Going to the Gallows for a Kilo of Marijuana: an Execution Stokes Debate Over the Death Penalty in Singapore

By Kirsten Han, a Singaporean journalist and anti-death penalty campaigner.

The execution of Singaporean man Tangaraju Suppiah over an alleged attempt to traffic one kilo of marijuana bucks a regional trend against the death penalty, writes Kirsten Han.

On the last day of his life, Tangaraju Suppiah told his family that he wasn’t giving up, and asked that they keeping trying to save him too. He was due to be hanged in Singapore’s Changi Prison at 6 a.m. “Fight until 5:55 a.m.,” he told his loved ones during their last visit.

That same night, Tangaraju’s niece and nephew, with the Transformative Justice Collective’s help, shot a short video message appealing one last time to the President and the government to show mercy and halt the execution. His family believed that, given the flimsiness of the evidence against him, a thorough review of his case was needed. But at that moment, they just asked that the hanging not go ahead. They desperately wanted Tangaraju to live. Everything else would be meaningless if he was killed. They hoped that those with the power to make a difference would hear their pleas.

Their prayers were not answered. Tangaraju was hanged at dawn. His offence had been abetting an attempt to traffic a little over a kilogram of cannabis. He had never touched the drugs he was accused of trying to traffic; he’d been tied to the offence by two phone numbers that others claimed belonged to him. His mobile phones were never recovered for analysis. He had been interrogated by the police without a lawyer present, and said that he’d also been denied an interpreter when his first statement was recorded.

Unlike many other jurisdictions that retain the death penalty, the debate around capital punishment in Singapore revolves around drugs and drug policy. By the Transformative Justice Collective’s count — the government does not publish official numbers — there are over 50 people currently on death row, the vast majority of them convicted of non-violent drug offences. Over 500 people have been hanged since 1991, also mostly for drug offences. The death penalty is a key feature of the country’s “war” against a “drug scourge”. Since its implementation in 1973, the government has repeatedly insisted that it has function as an effective deterrent against the drug trade, even though a recent Ministry of Home Affairs statement justifying amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act — which introduced harsher penalties for drug possession — also stated that the Central Narcotics Bureau has “observed in recent years that syndicates are willing to deal in larger quantities of controlled drugs in each transaction”, which “may correlate with abusers purchasing larger quantities of drugs in a single transaction, instead of multiple smaller quantity purchases.”


Photoshoot of Tangaraju

Last year, the state executed 11 men for drug offences in an accelerated resumption of hangings after a two-year hiatus. Panic and anxiety spread among the prisoners and their families, as execution notice after execution notice was issued, following the order of who had been on death row the longest. The killings only stopped in October. We’d hoped that two pending legal cases — one to do with the Singapore Prison Service copying and forwarding death row prisoners’ private correspondence to the Attorney-General’s Chambers without consent, another a constitutional challenge of presumption clauses within the Misuse of Drugs Act — would stall executions, since they involved multiple prisoners at risk of execution. The move to hang Tangaraju, who had not been covered by either legal proceeding, dashed those hopes. It is clear that there is no intention to establish a moratorium on executions in Singapore.

This sets the tiny city-state apart from not just a worldwide trend away from capital punishment, but even from its closest neighbours. The last known executions in Indonesia were carried out in 2016, and the country’s lawmakers are considering a probationary death penalty where prisoners are given a 10-year period during which they could be given alternative sentences if certain conditions are met.  Earlier this year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo also commuted the death sentence of Merri Utami, who had spent more than 20 years on death row after being convicted of drug trafficking. Malaysia, meanwhile, has gone even further to abolish the mandatory death penalty. And if Tangaraju had only lived in Thailand instead of Singapore, he would not only still be alive, but might possibly even be able to return to his family — Thailand legalised controlled cannabis sales last year.

Singapore is a generally open, globalised country, eager to attract foreign investment and participate in cross-border exchanges. When it comes to the death penalty, though, the government closes ranks and stubbornly refuses to budge. The use of capital punishment is not a policy that Singapore sheepishly implements, but one that it staunchly embraces and defends. International criticism from the United Nations, human rights organisations or drug policy reform advocates like Virgin boss Richard Branson are curtly rebuffed with claims about sovereignty and pointing fingers at drug crises elsewhere. At the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Singapore continued its efforts to undercut a resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty by lobbying for an amendment to acknowledge each country’s sovereign right to determine “appropriate legal penalties” within their own legal system.

Surveys indicate majority support for capital punishment in Singapore. However, a public opinion survey conducted by the National University of Singapore in 2016 (published in 2018) stated that “while a majority of the public is in favour of the death penalty when the question is asked in general terms, it is certainly not an opinion that is held strongly or unconditionally.” It also found that there public support for the mandatory death penalty was weak.

It’s also possible, even likely, that the ground has shifted since that survey. Last year’s execution spree spurred the momentum of an abolitionist movement. As someone who has worked on this issue for over a decade, I have observed a growing willingness to, if not oppose, at least question or criticize Singapore’s death penalty regime. Young Singaporeans in particular are asking questions about the over-representation of people from ethnic minority groups and working class backgrounds on death row, as well as questioning Singapore’s ruthlessly punitive approach towards drugs.

For all its insistence that the death penalty is a matter for Singaporeans to debate and decide, the government does not engage with this growing abolitionist movement. Activists continue to labour under the authoritarian conditions that affect civil society work in the country: the refusal of the local mainstream media to give space to critical views on the issue, as well as broad, draconian laws that curb freedom of expression and assembly. The powerful might say that capital punishment is an issue for domestic deliberation, but the playing field is clearly and deliberately tilted to favour one narrative — theirs.

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean journalist and anti-death penalty campaigner. She runs the newsletter We, The Citizens, which covers Singapore from a rights-based perspective, and is a member of the Transformative Justice Collective.

Images: Kirsten Han