I hope all of you had a wonderful Raya break.
While celebrating the festive season and enjoying the company of loved ones, relatives and friends, hopefully we can spare a thought for the grieving family of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, who was executed in Singapore recently for having trafficked 43g of heroin into the island republic as a drug mule about a decade ago.
Despite desperate attempts by lawyers, activists, British billionaire Richard Branson, broadcaster Stephen Fry and, finally, Nagaenthran’s mother to save him from the noose, Singapore authorities were bent on not commuting the capital punishment to, say, life imprisonment. The eleventh-hour legal challenge mounted by his 60-year-old mother, Panchalai Supermaniam, was reportedly dismissed by the republic’s Court of Appeal as “frivolous”.
The fact that Nagaenthran was intellectually disabled was apparently not a factor to be considered for a lenient sentence. Nor did compassion play a part in the dispensation of justice for the man, who had an IQ of 69.
Many in Malaysia were appalled by the court decision, which resulted in the 34-year-old from Tanjung Rambutan being sent to the gallows. They were understandably indignant that a precious life had been snuffed out this way.
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But this episode is significant: it has reignited the activists’ calls for the death penalty to be abolished as it has not served as an effective deterrent against drug trafficking.
Instead, many of those caught and hanged are often from the lower end of the ‘food chain’ – that is, the mules. Most of the drug kingpins seem to be still thriving beyond the reach of the law.
Lest Malaysians be likened to those living in glass houses who are inclined to throw stones, we should also question the death penalty for drug-related offences and other serious crimes on this side of the Causeway.
While it is comforting to know the Malaysian government has placed a moratorium on the mandatory death penalty, capital punishment remains in the statute books. This is concerning, as other Nagaeanthrans are still languishing on death row.
There must be political will to abolish the death penalty, which involves taking away someone else’s life, thus violating the sanctity of human life.
Advocates of the death penalty argue drug trafficking itself that takes its toll on human lives and inflicts pain on the loved ones of addicts.
But hanging the culprits, particularly the mules, has not effectively stopped drug trafficking. If anything, an eye for an eye may lead us down a blind alley.
As long as drug trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry, it will thrive, especially if it involves not just the drug lords but also people in high places with vested interests.
Some mules may be involved in the drug-pushing business due to extreme personal circumstances, such as abject poverty, which for them blurs the line between life and death.
This is not to say we condone drug pushing. Yet, the low-level mules, in particular, deserve a second chance in life – instead of having it snuffed out. Leniency in meting out a punitive sentence for drug trafficking does not mean endorsing trafficking or, worse, surrendering to the dictates of drug pushers. It just means invoking compassion.
In the same vein, we would not propose the imposition of the death sentence for those found guilty of embezzling public funds – even though such high-level corruption has emptied public coffers.
If these public funds hadn’t been siphoned away, they could have been used to raise the living standards of ordinary people, especially the poor and the marginalised.
Instead, widespread corruption has inflicted immense suffering – and sometimes even deaths – on the vulnerable, who are desperately in need of government aid.
Many public hospitals, for instance, are ill-equipped to treat patients effectively because of insufficient government funds to pay specialists, buy modern equipment and expand hospital capacity. Indeed, the lack of hospital beds has deprived some patients of immediate medical attention.
Some of the bottom 20% of the population may suffer from hunger or malnutrition because they don’t have enough funds for balanced, nutritious meals. Because corruption has depleted public coffers, the government is unable to provide them with enough financial aid.
Education, which could have provided an escape route out of the cycle of poverty, may become inaccessible to some poor students, because public funds that could have been used to finance scholarships and tuition fees have dried up.
We have heard that capital punishment is imposed for corruption in countries like China to show they mean business.
We need not take that violent path. Imagine how many culpable Malaysians, irrespective of their station in life, would be hanged if we had the death penalty for corruption here!
Hopefully, life imprisonment or a long prison term would eventually make wrongdoers see the folly of their crimes and turn over a new leaf. A well-conceived rehabilitation programme would certainly help.
The abolition of the death penalty should be accompanied by a renewed emphasis on noble social values that could serve as a bulwark against greed, abuse of power and human exploitation.Mustafa K Anuar
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
6 May 2022