HR23: Who is worthy of life?

The following is the written version of a speech delivered by TJC member Kirsten Han at the plenary session ‘Challenging Systems of Oppression’ at the Harm Reduction International conference in Melbourne on 17 April 2023.

Today, I’m here to talk about oppression. Simply put, oppression is about power. The power to dictate, to control, to coerce. The power to make decisions. The power to decide who is worthy — worthy of respect, worthy of favour, worthy of life.

I come from Singapore, where we are nominally free but realistically restrained, restricted and repressed. We’re familiar with the ways in which a person might be deemed worthy or deserving; whether it is to attend a “good school”, be eligible for financial assistance, or buy a public housing flat with full government subsidy.

But no one is more familiar with how merciless the system can be than the prisoners on death row — the people that Singapore has decided do not deserve to live.

There are currently about 55 people on death row in Singapore, a small country of about 5.5 million people. The overwhelming majority were convicted of non-violent drug offences, and given the mandatory death penalty. The majority of people on death row are ethnic minorities. 

The dominant narrative in my country casts these men as villains whose lives have to be forfeit to keep everyone else safe. The Singapore government is so proud of their position that they describe our policies of incarceration and execution as part of a “harm prevention strategy”. They say this is better than harm reduction. 

Part of oppression is also the power to be the loudest voice. It is easy in Singapore to hear what the government thinks — they say it in the mainstream media, in PR campaigns paid for by taxpayers, in interviews with obliging journalists and social media influencers.

What we hear much less of are the voices of those the powerful have decided do not deserve to live. What I would like to do today is share some of these voices with you.

“Before they take your life, they will try to take everything else they can from you — your freedom, dignity, rights, dreams, hope, value, and respect. Everything, like a vacuum cleaner, sucked away before our lives are ended.”

These are the words of Pannir Selvam Pranthaman, who has been on death row since 2017. He was convicted of trafficking around 52g of heroin.

The court recognised that he had merely been a drug mule, but still had to sentence him to death because the prosecution refused to issue him a Certificate of Cooperation. Under Singapore’s laws, drug mules can only be spared the noose if the prosecution gives them this precious certificate.

We eventually learnt from later court proceedings that cooperation itself is not enough — the information provided must actually be useful to, and used by, the authorities to disrupt drug trafficking activities.

Under this system, whether one is worthy of life depends on one’s usefulness to the law enforcement officers tasked with Singapore’s war on drugs.

A system of oppression is a system that subordinates people’s lives to the priorities of the powerful. 

Datchinamurthy Kataiah was convicted of trafficking almost 45g of heroin across the border from Malaysia to Singapore.

He was nearly killed last April, when the prison authorities issued him with an execution notice even though he was still party to an ongoing civil suit. This civil suit has to do with the Singapore Prison Service copying the private correspondence of death row prisoners — including with lawyers — and forwarding it to the Attorney-General’s Chambers, which also serves as the prosecution. 

The state’s position was that such a civil claim would not affect Datchina’s death sentence, and therefore should not be an impediment to hanging him.

Fortunately, the courts disagreed, and Datchina is still alive.

“What allows me to be alive today?” he wrote from prison in May last year.

“Is it the words from the judge, the law, my family, me or God? If man has power under the law to exercise mercy, then who is deserving of it? I don’t see anyone from death row that has received a presidential pardon, why? What do the death row inmates need to earn to be alive, to live their lives?”

We are glad that Datchina and Pannir — both of whom have been temporarily saved by eleventh-hour stays of execution — are still with us today. But many others have already been lost. 

Around 500 people have been executed in Singapore since 1990, the majority for drug offences. Last year, my country hanged 11 men, all for drug trafficking.

Among them was Kalwant Singh, from the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. This was the very last letter he wrote to his niece Kellvina, who he had raised as a child, even when he was just a teenager himself.

“My baby, whenever you miss me, you feel sad, lonely or depressed, then you read this letter and also pray like we did when your mama can’t control herself. I know that we have not created many good memories outside as you were just 12 when I left you, but we do have good memories and even the last few days of our last visit, baby girl. You are so beautiful inside and out, that Ash must be very lucky to have you. The way you laugh, oh my god my baby girl, I can see it for my whole life if allowed. Keep on staying happy after this, as you deserve it. You must move on and make me proud and I know you can do it. I have faith in you as you have proved before. Don’t let whatever happened to me affect your life and studies. I will be watching over you and even now pray to God to protect you forever.”

Kalwant Singh was hanged on 7 July 2022. 

Many of you might be familiar with the name of Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam. His case received a lot of international attention and many activists and organisations — many of whom are here at this conference — spoke up for him and asked the Singapore state to show mercy. Despite this, he was hanged on 27 April 2022.

Today, his family in Ipoh are holding a prayer ceremony to mark the first anniversary of his death.

This is a letter he wrote, with help from Datchina:

“I’m thanking you from the bottom of my heart for all your support, effort, and prayers. My heart was shattered to see you shed tears for a person unworthy and undeserving like me. What more can I expect? To me, this is proof that God really exists, he sent such good and kind people in my life to show mercy and have compassion. 

I have seen and heard so many things in my darkest day in prison on death row, but nothing changed for good. One failure after another, the little that I have is gone now.

Day after day, month after month has gone and it became years. What else can I hope for? I’m totally exhausted! I am a person that’s been labeled as condemned and not in the least receiving any mercy or pardon. I don’t have any hate or complaints, I don’t blame or get angry with anyone. They’re my mistakes, though I do have many regrets, I accept everything as it comes. In fact, I’m very happy that at least God created me with one little heart in me, where I can say thanks from deep in my heart.

I’m very grateful and appreciative for all your support. At least I can still express my gratitude to you through my words, writing, prayers, and tears as well. I’m wishing you happiness, joy, peace, and success in life. May the God that created you and me bless you and your family more and more, grant you all your prayers and heart’s desires. Peace be upon you.”

These are the voices of some of the men that Singapore insists are unworthy of life. They represent the voices of many more — past, present, and, horrifically, future — who are sacrificed to a never-ending war on drugs in Singapore. This war is a system of oppression that has disproportionately harmed the marginalised and the underprivileged. And it silences them even as it does so.

Today, I’ve read excerpts from the letters of death row prisoners as a challenge to this system, because the more death penalty retentionist states want to dehumanise, the more we must hold on to our shared humanity.

I just described the war on drugs as “never-ending”. That’s how it felt last year, when we saw execution notice after execution notice, when the tears had not yet dried for one death before we were told to expect another.

But the war on drugs must end, and I believe it will — even in Singapore.

I believed this when I saw 400 Singaporeans turn up, in the only park in the country we are allowed to protest in, to stand against the death penalty. One of the performers at the protest yelled “fuck the death penalty!” and I heard hundreds of Singaporeans echo him.

Protest chants against capital punishment, and strong language too! I cannot emphasise enough what an unSingaporean sight that was. But perhaps it can’t be considered unSingaporean any longer. At that moment in that park, I believed that Singapore’s war on drugs would end.

I believe this when I see the international trend away from the death penalty — the latest development being the abolition of the mandatory death penalty in Malaysia, just next door.

I especially believe this when I see my government double down on its rhetoric in defence of the death penalty for drugs, when the police call activists up for investigations and warnings related to our abolitionist work, when the law and home affairs minister makes passive aggressive comments about “narco liberals” on his Facebook page. They wouldn’t be so sensitive, so prickly, so desperate, if the war on drugs wasn’t going to end.

A movement is building in Singapore — a movement of Singaporeans, families of death row prisoners, and the prisoners themselves.

To borrow Nagaen’s words, we were all born with “one little heart” in each of us. And with those hearts we will continue to fight for a future that treats everyone as worthy and deserving. A future recognising that no one is disposable. A future where no one is left behind. 

I will end today’s speech by repeating what 400 Singaporeans shouted in protest a year ago. Not just “fuck the death penalty”, but “End Oppression, Not Life.”

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