then there are drug traffickers who prey on them,” said Han. “But what I've seen is that these two categories are not so clearly separated and that there are so many levels of struggle, deprivation, inequality, and marginalization that feed into this very complicated issue.”

“There are definitely death row prisoners who themselves struggle with addiction. And that's what led them into more involvement in the drug trade.”

According to his family, Abdul Kahar bin Othman, who in March became Singapore’s first executed inmate in two years, struggled with addiction for most of his life before he was convicted of trafficking 66.77 grams of heroin in 2013. Similarly, Nazira’s brother was addicted to drugs from the age of 14, she said.

Forced to give up their youngest sibling to adoption due to poverty, Nazira worked multiple jobs to support the family financially. But when it came to her older brother’s struggle with addiction, her hands were tied. 

“I was aware, but I was helpless. What could I do? I was only 16 at that time,” said Nazira. “We grew up like wild plants.”

Han, who has been helping Nazira share her brother’s story, thinks that in time more Singaporeans will come to see that the death penalty isn’t the panacea it’s made out to be. But even as activists remain hopeful of an easing of capital punishment in the future, they know that it would come too late for men like Abdul Kahar, Nagen—and likely Nazeri. 

“What I see with the families is that every single person is much more than the mistakes that they have made,” Han said. “I'm hopeful that [change will] happen. What I worry about is how many more lives will it take for it to happen?”

Follow Koh Ewe on Twitter and Instagram.