The Movement to Close Singapore’s Death Row

The Movement to Close Singapore’s Death Row

The Movement to Close Singapore’s Death Row

Singapore tries to keep foreigners out of its politics but not out of the noose.


Singapore—When Angelia Pranthaman and her older sister visit their brother in Singapore’s Changi prison, they take the midnight bus from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It’s an eight-hour journey to the border and costs about 150 ringgits ($35) for the round trip. Once in Singapore, they wait for another bus to the prison. The exchange rate—currently 1 ringgit to 0.30 Singapore cents—is always on Angelia’s mind. She works as a life insurance agent, but she and her family do not have much in savings. She splits costs for travel with her sister, and sometimes the rest of her family pitches in too.

When they reach the prison, they pass through a security check and are escorted to a small room where Pannir Selvam Pranthaman sits on the other side of a glass screen. There, they can speak for about 40 minutes until the door opens and she’s told time is up. She brings reading material for her brother—printouts of Wikipedia articles, poetry, history books—for guards to pass to him. As soon as she can, she writes down what he has told her to convey: things to tell the rest of their family, messages from others in the prison whose families can’t or don’t visit, other reading materials he wants her to bring next time. They exit the prison and begin the same journey in reverse: one bus, then another, all the way back to KL.

“No point of daydreaming,” she told me. “My mind needs to be prepared to tell him whatever he needs to know, and I need to prepare my brain to absorb whatever he says.”

She doesn’t have time to waste. She hasn’t since Pannir Selvam was sentenced to death.

Pannir Selvam was arrested and sentenced in Singapore in 2017 for drug trafficking. He had moved to Singapore in 2010 to work as a security officer, but he is a Malaysian citizen, one of at least 10 among the more than 50 individuals who are on death row in Singapore as of September 2022. Although few statistics are available and executions are not publicly announced, activists say Singapore has killed at least 10 foreigners between 2016 and 2022.

In a country known for its tight controls on political and labor organizing and the media, the push to abolish capital punishment has become one of Singapore’s most visible social movements. But unlike other movements in the country, the fight against the death penalty is an international one. Some of the cases that garnered the most media attention involve Malaysians like Kalwant Singh, Datchinamurthy Katiah, and Nagaenthran Dharmalingam—all of whom were sentenced to die for drug trafficking. Noncitizens make up 30 percent of Singapore’s population and about a third of the total workforce. Even more than citizens, foreigners have always been locked out of Singapore’s limited space for political expression. The separation has been sharpened lately, with several recent laws on media and public gatherings emphasizing the need to keep “foreign interference” at bay. But the work being carried by activists, lawyers, and family members against the death penalty necessarily crosses borders. The movement’s organizing challenges the government’s narrative that non-Singaporeans have no stake in domestic politics. In fact, it is sometimes a matter of life and death.

In the past, the government has shrugged off criticism of the death penalty from institutions like Amnesty International or the European Union. After British billionaire Richard Branson lambasted the country’s capital punishment system online, Home Minister K Shanmugam invited him to debate the subject, saying his comments amounted to the West attempting to “impose their values” on other societies. Singapore’s drug laws are famously harsh: Carrying 15 grams or more of heroin is punishable by death. Shanmugam has stated that the death penalty deters drug trafficking and that an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans support it. But while the Western bogeyman animates much of the government’s defensiveness around the death penalty, it has a growing number of local critics.

The Transformative Justice Collective (TJC) was founded in Singapore in 2021 and calls for the abolition of the death penalty and systems of oppression more broadly. Their members have organized public gatherings, raised funds for families with a relative on death row, and run letter-writing campaigns, sometimes attracting the attention of authorities.

The organization works with death-row families, including the Pranthamans. In 2017, they helped them find legal defense for Pannir Selvam in Singapore, and later assisted him in writing a clemency petition to the president. The group has become a crucial point of contact in Singapore for families in Malaysia, able to respond quickly to any news or developments in the prison.

But TJC fears that new legislation targeting “foreign influence” could be used against them. The government claims that the Foreign Influence (Countermeasures) Act (FICA), which came into force in July 2022, is a defensive measure against outside security threats. FICA prohibits any foreign principal—which can be a party, business, or even just “a foreigner”—from interfering “towards a political end” in Singapore. Under FICA, the government can issue directions from blocking access to online content to ordering groups to end collaborations viewed as being conducted “on behalf of a foreign principal.”

The act notes that locals who are caught “acting against Singapore’s public interest on behalf of a foreign principal may be liable for an offence.” Activists like Kirsten Han point out that the sweeping language of the legislation is worrying. “The way that FICA defines ‘working on behalf of a foreign principal’ is so broad that it doesn’t even require funding to have changed hands,” she told me, saying that this is something that TJC has to take into consideration.

Under FICA, the state could ask for more information from TJC on anything it deems even tangentially related to foreign interference, which could include information on locals. TJC tries to guarantee anonymity for most of the formerly incarcerated people it works with on projects like research reports about prison conditions, for example. Han worries that FICA could make that kind of collaboration more difficult: “If FICA has such wide powers to demand so much information, how much can we protect them?”

In theory, individuals like Angelia Pranthanam might fall under the category of “foreign principal.” “I’m not sure if they would go after us for working with families,” Han said, but “they could.”

FICA is just the latest iteration of the targeting non-Singaporeans and locals affiliated with them. In 2016, Singapore authorities investigated a civil society group after it organized an event with a Hong Kong democracy activist. The event was entirely online. The same year, the government amended the Public Order Act on general assembly: Previously, registered public political gatherings were allowed and open to all at the Hong Lim Park Speaker’s Corner. Under the new regulations, only Singaporean citizens can participate in these.

The state also targets less explicitly political actors, and foreigners in Singapore are particularly vulnerable, especially poor workers in sectors like construction or domestic work. Since the expansion of the “guest worker” regime in the 1960s as a way to keep wages down, punishing visa overstayers and keeping noncitizens out of politics has been a cornerstone of immigration and economic policy. In 1989, foreign “overstayers,” many of whom had been working for companies in Singapore, made up 17 percent of the prison population. In 2012 and 2013, Singapore deported without trial migrant workers who had allegedly been involved in wildcat strikes and riots. Most recently, in June 2022, the Ministry of Manpower declined to renew an employment visa for Bangladeshi construction worker Zakir Hossain, who had been living in Singapore for 19 years and had been a vocal critic of the state’s lockdown of migrant workers during the pandemic.

In the past, Singapore’s approach to “foreign influence” on the question of the death penalty has been inconsistent. Branson’s Facebook post led to a debate invitation, but when Malaysian lawyer Zaid Malek landed in a Singapore airport in July 2022, immigration officers detained him for several hours and ordered him to show up for a police interrogation two days later. He had been on his way to speak with the lawyer of Kalwant Singh, a Malaysian citizen who had been issued an execution notice and had only just been able to find legal representation to file a final appeal.

Malek, who represents Singh’s family, said he was not initially told why the government held him. In an interrogation two days after his detention, the police gave Singh a 24-month conditional warning over a statement he made to the press as director of Malaysian rights group Lawyers for Liberty. The quote, published in a Malaysian newspaper in February 2020, had commented on the Singapore authorities’ dismissal of lawsuits filed by two convicted Malaysian drug traffickers, Gobi Avedian and Datchinamurthy Kataiah. “There was no fairness or due process in the manner in which the Singapore AG and court dealt with the two suits,” Zaid told the Malay Mail at the time.

According to the police, the Attorney General’s Chambers had issued an order to investigate him for contempt of court. Although the statement was published in Malaysia, Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016 states that something published “is taken to be published in Singapore if it was accessed by members of the public in Singapore.” In other words, anything published on the Internet is considered published in Singapore.

Malek described the ordeal as an obvious attempt to intimidate anyone trying to help people on death row. “It goes to show that they will stop at no lengths to stop any access to justice to the death row inmates in Singapore,” he said. “‘Foreign interference’ doesn’t make any sense. You are imposing your national law on the non-Singaporeans in Singapore, which you can do. But that also means there will be outside intervention to help the nationals of these countries.”

The government, ruled by the majority People’s Action Party, repeatedly invokes foreign influence to defend itself from criticism and restrict the rights of noncitizens. And the main political opposition, the center-left Worker’s Party, is not defending foreigners from such attacks. The party, which has just nine of the 103 parliamentary seats, has positioned itself as a champion of working citizens whom foreigners have robbed of employment opportunities. The Worker’s Party has demanded that the government break down employment statistics by citizenship status and relayed citizens’ complaints that “in other countries, it is the migrants that drove the Ubers and Grabs, but it seems to be the other way round here.”

It’s easier for politicians to criticize immigration policy than to confront Singapore’s lack of a minimum wage or unemployment benefits. The government keeps the blame for declining material conditions on outsiders, while other realities remain unsaid: Thousands of non-Singaporeans live in quasi-permanent surveillance in worker dormitories or in their employers’ home. Noncitizens make up the majority of workers in key sectors including domestic work, construction, and nursing. The majority of immigrants are not wealthy tycoons from China; they’re workers from next-door Malaysia.

And some of them are on death row. Singapore’s anti-death penalty movement has recently highlighted the international dimensions of the country’s domestic carceral system, but the state has killed foreigners for decades. In 1995, the state sentenced and executed Flor Contemplacion, a domestic worker from the Philippines. There was a tremendous outcry internationally and in the Philippines. After Contemplacion was hanged, the Philippines banned the deployment of maids to Singapore for over a year—a decision with significant economic ramifications, since by 1999 one in eight Singaporean households employed a domestic worker, and three-quarters of them were from the Philippines. Then in 2005, Singapore hanged Nguyen Tuong-van, an Australian born to refugee parents.

The phone calls were an unexpected benefit of Covid-19. For several weeks after Singapore’s first Covid-19 lockdown, Angelia and the rest of family couldn’t get in touch with Pannir Selvam—they received no letters and didn’t hear from the prison. The border was closed, and the prison had never previously offered communication via e-mails or phone calls. Angelia’s sister sent an e-mail to the prison, asking for a way to make contact, and she was eventually granted a weekly 30-to-40-minute phone call. Pannir Selvam also got access to e-mail for the first time.

The thought of not getting to see Pannir Selvam in person pained Angelia. But the phone calls had some upsides: For the first time in years, Pannir Selvam could speak with his entire family at once. Every Sunday at 2 pm, the eight of them would gather in Angelia’s sister’s home and crowd around the phone. They would put him on loudspeaker, and he would read them the poems and songs he had written. Angelia could take notes directly, instead of having to wait to be out of the prison. She learned to pay attention to the tone of his voice, because Pannir Selvam often tried to hide his sadness when they visited. The calls also saved time and money, which had been a source of stress for the family.

But since the lockdown has ended in Singapore, so have the phone calls and e-mails. Now, Angelia is saving up from her job to be able to afford the near-weekly journey. She notes that her family is lucky—she knows other Malaysian families in similar circumstances who can’t make the trip, prevented by either poor health or a lack of money.

Part of the Transformative Justice Collective’s work involves raising funds for families to travel or file appeals. But material support alone can only go so far. TJC wants to end the death penalty in Singapore. Home Affairs Minister Shanmugam consistently describes death penalty abolition as a minority movement animated by media-addled young people and outsiders like Branson. Similar narratives are wielded against queer activists: In August, while announcing the imminent repeal of anti-sodomy laws and that the Constitution would protect the current heterosexual definition of marriage from legal challenges, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long warned against the “culture wars” that were tearing apart “some Western societies.” In September, Shanmugam said that the government would even consider legislation against “cancel culture.” The result is a political offensive that keeps progressive activists busy fending off accusations of foreign influence.

On January 20, Pannir Selvam and 12 other prisoners were scheduled for a hearing. The 13 prisoners—12 of whom are on death row—had filed a civil suit against the Attorney General’s Chambers after discovering that the prison had been forwarding their correspondence to the AGC. But many questions about when these were forwarded and whether proceedings were affected remain unanswered. A new hearing date has been set for April 8—in the meantime, the 12 people on death row will not be executed.

For the Pranthamans, this has bought more time. Angelia will keep fighting for her brother’s life, and thinks the government’s rhetoric against foreign interference amounts to a distraction. “They have their own justification of how that law protects the people of Singapore,” she said. “We should respect each country’s legal system. But how can we respect when there is law and there is no justice?”

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