Given the circumstances, conjuring a smile couldn’t have been easy. Still, Prabu N. Pathmanathan, a 31-year-old Malaysian convicted of drug trafficking, put on his best face when it came time for his final photographs to be taken. Despite a Malaysian government appeal for leniency, he would be hanged just hours later at Changi Prison in Singapore.
The young Malaysian, sentenced to death for couriering 7.97 ounces of heroin into the city-state in 2014, was among at least six individuals executed in Singapore this month for drug offenses. His fate was sealed after the President’s Office of Singapore rejected two petitions lodged by family members and civil society groups requesting clemency.
Though the Singapore Prison Service does not routinely release information about imminent executions apart from figures released in its annual report, anti-death penalty activists claim that seven executions have taken place since the beginning of October, including four this week.
Asia Times could not independently verify the figure. The wealthy Southeast Asian city-state is known to have conducted a total of eight executions in 2017 and four in 2016. An uptick in the use of capital punishment in Singapore comes as neighboring Malaysia announced earlier this month that it would abolish the death penalty for all crimes.
World’s strictest drug laws
Both countries inherited colonial-era capital punishment laws from British rule, which impose the death penalty – carried out by hanging – for crimes such as murder, kidnapping, some firearms offenses, and drug trafficking. Singapore is regarded as having the world’s strictest drug laws and the majority of the country’s execution cases are for drugs offenses.
Those found possessing specific drugs above a prescribed amount are automatically presumed to be traffickers and are subject to the death penalty, a practice that despite attracting foreign criticism and condemnation by international rights groups is seen elsewhere in the region in Vietnam, Indonesia and – until recently – Malaysia.
Malaysia’s decision to pull back from capital punishment is part of broader institutional reform push now being undertaken by the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, which clinched a historic election victory in May. The new government also intends to repeal the colonial-era Sedition Act, which critics say has long been used to stifle dissent.
The legislation to repeal both laws has yet to be introduced in parliament, though media reports suggest they could be rescinded by the end of the year. Rights groups and civil society organizations praised Malaysia’s decision as setting an example for the region, sparking debate about sentencing alternatives the country could adopt instead.
KL halts pending executions
Malaysia has halted all pending executions for the 1,279 prisoners still on death row and reports claim that those condemned to the gallows will be commuted to a prison term of at least 30 years. Liew Vui Keong, Malaysia’s law minister, says the government is not convinced that capital punishment serves as an effective crime prevention deterrent.
Singapore’s government unflinchingly claims the opposite is true, that capital punishment deters severe criminal acts and rampant drug use and has helped the city-state garner a reputation as one of the world’s safest places. Researchers, however, believe there is a lack of reliable data on drug use in Singapore to support the government’s claims.
Moreover, Singapore government data shows that drug abuse actually increased from 2003 to 2017, despite the harsh laws criminalizing possession and trafficking. Though drug abuse has grown, low overall rates of incarceration for abusers have buoyed claims that Singapore remains relatively drug-free because of its zero-tolerance approach.
The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) claims the number of drug abusers arrested last year comprised less than 0.1% of Singapore’s total population. As such, Singapore’s stance has hardened in recent years as certain countries move away from criminalizing drug use in favor of strategies that emphasize public health, harm reduction or legalization.
“Our penalties are severe because we want to deter [drug] offenses, not because we take any joy in enforcing them,” Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told Parliament earlier this year, claiming that anti-death penalty activists in Singapore “light candles” and “write emotive stories” for traffickers while ignoring the “real victims.”
142 countries no longer carry out executions
The wealthy city-state, a major port and international financial hub where thousands of multinationals are headquartered, is one of only four countries with recorded drug offense executions in 2017, along with China, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Some 106 countries have abolished the death penalty and 142 in total are abolitionist in law or practice.
But more than two-thirds of Singaporeans support the death penalty, according to a survey commissioned by the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2016, while a similar survey in 2013 conducted in Malaysia saw more than three-quarters of respondents affirm their approval of the death penalty for drug trafficking or firearms offenses.
Singapore’s use of capital punishment has at times led to unwanted tensions in diplomatic relations with countries opposed to the death penalty, such as when Johannes van Damme, a Dutch national, was executed in 1994 for trafficking heroin despite appeals from the Dutch Foreign Ministry and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.
Despite Malaysia’s calls to spare the life of its citizen falling on deaf ears, the government released a statement hours after Prabu’s execution saying it respected the rule of law and due process of Singapore and that it was in communication with the family to make arrangements for his cremated remains to be returned.
In the wake of the recent hangings, We Believe in Second Chances, a local anti-death penalty advocacy and research group, released a statement urging that the penalty be reassessed, saying death row inmates had “a pattern of poverty and marginalization”. It calls the penalty a “cruel and inhumane form of punishment.”
‘Less time for families to prepare’
Two of the four executions believed to have taken place in Singapore this week were scheduled on a Wednesday morning – a departure from the usual practice of executions taking place at dawn on Fridays. When inmates could obtain a stay of execution past a Friday, it was thought an execution would then be deferred by at least a week.
By carrying out hangings on a Wednesday, anti-death penalty activists claim to have less ability to monitor hangings because it is now less clear when they may occur. They also claim that the time between the rejection of a clemency appeal and the scheduling of an execution also appears to have been reduced.
That gives families of those sentenced to death less time to prepare for an execution and take legal recourse. According to Prabu’s lawyer, N. Surendran, his family was only notified of his execution six days before it occurred. His legal counsel also claims that confessions obtained against the young Malaysian by the prosecution were made under duress.
It is a regular practice in Singapore for prisoners on death row to be granted a final photoshoot wearing civilian clothes provided by family members. Prabu reportedly gave anti-death penalty activists consent to share his last images online, so as to “urge people not to be involved with drugs.”