While other Hindu families in Singapore and Malaysia were preparing to celebrate Deepavali last week, Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam’s family had to rush to make some very different arrangements—possibly the last they might ever make for him.
Nagaenthran, or Nagen to his family, was arrested in Singapore in 2009 and charged with trafficking 42.72 grams of diamorphine—a form of heroin used to treat severe pain. He was sentenced to death the following year, which means he has spent over a decade on death row. In a letter dated 26 October, the family were informed by the Singapore Prison Service that his death sentence would be carried out—by long-drop hanging, as is the practice in the city-state—on 10 November. In order to see 33-year-old Nagen for what may be the last time, the family have had to scramble to make arrangements to travel from Malaysia to Singapore in the middle of a pandemic. The same letter also instructed the family to make funeral arrangements.
Nagen previously testified in court that he had been “coerced” into trafficking the drugs by a man who threatened to murder his girlfriend. The court did not believe him. The Singapore Court of Appeal ruled in 2011 that Nagen’s actions were the result of “the working of a criminal mind” and that he had made a “deliberate, purposeful and calculated decision” to smuggle drugs into Singapore so that he could pay off debts.
If we don’t succeed, Nagaenthran will be the latest person killed in the name of Singapore’s war on drugs.
An evaluation by multiple state-appointed experts found that Nagen has an IQ of only 69 (the average being 100), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and borderline intellectual functioning. In a 2017 report to the court, Dr. Kenneth Koh of the Institute of Mental Health concluded that “[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”.
Nonetheless, the court found that this was not sufficient to satisfy the exemption in Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act for those who exhibit an “abnormality of mind” that substantially impairs their “mental responsibility”, which allows for a lifetime prison sentence instead of the death penalty.
Urgent efforts, undertaken by lawyers, activists and regional and international human rights and drug policy organisations are underway to save Nagen from the hangman. I myself have been involved in making arrangements for the family to come to Singapore, as well as running a crowdfunding campaign to help them cover expenses. Nagen’s lawyer, M Ravi, will appear before the High Court on the afternoon of 8 November to argue that executing his client would be unconstitutional and in violation of the international convention on the rights of people with disabilities. Hopefully, this will at least lead to a stay of execution that will buy us more time. If we don’t succeed, Nagaenthran will be the latest person killed in the name of Singapore’s war on drugs, and the first execution since 2019.
Hanging People With Cognitive Impairment
Singapore makes no apologies for—and is in fact very proud of—its tough, punitive policy on drugs. It is one of 35 countries in the world that still impose the death penalty for drug offences, and is classified by Harm Reduction International as a “high application” state, alongside neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia. The government claims this is what we need to keep Singapore from being overrun by drugs, and actively produces propaganda (including a mobile game called “Drug Buster Buddies”) that pushes this narrative to the public. According to the state, the more we police and punish, the safer we are.
Nagaenthran isn’t the only person with a borderline IQ whom Singapore has condemned to death for drug offences. In April 1996, Singapore hanged Rozman bin Jusoh, whose IQ was 74, for trafficking just over a kilo of cannabis. In 1993, he’d been approached by two men, who later turned out to be working for the Central Narcotics Bureau. They asked Rozman for cannabis; although Rozman initially said no, the CNB officer pushed the issue. The next day, Rozman met up with the man again and provided him with cannabis, upon which he was promptly arrested.
If Singapore were to follow international standards, individuals with intellectual disabilities like Rozman and Nagaenthran would come nowhere near the capital punishment regime.
During Rozman’s trial, an interpreter observed that he “could not even answer simple questions”, and the trial judge noted that he often seemed to be “plainly confused”, giving the impression of being a “guileless simpleton”. The judge also found that Rozman “would not have embarked upon this expedition…if not for his feeble mind which seemed to have been overborne” by the CNB. Noting Rozman’s intellectual disability, the trial judge chose to convict him for possession instead of trafficking, which would have triggered the mandatory death penalty. The prosecution appealed, and in 1995, the Court of Appeal overturned the trial judge’s verdict and sentenced Rozman to death. He was hanged the following year.
If Singapore were to follow international standards, individuals with intellectual disabilities like Rozman and Nagaenthran would come nowhere near the capital punishment regime. United Nations experts have repeatedly stated that the death penalty should not be imposed on people with mental or intellectual disabilities. Yet Singapore, hell-bent on punishing its way out of the drug quandary, refuses to show mercy or leniency even in such cases.
The Lack of Rights-Based Approaches
Proponents of a “zero tolerance” policing approach to drugs say it protects people from falling victim to substance abuse, which can ruin lives and tear families apart. But what we don’t talk about is that this “war on drugs” attitude also causes harm, often to people who are in need of support and care.
When we only ever talk about drugs as a “scourge” and about drug possession—whether for consumption or sale—as a crime, we are perpetuating narratives that feed into moral panics whenever the subject of drugs comes up, which in turn makes it even more difficult for us to have open discussions about drugs and policy reform. Although the authorities might claim their use of capital punishment and prison terms keeps Singaporeans safe from drugs, these measures end up not only making it even more difficult to access social services, but also inflict unnecessary pain.
On 16 September 2021, 17-year-old Justin Lee fell 12 storeys and died. His mother, Cecilia Ow, is sure that it was suicide, and that it was connected to trauma from Justin’s run-in with the narcotics police. In early February, Justin had been arrested and brought home in handcuffs, where police searched his room. He was then whisked away, alone, to be interrogated. His mother later said he had been interrogated with his left hand cuffed to a table. Although both Justin and his mother had told police that he had been diagnosed with persistent depression, the Central Narcotics Bureau later said they had proceeded with questioning him alone because he was “composed and coherent”, and they did not observe signs of distress.
“Punitive policies foster stigma, discrimination and marginalisation, which in turn prevent people from seeking help when needed.”
But outward composure isn’t necessarily an indication that all is well; people can feel distress and pain while still seeming “composed and coherent”. In the aftermath of his investigation, Ow told me her son had been “totally changed”; he kept to his room, lost weight, had trouble sleeping and became paranoid about being tracked by the police. Although the police said they treated Justin “professionally and fairly”, Ow remains convinced that her young son’s experience of being investigated by the police, without any accompaniment by a trusted adult or legal counsel, contributed to his death.
The end of the CNB statement on their treatment of Justin rehashes the official narrative on drugs once again: “CNB is committed to keeping the streets of Singapore drug-free, and conducts rigorous enforcement to deal with the trafficking of drugs. CNB has to adopt a proactive approach to disrupt such activities before they take root. Drug trafficking and drug abuse are serious threats to our society. If left unchecked, more lives would be harmed and families affected.”
But this “proactive approach” doesn’t actually work. “Decades of research clearly show that punitive drug policies are not effective in reducing drug use or drug-related harms,” says Giada Girelli, a human rights analyst at Harm Reduction International. “With regards to the death penalty, no positive correlation has been found between the imposition of capital punishment and drug use or positive public health outcomes.”
Trying to determine whether or not tough drug laws really have a deterrent effect is a tremendously complex undertaking, but there are indications that they don’t work that way. Some of the countries that HRI classifies as “high application” in the use of the death penalty for drugs have larger documented populations of people who inject drugs than countries without capital punishment for drug offences.
Although people like to tell anti-death penalty activists and drug policy reform advocates to “think of the victims and the families destroyed by drugs”, such a harsh approach to drugs doesn’t actually help people who struggle with drug use. “On the contrary, punitive policies foster stigma, discrimination and marginalisation, which in turn prevent people from seeking help when needed,” Girelli says.
In Singapore, we see this stigma manifest in various ways, such as the legal requirement for doctors to report people to the authorities for drug use, which deters people struggling with drug dependency from seeking treatment. Public perception of drugs—informed by the authorities’ demonisation of people involved with drugs—also leads to attitudes that blame instead of support. When Ow spoke out about her son’s death, multiple comments on social media blamed Justin for his own involvement with drugs and accused her of poor parenting. The stigma against any connection to illicit drugs is so strong that it often feels as if people believe that individuals accused of drug offences have it coming, regardless of what happens to them—even if it’s a death sentence.
If we really want to help people and adopt rehabilitative approaches, then we need to stop thinking that we can arrest, jail and execute our way out of dealing with drug abuse.
For politicians, a “tough on crime” stance might offer more short-term political mileage than measures that would prove to be more effective in the long term. Girelli points out that factors such as poverty, inequality and discrimination are all factors that have significant impacts on mental health and drug dependence.
“While countries tend to adopt very harsh policies centred around repression and control, the reality is that targeting these structural factors is key to addressing mental health concerns as well as problematic drug use,” Girelli says. “Unfortunately, these kinds of policies require time and resources.”
A Shift We Need to Make
The clock is ticking for Nagaenthran. Apart from the looming execution date, his family are now worried about his current mental state after more than a decade of isolation on death row. His younger brother Navin told a Transformative Justice Collective member that Nagen is now disoriented, incoherent and might not fully comprehend that he may soon be hanged. Meanwhile, Cecilia Ow has joined the ranks of many—including the relatives of people Singapore has already hanged—who have to bear the pain of Singapore’s zero tolerance.
This is not the only way; there are other approaches and best practices that we can learn from. If we really want to help people and adopt rehabilitative approaches, then we need to stop thinking that we can arrest, jail and execute our way out of dealing with drug abuse. We might not be able to bring Justin or Rozman back, but we can still save Nagen and spare other families the pain of losing a loved one.
Header illustration by Charis Loke