Nagaenthran Dharmalingam doesn’t deserve to die

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Published on 25 February 2022

As much of the world’s attention is focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Singaporean government has been quietly preparing for a spate of executions of non-violent drug offenders – the first since 2019. 

Of the several executions now pending, I have previously spoken up about the case of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a 33-year-old intellectually disabled Malaysian man sentenced to die in Singapore for carrying 42 grams of heroin across the border at the age of 21.

Naga or Nagen, as he is often referred to, came close to being hanged at Singapore’s Changi Prison last November. Waiting for a final hearing at Singapore’s Court of Appeal to determine whether his mental health would allow for the execution to proceed,  he tested positive for COVID-19. This prompted the authorities to postpone the hearing to the new year. After a further delay, the appeals court hearing has now been scheduled for Tuesday, 1 March. 

If Naga’s appeal fails, his execution could take place within days, unless Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob grants clemency.

I join countless Singaporeans and many others around the world in encouraging the President to do so. 

Much has been written about the case: about Naga’s personal circumstances, his life in poverty, and the fact that he was used and abused by drug traffickers who exploited his vulnerability and his disability to coerce him into carrying illicit drugs from Malaysia to Singapore. No one is doubting what he did, but virtually everyone I have heard from agrees that he does not deserve to die, including Malaysia’s King and Prime Minister, a great number of human rights advocates, as well as more than 100,000 people who have signed a petition for the execution to be halted.

Naga’s ordeal tells us everything we need to know about the shortcomings of a system that believes killing people for drug offences, almost invariably vulnerable individuals at the lowest rungs of the illicit drug trade, will somehow deter crime and make communities safer. Singapore’s government has yet to show the world any evidence that it does. Yes, Singapore is a rather lovely, safe place, with low crime and a high quality of life. But so is Hong Kong, which abolished the death penalty in 1993. Correlation does not imply causation. 

In December, I wrote to President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, pleading for clemency based on Naga’s well-documented intellectual disability. He has an IQ of 69, his overall intellectual functioning is in the extremely low range, and he has impaired executive functioning skills. This means he meets the criteria for intellectual disability of multiple internationally accepted diagnostic standards, including Singapore’s own Enabling Guide. 

But don’t take it from me. Numerous experts have weighed in on the case. There is no question: executing Naga would be a serious miscarriage of justice in violation of international human rights law and inconsistent with the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – a convention Singapore has signed up to. 

Singapore has always shown a strong commitment to upholding the rights of people with disabilities and championing their inclusion in society. The country’s Enabling Masterplan is an impressive initiative to improve the lives of persons with disabilities, as well as their families and caregivers. Singapore should continue its valuable work in this field by granting Nagen clemency, and sparing his life.

What I find particularly frustrating is that the relentless pursuit of Naga’s execution against expert guidance, and against international norms, feels so out of character for a nation that prides itself in its commitment to the rule of law. I’ve come to know and enjoy Singapore as a modern, cosmopolitan place, a true success story of social and economic development. But the death penalty is a serious stain on Singapore’s reputation – a stain that threatens to undo much of the city state’s international standing as a hub of trade, finance, and commerce.

I hope Singapore’s leaders will do the right thing and spare Naga’s life.