Singapore Just Executed an Inmate at the Heart of a Growing Anti-Death Penalty Movement

The Malaysian man, assessed to have “borderline intellectual functioning,” was seen weeping as he held his mother's hand prior to his execution.
Koh Ewe
Malaysian national Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, sentenced to death for trafficking heroin into Singapore.
People display placards and lights during a vigil for Malaysian national Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, sentenced to death for trafficking heroin into Singapore, at Speakers corner in Singapore on April 25. Roslan RAHMAN / AFP

Ignoring domestic and international outcry, Singaporean authorities went ahead on Wednesday morning with the hanging of a man sentenced to death for drug trafficking.

The shocking details of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam’s case had placed him at the center of a growing anti-death penalty movement in Singapore in recent months. Many have mourned the 34-year-old Malaysian man’s passing, with calls for Singapore to abolish the death penalty only getting louder.


Authorities in the island nation, which has some of the world’s strictest drug laws, swiftly condemned those involved in assisting Nagen’s last-minute appeals to overturn his sentence.

Nagen was convicted of trafficking less than three tablespoons of diamorphine in 2009 at the age of 21, and has spent more than a decade on death row in Singapore. His case received significant public attention last November when his family first received what many deemed a cold-hearted letter alerting them to his imminent execution. 

Assessed to have “borderline intellectual functioning” with an IQ of 69, Nagen’s case prompted calls from Singaporean and international groups to spare his life. In a strange twist of fate, his scheduled execution in November was postponed at the last minute when he tested positive for COVID-19. 

Nagen was brought to the gallows on Wednesday morning after having a final court application dismissed the day before. After the court’s decision was delivered on Tuesday, he was seen holding hands with his mother through a small opening in a glass screen as they wept.

Nagen’s hanging comes less than a month after Singapore carried out its first execution in two years, when Abdul Kahar bin Othman, a Malaysian man convicted of trafficking a total of 66.77g of heroin in 2013, was hanged on March 30. Meanwhile, Datchinamurthy Kataiah, another Malaysian convicted of drug trafficking who has spent some seven years on death row, is scheduled to be executed on Friday.


Rights groups have expressed concern at this resumption of executions, while families of death row inmates grapple with the loss of their loved ones. Singaporean journalist and social activist Kirsten Han told VICE World News during an Instagram Live session on Tuesday evening that the death penalty is not the “deterrent” it is often thought as.

“The death penalty doesn't do what the Singapore government thinks it does,” said Han, also a member of anti-death penalty advocacy group the Transformative Justice Collective. “We've seen how minorities and marginalized people are disproportionately the ones on death row.”

The Instagram Live session was also attended by British billionaire and social campaigner Richard Branson, who also campaigned for clemency for Nagen as part of his Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty movement. 

Branson said that he was “astounded” by Nagen’s story when he first heard about it.

“I have an enormous respect for Singapore, but that policy of continuing to hang and execute people—and in particular to even consider hanging and executing somebody with intellectual disability, which is against international law—meant that I felt I just had to speak out about it,” he said.

The anguish suffered by family members of death row inmates has been witnessed firsthand by Han, who along with others from the Transformative Justice Collective has been supporting families while they grapple with looming execution dates.


“It’s just so much anxiety and psychological stress and distress. It's traumatic, actually,” she said. “It's punishment not just for the person in prison, but it’s punishment for the whole family.”

As local activists vow to fight on, officials in the paternalistic city-state appear to be coming after those who were closely involved in Nagaenthran’s high-profile court case. Describing it as “reprehensible and improper” to keep Tuesday’s court application “in the pocket” until the eleventh hour, the Singapore Attorney-General's Chambers said in a statement on Wednesday that it “will not hesitate to take appropriate action to protect the administration of justice.”

But the anti-death penalty movement seems to only be getting stronger. Calling Nagen’s execution a “watershed moment,” NGO Reprieve said in a tweet that “the tide is turning in Singapore” with regards to the abolition of the death penalty. 

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