The afternoon before Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam was put to death, I sat in the public gallery of Singapore’s apex court. In the main hall, public prosecutors and judges described the late-stage application filed by Nagen’s 60-year-old working class mother as “frivolous” and an “abuse of court process.” They questioned Mdm Panchalai, demanding to know who had helped her draft and file the documents. (It’s entirely legitimate for anyone to seek help and file applications directly to the court without legal counsel.) In their submissions, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, which acts as the state prosecutor, suggested that the legal application had not truly come from Mdm Panchalai, but had been orchestrated by others who wanted to abuse the court process while hiding their involvement, so as to evade potential penalties. They repeated this insinuation in a press release issued the morning Nagen was hanged. It was their only response to Nagen’s execution.

I’m sure there are many legal minds for whom the court’s pronouncements are significant for study and future application. But that afternoon, all I could think of was what it says about our humanity when we let the “efficiency” of court processes take precedence over a person’s life. When we look at a desperate mother — a woman who barely speaks English, who stood terrified before solemn judges in an entirely alien environment — fighting for her son the day before the state wants to put him to death, and assume a conspiracy aimed at undermining our authority and wasting our time.


Photo Credit: Kirsten Han

Singaporeans once again gathered in Hong Lim Park on 25 April 2022, ahead of the scheduled executions of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam and Datchinamurthy Kataiah. Datchinamurthy latter was later given a stay of execution.

Contrast this with the people who attended Nagen’s short wake in Singapore on the afternoon of April 27, before he was sent on his final journey to his home in Ipoh. Most of the people who showed up were strangers to Nagen and his family, but they came anyway, bringing flowers and money in white envelopes, cards with messages of support. Mourners stood over his casket and shed tears, or offered prayers. Later that weekend, when I visited Nagen’s family in their home, his sister told me that they’d received visitors and condolences from all over Malaysia; people who had driven across the country, or even all the way up from Singapore, just to pay their respects and hand collected donations for his mother. When up against a system that scorns compassion, the power of such acts of support and sympathy cannot be underestimated.

I’ve written about how administrative cruelty sits at the center of the capital punishment regime. It’s an entire system — involving an army of people from law enforcement through prosecution to prison staff, laden with paperwork and protocols — built with the ultimate aim of ending a person’s life. While loved ones send heartfelt pleas for mercy and presidential pardons, clemency rejections are delivered in short, curt sentences. “The sentence of death should stand.” Execution notices are similarly heartless: “Please be informed that the death sentence passed on your son, Nagaenthran a/l K Dharmalingam, will be carried out on 27 April 2022 (Wednesday).” When family members show up for visits in the week before a planned hanging — during which they may still chat and joke and laugh with their loved one — they are also informed of the time they should show up to claim the body after execution, and given a form for an undertaker to fill for security clearance purposes.


Photo Credit: Kirsten Han

It’s so much easier to kill a person when we’ve already stopped thinking of them as one. When capital cases are treated as nothing more than legal puzzles, we are distracted by the jargon and jurisprudence from acknowledging that the entire system is fundamentally about taking the life of the person sitting in the dock. When the media only reports on convictions and sentences before these “criminals” vanish from public view, Singaporeans can forget about the matter without facing up to what the state is doing in all our names. The death penalty is an inhuman punishment, and for it to work, we are pushed to forget our own humanity.

We cannot allow ourselves to forget.

There is no evidence that the death penalty actually deters crime, and public opinion on the death penalty in Singapore isn’t as overwhelmingly supportive as the government claims. Abolitionists have repeated these talking points ad nauseam alongside other arguments about incarceration, restorative justice, and drug policy, but academic surveys and research aren’t in themselves sufficient in pushing for the end of capital punishment. We need to also remind everyone, over and over and over again, that those suffering on death row are people, whose lives are so much more than the offense they’d been convicted of. Dry empirical data can be tuned out, but once the existence and story of a living, breathing person is acknowledged, it can be more difficult to turn away. People might not change their minds about the death penalty right away, but we must at least make them recognize the true cost of this punishment, in the hopes that this will inspire reconsideration of an issue that all too often appears abstract and of little consequence to many Singaporeans.


Photo Credit: Kirsten Han

Demonstrations of humanity and compassion are also powerful in other ways. The strong turn-out at a vigil held for Nagen and Datchinamurthy — who was also scheduled to die in the same week, but received a stay of execution on the grounds that he’s still party to an ongoing civil case — provided comfort and strength to the families of both prisoners. The sight of our fellow Singaporeans turning up to demonstrate their opposition to the death penalty also energized activists, spurring us to keep up with our work. In a country where our perspectives are censored or sidelined, so that we often feel like we’re shouting in an abyss, seeing people show up gave us a renewed sense of hope and purpose. And when the worst happened to Nagen, the outpouring of collective grief and outrage helped us work through the horror of what we’d borne witness to, and to turn that grief into determination and a promise not to stop until we stop this barbaric practice once and for all.

When fighting against the cold machinery of death, we must all the more cling on to empathy and care for one another. In my years of anti-death penalty activism, I have seen and experienced the power of human connection: precious moments in court where a slot in a glass pane provides the only opportunity for a mother to touch her son. The resolve of a sister giving her all to a campaign for her brother so that, even if we fail, he will know that he was loved and fought for to the very last moment. The way a tight embrace and shared tears can provide comfort that transcends language. A relentless criminal punishment system teaches us to see these things as ‘sentimental’, to consider them unrealistic, impractical and useless when compared to the government’s self-proclaimed policy goals. But these are the things that make us human, and a regime that dismisses them as weak and irrelevant is a regime that would make brutes of us all.

I end with the words of Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin, one of the prisoners currently on Singapore’s death row, written in a letter to thank everyone who showed up at the anti-death penalty protests we held in April: “The harshness and cruelty that some have claimed is just, is not. Two wrongs do not make a right. In the end, there is only a legacy of bloodshed that posterity may not even want on their hands anymore. Once more, please accept my heartfelt thanks and appreciation for all the good the family is doing. I shall never forget this kindness and compassion that have been extended to me, for that, I remain humble.”

READ NEXT: The Looming Execution of Abdul Kahar Is Inequality and Injustice Taken to Its Extreme Conclusion

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.