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Syed Suhail, the death penalty, and justice in Singapore

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
7 min read
Syed Suhail, the death penalty, and justice in Singapore

I understand that not every subscriber to this newsletter will share my views on the death penalty. I don’t ask that you adopt my position just because I say so. I simply ask that you acknowledge that this is an issue that affects real people on the most crucial life/death level, and to take some time to think about Singapore’s death penalty regime, how it is applied, the issues surrounding it, and how little we actually know about it.    

If you would like to discuss the issue further, you can hit reply to email me, or leave a comment.


[UPDATE] On 17 September, the High Court granted Syed an interim stay of execution pending further hearings in court. You can read this update for more information.

On Monday, I heard that the execution of Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin has been scheduled for this Friday (18 September).

Syed (as his family calls him), a Singaporean in his 40s, was arrested in 2011 and charged with having no less than 38.84g of heroin. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, having 15g or more of heroin triggers the presumption that one is in possession of the drugs for the purpose of trafficking; it’s then up to the accused to prove that this isn’t the case. Syed failed to rebut this presumption, and received the mandatory death penalty in 2016. The sentence was upheld by the Court of Appeal in 2018 (saying that they agreed with the High Court, the Court of Appeal did not provide written grounds of decision).

Syed had originally been scheduled to hang in February this year, but his execution was suddenly postponed the night before. His family understands that this was related to an application that the human rights lawyer M Ravi had filed in court on behalf of two death row inmates he was representing, related to allegations of unlawful methods of execution in Changi Prison. That case was, however, dismissed in August, and now it appears as if the authorities are resuming executions, starting with Syed.

It’s hard to get news like this. There’s frustration and heartache that stems from a feeling of helplessness; given the short timeframe and the PAP government’s commitment to the capital punishment regime, one knows that the odds of the inmate escaping the gallows are stunningly slim. There’s been no clemency — which would commute the death sentence to life imprisonment — granted to a death row inmate since 1998.

Still, it’s important to do anything and everything that we can. As long as Syed is still alive, there’s still hope.

(Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin)

A community teach-in

Last night, Kokila Annamalai of Community Classroom SG facilitated a teach-in about the death penalty, with particular emphasis on Syed and the experiences of family members of death row inmates. If you missed it, you can watch a recording here.

Mila, Syed’s sister, spoke about her brother, drugs, and the death penalty in Singapore. Another speaker was Aizin, whose brother Hishamrudin bin Mohd was hanged, also for drugs, in 2018. I was the final speaker, rounding things out with a broader view from the journalist/activist perspective.

Both Mila and Aizin called for the abolition of the death penalty, and talked about how difficult it is for offenders to get support both within and without prison. The social stigma against ex-offenders presents a barrier to people trying to get their life back on track, increasing the chances of recidivism. (On this point, Narayanan Ganapathy and Lian Kwen Fee have written about the effect of race on recidivism and rehabilitation, observing that Indian and Malay ex-offenders are less likely to achieve reintegration into society than their Chinese counterparts.)

Although he was convicted of trafficking, Syed was himself a heroin addict, and had previously been sent the state-run drug rehabilitation centre (DRC). But Mila observed that DRC didn’t really help him kick the habit and get back on his feet, and that social stigma made it hard for her brother to reintegrate.

This gels with points brought up in this Rice Media article, in which individuals who had been in DRC said that it was just “a jail with a different name”, and that certain conditions in DRC made it difficult for drug users to get over their addiction.

On top of this, we still have regulations requiring medical practitioners to report to the authorities if they suspect patients are addicted to drugs. This is a big barrier to seeking help and treatment — who will go to the doctor if the doctor is going to report them?

Situating executions within the broader context

Mila and Aizin both brought up extremely important points to consider when thinking about the death penalty in Singapore, which is most often carried out for drug trafficking (and to a lesser degree, murder and firearms offences). The capital punishment regime needs to be talked about against the wider context of criminal justice and drug policy in Singapore.

The PAP government’s narrative about the death penalty is that it saves lives by catching and killing the drug traffickers. The claim is that this punishment deters crime, even though there’s no evidence that the death penalty works better than any other punishment in deterring crime. In this way, the government frames capital punishment as a good thing for helping to curb drug abuse and protect drug abusers and their families.

But as Mila and Aizin have pointed out, we aren’t doing enough to help drug addicts and ex-offenders, and the death penalty isn’t helping anyone. Furthermore, a punishment as harsh and irreversible as the death penalty is unsafe in a system that is far from foolproof — just think about all the problems that the High Court flagged in Parti Liyani’s case, which was fortunately not a capital case. It’s also known that the authorities sometimes resort to entrapment: take a look at what happened to Rozman bin Jusoh, a man with a borderline IQ of 74 who was hanged for drug trafficking.

At the end of the day, the capital punishment regime is a lazy way to “solve” a problem. It allows us to take the “easy” way out and not talk about things like the intersection of class and race when it comes to crime and policing, or about more holistic and restorative ways of dealing with drug use and abuse.

There’s so much we don’t know

Although the government insists that the death penalty functions as a deterrent, they are extremely hush-hush about its application. Prison officers, executioners, and counsellors who work with death row inmates are bound by the Official Secrets Act. Executions aren’t usually announced publicly ahead of time or even publicly confirmed to have been carried out, unless the inmate has already attracted some media attention. The main piece of official information published about the death penalty is the number of judicial executions that took place the year before — it’s buried in annual reports by the Singapore Prison Service.

We don’t know exactly how many inmates there are on death row in Singapore. We don’t have breakdowns by gender, age, race, education, or socioeconomic status. We often don’t know when they are going to be executed — the ones that get flagged, like Syed’s case, are flagged by either family, lawyers, or activists, who have their own struggles with access to information. There is no independent body to monitor and document the application of the death penalty, or to maintain oversight over things like whether executions are botched.

All this opacity and lack of information keeps the death penalty distant and abstract for most of Singaporean society. It alienates and isolates death row inmates and their families, who struggle to find space and attention for their stories and voices. Inmates are particularly at the mercy of what appear to be arbitrary rules that control whether, or how, they communicate with the outside world.

It’s not as simple as saying that Singaporeans don’t care about the death penalty. Even those of us who want to and do care about the death penalty run into constant barriers when trying to get informed about how it works in our country.

Human rights lawyer M Ravi has filed an application to the High Court in an attempt to get a stay of execution for Syed.

Ravi will be arguing in court today, so we’ve got to keep our fingers crossed. 🤞🏼🤞🏼🤞🏼

We also have to appreciate and support lawyers like him, who act for death row inmates pro bono, even though this could come with the risk of being accused of abusing the court process by filing last-minute appeals, as happened with lawyers who represented Kho Jabing pro bono in 2016.

What can we do now?

There’s not much time for Syed. As his sister Mila said, the best thing we can do is make as much noise about this issue as we can. It’s not just for Syed, but for all the other death row inmates awaiting execution dates. Anti-death penalty activists have been concerned for some time that there might be a backlog of cases on death row, which could lead to a spike in the number of executions, like what happened in 2018, when 13 people were executed, 11 of them for drugs.

You can write to your Members of Parliament, or to Cabinet ministers who can advise the President to grant clemency to Syed. Here’s a template that you can use.

Writing to your MP(s) isn’t just for Syed — it’s also to put the issue of the death penalty on the radar, and signal to them that Singaporeans are concerned and engaged. It also helps us get into the habit of reaching out to our elected representatives.

Apart from that, please keep talking about Syed’s case and about the death penalty in general. Feel free to share this issue of the newsletter, or articles written in solidarity like this op-ed by Sangkari Pranthaman, whose brother Pannir is also on death row in Changi Prison. There’s also an online petition calling for President Halimah Yacob to grant clemency, or at the very least a stay of execution — please sign it.

If we can get more and more people writing to their MPs about the death penalty and speaking out about the issue in public, we can push the issue further and further into the public eye. This has been done before, with issues like LGBT rights and migrant workers’ rights. The more we talk about the death penalty and encourage other people to talk about it, the more we can prompt Singaporeans to think about the subject.

We need more people asking questions and paying attention. Change can’t come without this. Be a part of this movement; it’s literally a matter of life and death.


Please amplify this call for help for Syed, and for more awareness about the death penalty, by sharing this issue of the newsletter:

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