Singapore intends to hang Abdul Kahar bin Othman on Wednesday. If the state gets its way, they will be ending the life of someone who never got to live a full life.

Kahar is the eldest son in a family of seven children. His father died at a young age, leaving his mother to work low-wage contract jobs to make ends meet. It was not always possible to put food on the table; Abdul Jabar, Kahar’s youngest brother, remembers sometimes stealing food from the neighborhood coffeeshop, just because he’d been so hungry. Education was not a priority; Abdul Mutalib, another brother, says he had difficulty focusing on his studies as a child whose stomach was often empty.

Kahar got in trouble when he was about 18 years old — his brothers were too young back then to know the full details — and was sent to prison. It was after that, Mutalib recalls, that Kahar started using heroin. The addiction that developed sent him on a downward spiral of arrests and imprisonment. Now, at the age of 68, Kahar has spent more time in prison than out of it.

This history of repeated incarceration might prompt some to see Kahar as recalcitrant and incorrigible, and therefore deserving of even the harshest of punishments. Years ago, I might have said the same. When I spoke to Kahar’s brothers this past weekend, though, what became clear to me was that he had never had a real chance, and has been failed by society and the state at every turn.

Incarceration is a traumatic experience that cuts people off from the rest of society, freezing their lives in time as the outside world develops. Upon release, a person is plunged into the deep end, going from a regimented environment where almost every decision is made for them to a noisy, messy world of financial burdens, family obligations, job-hunting, rapidly developing technology, questions, problems, and dilemmas. It can be a bewildering culture shock, exacerbated by social stigma, especially when it comes to seeking employment. Many who were formerly incarcerated have spoken about the difficulties of finding work with a criminal record; often, they find that the positions open to them might not actually pay enough for them to provide for their families, increasing the amount of stress and anxiety they feel. For those with a substance use disorder, such pressures can drive them back into the familiar embrace of the drugs they’d previously consumed.

In 2005, Kahar was released after serving 10 years of preventive detention. In Singapore, preventive detention is meted out to people deemed to be serious or repeat offenders that need to be removed from society. With preventive detention, judges are allowed to hand down jail terms that far exceed the stipulated maximum for the specific offense one has been charged for. Based on research done by volunteers at the Transformative Justice Collective, a group of which I am a member, it is unlikely that prisoners under preventive detention are signed up for rehabilitation programs, since they might be seen as being beyond help. The prison system prefers to use its resources on people it thinks it will get the “best returns” from.

Mutalib was the one who picked Kahar up from prison after that 10-year stint. There was no follow-up, no guidance, no support for either Kahar or his family. Mutalib remembers how his brother had been totally disoriented, staring wide-eyed at a Singapore that had changed from the one he’d ‘left’ in the mid-1990s. At home, Kahar kept squatting on the floor instead of sitting on chairs and sofas. After years of living, eating and sleeping in sparse concrete cells, he wasn’t used to furniture.


Photo Courtesy of the Family of Abdul Kahar bin Othman

Abdul Mutalib, brother of Abdul Kahar, with their mother in Singapore.

Mutalib gave his older brother a job at his furniture business, doing upholstery and making deliveries. Things seemed to be going all right for a time; Kahar worked hard, took care of his mother, and developed a good relationship with his nieces. But Mutalib later sold his business, and his brother was at a loose end once again. It was after that, he says, that Kahar was once again arrested for drug offenses. This time, the charges were serious enough that conviction landed him on death row.

Last week, Mutalib was handed an execution notice stating the prison service’s intention to hang Kahar on March 30. His is the fifth family to receive such a notice during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, the family of Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin was given a similar letter. In 2021, Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam’s family in Malaysia were informed as they were preparing to celebrate Deepavali. Last month, the families of Roslan bin Bakar, Pausi bin Jefridin and Rosman bin Abdullah were all given notices. These five executions were all eventually stayed due to desperate late-stage court applications, although even those avenues are quickly getting exhausted. No such application has been filed for Kahar, thus reducing the chances of his execution being delayed or halted.

In Kahar’s story we see someone who has experienced poverty, hunger, and a range of barriers to opportunities. Earlier stints in prison failed to provide what he needed to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society; later imprisonment saw him marked out as a repeat offender and undeserving of resources. Instead of helping him rebuild his life upon release, incarceration left him with an experience and a record that alienated him from the world, opening him up to the judgment and prejudice of others at times when his need for support was the greatest. This is not to say that he should take no responsibility for any of his actions, but that, throughout his life, Kahar had been placed in circumstances that only made it more difficult for him to walk new paths. Again and again, society judged and rejected him. Now, with his hanging looming, Singapore is poised to carry out our final act of rejection.

Abolitionists often say that capital punishment is a system in which those without capital get the punishment. Kahar’s case is a perfect illustration of this. There are people who are, frankly put, discarded by society, written off as “gone case” and undeserving of further effort or support. By executing them, we pretend that we’re solving problems and administering “justice.” What we are actually doing is taking inequality and injustice to its most extreme conclusion.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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