Singapore Wrestles With the Death Penalty

The city-state has traditionally executed people for drug offenses, but cracks in the national consensus are appearing.

An illustration involving the flag of Singapore behind prison bars
Daniel Zender / The Atlantic

Word of death sometimes comes by the most bureaucratic means.

Notice that Pannir Selvam Pranthaman would be killed by the Singaporean government arrived at his sister’s home via DHL. The red-and-yellow envelope, delivered to Sangkari Pranthaman’s apartment in Kuala Lumpur on May 17, 2019, contained two letters: One stated that the president of Singapore had rejected Pannir’s clemency plea; the other informed Sangkari that her younger brother would shortly be hanged for bringing four small packets of heroin across the border into Singapore from Malaysia five years earlier. Last year, Singapore hanged 11 people, all for drug offenses. The country is only one of four known to still execute people for drug-related crimes, according to Amnesty International.

When the siblings were growing up in Ipoh, a hilly city in northwestern Malaysia, for several years they attended the same school, where Sangkari would try to keep an eye on her younger brother. He was “the naughtiest” of the family’s six children, she told me recently—he had a hard time paying attention and was always bouncing around. After school, she would report back to their strict Christian parents if she’d seen Pannir waiting outside the principal’s office to be disciplined. He didn’t appreciate the constant monitoring. As they grew into adulthood, she, of course, could not be her brother’s keeper.

After Pannir was originally arrested on drug charges, in September 2014, Sangkari reprised the childhood role of protective older sibling. First, she tracked down her brother in detention when he stopped responding to messages from family members. Then, in the years since, she has acted as his public advocate and a family spokesperson.

When Sangkari and Angelia, Pannir’s younger sister, speak about their brother, they tear up in laughter recalling their childhood, tear up in despondence at his current plight, and, occasionally, tear up for reasons they can’t fully explain. As they give the details of his case, they pause on multiple occasions to reiterate that they are not arguing Pannir’s innocence. They do not want him immediately freed from prison, nor do they expect him to be cleared of the crime of which he has been found guilty. They just want him alive. “This was his mistake, entirely his mistake,” Sangkari told me. “Because he has committed a crime, he needs to be punished, but the punishment needs to be adequate, not simply putting him to death.”

The number of executions carried out in Singapore has dropped substantially since the 1990s; in 2012, a number of minor amendments were made to the death-penalty laws. Yet Singapore has stubbornly maintained a hard-line policy on drugs that mandates the death penalty for even minor infractions. Executions restarted with a renewed vigor last year after a two-year hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic. (The Ministry of Home Affairs did not respond to my list of questions, but said that “drugs not only kill but cause an immeasurable amount of harm to families and societies as a whole,” and that “the death penalty is an essential component of Singapore’s criminal justice system and has been effective in keeping Singapore safe and secure.”)

Both independent and government surveys continue to show strong support for capital punishment, with about seven in 10 people backing execution for the most serious crimes. Yet the resumption of executions met with a distinct upsurge in public sentiment against the mandatory death penalty. Thousands of dollars in donations poured in to assist the family of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man with an IQ of 69, according to his lawyers, who had been convicted of smuggling roughly three tablespoons’ worth of heroin into Singapore. Hundreds of people gathered to mourn him at a candlelight vigil after he was put to death last April. In a country where freedom of assembly hardly exists and public debate is tightly controlled, the expanding conversation about the death penalty has been notable—especially for the way that it has challenged the status quo more broadly on issues of race, privilege, and inequality. Still, those calling for reforms undoubtedly face a long campaign, and one in which the possibility of enacting tangible reforms remains ultimately unknown.

Singapore’s government does not release information on the ethnicity of people on death row, but the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted in 2021 that a majority of sentenced prisoners belong to ethnic minorities. From 2015 to 2020, experts from the committee said, 44 individuals were sentenced to the death penalty for drug offenses—of whom four were Chinese, three were Indian, and 37 were Malay. A government official said in September 2022 that 10 Malaysians were on death row. In Singapore, which relies on migrant labor from poorer Asian countries to build its skyscrapers, maintain its roads, and care for its senior citizens, those numbers are striking.

The Transformative Justice Collective, a civil-society group that advocates for prisoners on death row, has spearheaded the effort to build greater awareness among Singaporeans of the injustices of capital punishment. “It is not asking them to just feel pity, but to ask questions about the values on which our society is built and how this system works,” Kirsten Han, a member of the organization, told me. “This issue of the death penalty and prisons is not separate from questions about inequality and labor conditions.”

Singapore’s mulish position on executions has held despite a worldwide trend away from the death penalty. The government continues to hew to a communitarian ideology that regards the state as obliged to protect the population’s well-being through a range of preemptive actions and stringent measures. And if that protection comes at the expense of individual rights, so be it.

In many respects, over the past decade, Singapore has shed old stereotypes of being a stodgy, uptight nanny state. It has recast itself as an avatar of innovation, masterfully marketed through Hollywood films and hit TV series. The Economist recently referred to the city-state as the “Vienna of the 21st century,” as it draws in China watchers who abandoned that country during the pandemic or were forced to relocate by Beijing’s more authoritarian turn of recent years. Given its growing success with rebranding, Singapore’s stubborn adherence to capital punishment seems jarring. In the past month, with changes to the death penalty in Malaysia, the country looks more like an outlier even in a region that is hardly known for its progressive values.

Formerly a British colony, Singapore retained the death penalty when it gained independence from Malaysia in 1965. The city-state also retained the method of execution it inherited from the colonial era: long-drop hanging, developed in the U.K. in the late 1800s. According to a 2020 paper by two scholars at Australia’s Monash University, Ariel Yap and Shih Joo Tan, Singapore has since independence maintained an “ideology of survival” and justified capital punishment in part because of the country’s proximity to the Golden Triangle, an area where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet that is notorious for drug production. Singapore extended the death penalty to cover drug offenses in 1973, and made it mandatory for some of those offenses in 1975.

The regulations at times put even Singapore’s most staunch supporters in awkward predicaments. A U.S. diplomat based in Singapore in the late ’70s and early ’80s told an oral-history project that staff at the Singapore American School, an elite international school, would routinely conduct searches of students’ lockers. Those found with drugs would be quickly whisked out of the country to avoid criminal charges.

Elsewhere in the region, attitudes on both the death penalty for drug offenses and drug use itself have shifted. Nearby Thailand decriminalized marijuana last year. The streets of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and other tourism hubs quickly became crammed with shops selling a pungent cornucopia of weed-laced edibles and joints. And this month, neighboring Malaysia’s Parliament passed sweeping reforms to remove the mandatory death penalty, slash the number of offenses punishable by death, and end life sentences of imprisonment. Some 1,300 people there are now eligible for sentencing reviews.

Amid these signs of liberalization, Singapore’s defense of its practices has grown louder. A sign at the airport reminds citizens and permanent residents departing for Thailand that consuming drugs, even overseas, is illegal. When Vogue magazine’s Singaporean edition profiled Han, of the Transformative Justice Collective, last year, the government issued a nine-point rebuttal rife with whataboutism—accusing the magazine of “seeking to glamourise campaigners against the death penalty”—that Vogue posted as a response. The minister for home affairs and law, a fierce litigator named K. Shanmugam, who posts Facebook updates of his weight-lifting achievements, is the most vocal supporter of the city-state’s execution policy and the sternest critic of those who oppose it.

“The silence, of narco liberals and apologists for drug traffickers, is deafening. Some are probably hoping that the link between drugs and the violence will be overlooked,” he wrote in a Facebook post last year, after an ex–police officer in Thailand who had attacked a rural child-care center and killed 38 people, the majority of them young children, was reported to have faced a drug charge. “And as far as I know,” he added, “these activists have not held any candle light vigil for the children who have been massacred.”

After the British billionaire Richard Branson, an outspoken anti-death-penalty advocate, criticized Singapore for executing Dharmalingam, the government reacted with the condescension it typically reserves for its detractors. Hinting at colonial-era grievances, the government portrayed Branson as a member of the Western elite trying to impose his will on the country from afar. The government also invited Branson to take part in a televised debate with Shanmugam; Branson declined.

To challenge any official narrative in Singapore is, by design, a vexing undertaking. The country’s media are highly restricted in what and how they can report, because of the government’s resort to both colonial-era laws and newly enacted legislation against “fake news” and foreign interference. According to Reporters Without Borders, “the city-state does not fall far short of China when it comes to suppressing press freedom.” Demonstrations are allowed only at a designated Speakers’ Corner located within one park. Singapore’s universities are world-renowned, but academic freedom is limited, and scholars are reluctant to take on thorny issues of public interest. For inmates on death row and their families, the prospect of a reprieve, let alone any larger reform, looks distant.

Several young activists have stepped into this daunting space for reformers. Kokila Annamalai, who is 34 and another member of the Transformative Justice Collective, told me she approached 22 lawyers last year to assist in the case of Datchinamurthy Kataiah, a Malaysian man on death row for bringing heroin into Singapore. All of them declined. The sister of another man facing execution told me that her boss, fearing repercussions from the government, had pressured her to stop speaking out about her brother last year after she posted a video detailing his situation. Police issued a warning to a National University of Singapore graduate who held up an anti-death-penalty sign during a graduation ceremony last July. The university ham-fistedly attempted to edit the sign out of official photos and videos of the event.

“You come up against how every facet of the system—censorship, draconian legislation, intimidation—is tied together to make it close to impossible for you to fight back or hold the state accountable for its murderous violence,” Annamalai told me, referring to the executions. “It is designed to be a pain-delivery system, and it succeeds very well at that.”

Scholars who study the issue as well as advocacy groups have shown that no evidence supports the idea that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. The Singaporean government, however, points to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2021, which indicated that some 83 percent of Singaporeans believe the death penalty does deter drug trafficking. “There is a very big difference between ‘The death penalty deters certain offenses’ and ‘People believe the death penalty deters.’ When you don’t have a free press,” Annamalai said, “or any meaningful freedom of speech and expression, it is difficult to contest these narratives.”

A more hedged view was offered by a 2016 academic survey. Although it registered 72 percent overall support for the death penalty, similar to the government’s findings, the researchers argued that it would be “misleading to say, without qualifications, that there is public support for the death penalty in Singapore.” They noted that the “mandatory death penalty has weak support”—only about a third of respondents favored capital punishment for drug trafficking and firearms offenses.

At a Transformative Justice Collective event to mark World Day Against the Death Penalty, which I attended last October, Annamalai offered a playful apology for the hesitant style of some of the speakers: The chance to address a public assembly in Singapore was a rare experience, and some had never done so. As part of its advocacy, the collective also launched a door-knocking drive—in an effort, Annamalai told me, to reach the “uncles,” meaning the kind of people whom social-media campaigns might miss. Volunteers solicited signatures from residents in low-income neighborhoods demanding a moratorium on the death penalty and an independent review of the practice.

Han, who is 34 and has faced police questioning for her advocacy, does not come across as the incendiary agitator that the government has portrayed her to be. She said she had feared lots of slammed doors and few eager listeners. The campaign went better than that, but progress was hard-won—in the first three months, the collective gathered 200 signatures and now has about 650. More might have signed, Annamalai said, were it not for fear of retribution.

The campaigners’ decision to address the public, rather than lobby the government, is deliberate. Singapore’s governing order has proved remarkably resilient. Through economic growth, stability, political engineering, and lawfare, the People’s Action Party has held power since 1965.  In that whole period, the country has had only three prime ministers: the founding father Lee Kuan Yew, one of his cabinet colleagues, and now Lee’s son, who has served for nearly 20 years. As yet, major opposition parties have avoided the death-penalty issue, seeing little upside for themselves.

The United Nations has less inhibition about addressing capital punishment; last year it adopted by a wide margin its ninth resolution on a moratorium on executions. But Singapore was not moved, voting against the resolution, as it has done before. Sara Kowal of the Eleos Anti-Death Penalty Clinic at Monash University, told me that against the global trend, “we see the death penalty very embedded in the Asia-Pacific region.” Singapore’s representative at the UN called the resolution an effort “to export a particular model of society to the rest of the world,” which “betrays an attitude of arrogance and an attitude of cultural superiority.”

The vote placed the city-state alongside a rogues’ gallery of repressive regimes: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China all joined Singapore in opposing the measure. So, too, did the United States, where 18 capital sentences were carried out last year. This is the lowest number for the country since 1991, and 23 states have banned the death penalty, but gruesome instances of botched executions continue to occur. (Ex-President Donald Trump has expressed admiration for Singapore’s execution policy—recently giving it a shout-out as he began his reelection campaign.)

A UN-based official at a nongovernmental organization, who asked not to be named in order to discuss behind-the-scenes deliberations, told me that Singapore had been a driving force in unifying opposition: “Singapore seems even more committed, organized, and has more planning than those leading the resolution.” The country, this NGO staffer conceded, is a “phenomenal adversary.”

Over the past nine years, Pannir has nearly exhausted his legal options. He won a last-minute stay of execution in 2019, after the letters were delivered to his sister. Pannir later attempted to have his sentencing reduced to life imprisonment and caning instead; his lawyer, Too Xing Ji, argued that Pannir had provided information to police that led to the arrest of a drug trafficker. The court ruled in November 2021 that Pannir’s information about the trafficker was true and contemporaneous, and the individual was later arrested, but it was not sufficient grounds for a change of sentencing, because the Central Narcotics Bureau said it had not used the information in its arrest. His final legal challenge is a civil suit alleging that inmates’ private correspondence was improperly shared with the attorney general by prison officials. A hearing in that case is scheduled for early next month.

Pannir’s ultimate fate will be uniquely his own, but his journey to death row is one that shares many commonalities with that of others who have faced execution in Singapore before him. After finishing high school in Malaysia, he found a job in 2010 as a security guard in Singapore. To save money, Pannir often stayed in Johor Bahru, a Malaysian city close to the border with Singapore, and commuted across the causeway that connects the two countries. With few friends and far from family and home, he spent many hours at a small gambling parlor near his apartment. There, according to court documents and his sisters, he became acquainted with a man he knew as “Anand.”

Late on September 4, 2014, police searched Pannir’s motorbike as he made the trip into Singapore and found packets wrapped in tape that were later identified as containing just under two ounces of heroin. Pannir told officers that he was carrying the packages for Anand, and he believed they were some kind of aphrodisiac. Pannir has been in prison ever since.

When Sangkari became pregnant, Angelia started making the trip to Singapore each weekend to see their brother. Over the years, she has become a seasoned campaigner, lobbying popular musicians to record songs written by her brother in jail—and looking beyond Singapore to argue in favor of Malaysia’s recent death-penalty reforms.

Angelia keeps a folder stuffed with bus-ticket stubs, flight boarding passes, and hotel receipts among stacks of legal documents and T-shirts emblazoned with her brother’s image. When I asked why she was holding on to these things, she smiled. When her brother got out, she said, laughing, she was going to make him repay all the expenses.