The Case of Nagaenthran – The Perfect Fodder for Singapore Bashing

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In the last few days, local media outlets have been featuring the case of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, the 33 year old Malaysian drug trafficker who has been sentenced to death. In the numerous twists and turns involving his case, he has been granted a stay of execution for now due to contracting Covid-19. At the crux of the controversy involving Nagaenthran’s case is his lawyers’ claims that he is intellectually disabled with an IQ of 69. According to them and several local human rights activists, it is inhumane to execute Nagaenthran since he is incapable of understanding the gravity of his crime due to his intellectual disability.

While it was undisputed that Nagaenthran has an IQ of 69, he was not found to be suffering from any form of intellectual disability. In his interactions with his prison officers, Nagaenthran was found to have been able to plan his daily visit and call schedules, demonstrate understanding that his sentence was to be carried out soon and choose which prison officers to care for his needs in the time leading to his execution. All these point to someone who has the mental capacity to carry out some degree of planning and indicate his personal preferences in his daily life.
Further to this, the High Court held in 2011 that Nagaenthran knew what he was doing and upheld the death sentence after hearing from various psychiatrists, including one called by the defence who agreed that Nagenthran was not intellectually disabled. This is evident in the manner in which Nagaenthran carried drugs into Singapore. He took special care to conceal the drugs by strapping it on his thighs and wore loose trousers over it, indicating that he was aware that it is illegal for him to transport drugs. In short, Nagaenthran was fully aware of his actions and the possible consequences should he be caught.
Arising from Nagaenthran’s case, Singapore has been at the receiving end of criticisms from various quarters, including the United Nations, Western media and International Human Rights organisations. They have castigated Singapore for what they deem as inhumane and unconstitutional treatment of someone from a vulnerable group. However, Singapore is not an anomaly when it comes to these contentious executions. There are several western examples from as recent as a few weeks ago.
In October 2021, the US state of Missouri executed Earnest Johnson, a 61-year-old Black man convicted of a triple murder case in 1994, despite his lawyers’ arguments that there was strong evidence of his intellectual disability. The Missouri Supreme Court did not stop Johnson’s execution, concluding that he was not “sufficiently intellectually disabled” because he was able to “plan, strategise and problem-solve” while committing the murder.

In another execution carried out in the same month, the US Supreme Court upheld the execution of Willie B. Smith III, an Alabama man who was convicted of robbing and killing a woman in 1991. The execution went ahead despite Smith’s lawyers arguing that he is intellectually disabled. Experts called upon by the court found that while Smith’s IQ measured at 64, his language, reading and mathematical skills were inconsistent with the diagnosis of intellectual disability. Hence, the court ruled that Smith was eligible for the death penalty.
From these American cases, it is evident that Singapore is not the first in the world to uphold the execution of criminals whom their lawyers claim to be intellectually disabled. Singapore is not acting out of international standards. What is peculiar is that the United Nations and Western Human Rights organisations have chosen to keep silent on the executions of the two Black American men, while protesting so vehemently against the execution of Nagaenthran, turning it into some sort of international human rights crusade against the Singapore Government.

One can only speculate that it could be that Singapore is a convenient target due to our size and our poor international standing (by their definition) in terms of human rights. Given that these organisations profess to be human rights advocates, they are probably compelled or duty bound to speak out when there are cases of alleged human rights violations. Among the three cases involving the two Black Americans and Nagaenthran, it is no surprise that they would choose to make Nagaethran’s case their trophy piece, probably because Singapore is an “easy” target in their eyes with the least possibility of repercussions arising from their agitation.
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