Between the ages of 18 and 68, the longest continuous period of time that Abdul Kahar bin Othman spent outside of prison can be counted on one hand.
Abdul Mutalib picked up his older brother Kahar from prison in February 2005. For the next five years, Mutalib tried his best to look out for his brother, giving him work in his furniture company and repeatedly warning him to stay away from drugs. With a business to run and his own family to care for, it was the best that he could do. Kahar worked hard, developed a good relationship with Mutalib’s daughters, and did what he could to care for his mother. Mutalib thought that things might be going okay… but in 2010, after he sold the business that had employed Kahar, his older brother got arrested for drug offences.
Kahar was charged for two counts of drug trafficking, amounting to a total of 66.77g of diamorphine. He was convicted in 2013 and sentenced to death in 2015. On 23 March, Mutalib received a hand-delivered letter from the Singapore Prison Service informing him that his brother’s execution had been scheduled for 30 March.
“We were like wild plants in the forest”
Speaking to the Transformative Justice Collective in his home, Mutalib recounts their childhood. Their father worked for the British military, but died at the young age of about 40, leaving his wife as the sole breadwinner and caregiver for seven children. “We were so small,” Mutalib says, thinking back to the time he and his siblings lost their father.
Mutalib and Kahar’s mother picked up work where she could to provide for her children, working on construction sites and shipyards, going from contract job to contract job. It was a constant struggle to make ends meet. “I can remember I didn’t like to study,” Mutalib recalls. “My stomach was always empty, I was hungry. When you are hungry, how can you study? We had no focus to study.”
In a separate phone interview, Mutalib and Kahar’s youngest brother, Abdul Jabar, adds to this recollection: “I would steal food at the coffee-shop. I didn’t get caught… but I had to steal because we were hungry.”
With money being a constant problem, there was little time or energy to spare for the children. “We were like wild plants in the forest, with no one to look after. Just anyhow grow,” Mutalib says. Thinking back to their childhood spent in a poor neighbourhood in Henderson, Jabar describes himself and his brothers as having been “street boys” or “stray boys”.
Mutalib tells us that Kahar is a “very good guy” who has always been extremely loyal to their mother, and a good older brother who had tried his best to care for his younger siblings even when he was a child himself.
Trouble came when Kahar was 18; he was arrested and sent to prison. Mutalib was too young at the time to know much about his brother’s offence, but thinks it was after that stint in prison that Kahar developed an addiction to heroin. Thus began a cycle of shuttling in and out of prison that went on throughout Kahar’s adult life.
“There were different offences,” Mutalib says. “But they were all related [somehow] to drugs.”
“There was no follow-up, no support”
Kahar has spent more of his life behind bars than as a free man. The main thing that strikes Mutalib is how little follow-up and support his brother received whenever he was released.
In 2005, Kahar was released from prison after 10 years of preventive detention, a type of criminal punishment that allows judges to hand down sentences beyond the statutory maximum stipulated for an offence based on their previous record. It is unlikely that individuals sentenced to preventive detention are provided with rehabilitation programmes in prison, since the system might not think they will get good “returns” from expending resources on such prisoners.
Mutalib was the one who picked Kahar up from prison. “Nah, here’s your brother, bring back.” That was all there was to it. He received no advice from the authorities or any government agency on how he could best support Kahar’s reintegration into society.
“The follow-up is very important. I also don’t know how to take care of people like that,” he says. “[All I could do was] trial and error, trial and error, [if] I pushed too hard, he [would] not [be] happy with me… I don’t know the technique to get [his] heart, to understand, to make [him] understand.”
After so many years behind bars, Kahar struggled to adjust to life outside. “When he was out, he was totally lost. He didn’t know where to go. He was like a baby,” Mutalib tells us. Then, he stands up from his seat in the living room and squats on the floor: Kahar, he recalls, kept squatting like this instead of sitting on sofas and chairs. It was a habit he’d developed after having lived such a long time in cells with no furniture. Mutalib had to remind him repeatedly that he didn’t have to do that, that there were seats he could be comfortable in.
Still, Kahar worked hard, doing upholstery and some delivery work. “He was trying his best,” Mutalib says. But without counselling or post-release support programmes to ease him back into the realities of life outside prison, Mutalib feels the pressure of navigating this world must have been eating away at Kahar. “This stress… can die you know, this stress.”
In justifying the retention and application of the death penalty, the Singapore government has repeatedly argued that it works as a deterrent to drug trafficking, portraying traffickers as villains preying on helpless individuals who end up addicted to the drugs they peddle. This narrative does not reflect the reality on the ground.
Jabar, Kahar’s youngest sibling, has his own history of drug use and dependency. He’s also spent time in both the state-run Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) and prison, and can relate to what his big brother has been through. He says he’s lucky to have found a good employer who cares more about him and his ability to do his job than about his criminal record. If not, he tells TJC, he might have ended up getting involved with drugs again.
“I don’t think it’s right,” he says of the government narrative. In Jabar’s own experience, there is no clear distinction between a “villain” trafficker and “victim” addict. Instead, individuals, for a range of reasons, make the choice to buy and consume drugs, and might eventually end up selling, delivering or transporting drugs as they get drawn deeper and deeper into the drug trade. For the majority of people on death row for drug-related offences, their experiences are closer to this reality than that of drug lords profiting off the exploitation of people desperate to feed their addiction. One’s drug use leads one to selling drugs; one sells drugs so they can buy drugs. “It’s a merry-go-round,” Jabar says. “We go and come back.”
Despite the government’s claims of concern for people with substance use disorder, state support is still often lacking. Even within DRCs, people are sorted into various categories, with some assessed as being ineligible for rehabilitation programmes because they’ve been deemed, as Jabar put it, “hardcore”. Jabar says that was how he’d been categorised when he was in DRC — and he believes it was the same for Kahar — which meant that he was not signed up for any rehabilitation programmes and was only offered tagging, which would have allowed him to leave DRC but have all his movements tracked. Jabar recalls that an officer in DRC had confidently predicted that even if he was released, he’d be back again. It made him feel like he’d been “condemned already”.
Both Mutalib and Jabar feel that what Kahar and others like him need is treatment, rehabilitation, and a strong safety net to support reintegration into society. Jabar says the financial pressures that fall on one’s shoulders upon release from DRC or prison is a key factor in driving most people back to drug consumption and the drug trade. This is made worse by the discrimination that people with records of incarceration face when they seek employment; many of the jobs open to them are all the more stressful because they are also poorly compensated.
Throughout our interview, Mutalib repeatedly stresses that his older brother is a “sick man” in need of help. “If he wasn’t sick, he wouldn’t go in and out, in and out [of prison],” he says.
It’s a belief backed up by experts; according to the American Psychiatric Association’s website, “People with a substance use disorder may have distorted thinking and behaviours. Changes in the brain’s structure and function are what cause people to have intense cravings, changes in personality, abnormal movements, and other behaviours. Brain imaging studies show changes in the areas of the brain that relate to judgement, decision making, learning, memory, and behavioural control.” This is not something that can be addressed by long-term incarceration, much less execution. Treatment is important and necessary.
Holding on to hope and the need to abolish the death penalty
Time is running out for Kahar. Mutalib and Jabar are aware that chances of saving their brother’s life are slim, yet want to try whatever they can. They are spurred by a deep sense of injustice over the state’s plans to kill Kahar, when he has already spent a lifetime within Singapore’s prison system. Mutalib says that whenever he visits Kahar these days, all he talks about is how his life can be saved.
Mutalib is firm in his belief that nothing will be solved with capital punishment. Executing his brother will help no one. He points out that Kahar is already an old man, and, if given a chance to live, can serve society by contributing to public education programmes to prevent people from picking up drugs in the first place. “When you can stop drug addicts, there will be no more traffickers,” Mutalib tells us again and again. “[The government] has had this same policy [of hanging people] for donkey’s years and it’s not changing anything.” Even if he doesn’t succeed in halting his brother’s looming execution, he says, he hopes that his efforts in speaking out can help end the death penalty and save others.
People like Kahar aren’t “big people” with wealth and power, Mutalib says, but “small people” who need to be given extra care and support when they’re trying their best. Everything he’s seen his brother go through has convinced Mutalib that this isn’t something that can be addressed by condemning people to death.
“This is a social problem,” he says. “It involves all citizens.”
During our interview, Mutalib expressed the hope that Singaporeans support Kahar and his family by writing personal appeals for clemency to President Halimah Yacob. Such letters can be hand-delivered to the Istana, or emailed to the President at email@example.com.