A spotlight on the death penalty in Singapore

·3-min read

NOVEMBER 14 — The case of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man sentenced to death in Singapore, has garnered considerable interest on both sides of the Causeway.

In 2011, aged just 21, Nagaenthran was arrested for transporting 43 grams of heroin into Singapore. He was subsequently sentenced to death for trafficking drugs.

Singapore has long operated a zero-tolerance policy on drugs with death sentences imposed for the transport of even relatively small amounts of narcotics.

The island republic has historically executed hundreds of drug traffickers with fairly limited public criticism. The government’s use of the death penalty has been popular with past surveys indicating between 70-90 per cent of the population supporting executions.

However, Nagaenthran was just 21 at the point of his arrest. His lawyers have also argued that he is intellectually subnormal.

That his low IQ of 69 means he wasn’t fully cognisant of what he was doing — impoverished and in debt he had been told he would be given money for moving the parcel of narcotics.

An undated handout photo shows Nagaenthran Dharmalingam holding his nephew in Ipoh, Malaysia. — Reuters pic
An undated handout photo shows Nagaenthran Dharmalingam holding his nephew in Ipoh, Malaysia. — Reuters pic

As a very poor young man with low intellectual capacity, it seems likely that Nagaenthran was at most a very low level pawn in whatever drug smuggling operation he was part of.

So there have been questions about the need to impose the death sentence in his case.

A petition to stay his execution gathered over 60,000 signatures in Singapore.

Even Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob wrote to the Singapore government asking for the sentence to be mitigated.

However, Singapore’s courts have consistently stated that Nagaenthran understood what he was doing and that the death penalty is appropriate in this case.

He was scheduled to be executed last week but he tested positive for Covid-19 which ironically earned him a reprieve. He will now be treated first then executed. The whole case just sheds light on Singapore’s continued use of the death penalty.

Singapore is one of only a handful of developed nations to carry out death sentences along with the USA, and Japan. South Korea has effectively suspended the practice and low-crime Hong Kong, long a point of comparison for Singapore, abolished the death penalty in 1993.

While there are cases where the death penalty may perhaps be justified — violent murders, brutal organised crimes etc. – I find it hard to make a case for low-level drug mules to be executed.

If there is a case for execution here, surely it should be made against the higher-level members of this smuggling ring.

In general, the bar for courts and the state to take a person’s life should be very high. These are all ultimately fallible institutions; no one and nothing gets it right 100 per cent of the time and the death penalty is irreversible.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles Family of Malaysian on death row in Singapore pleads for his life Cops find RM1.9m worth of illicit drugs hidden under frozen fish in Johor Concerned with the case of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam — Suhakam

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