“They are punishing our entire family,” Sarmila Dharmalingam, his older sister, said in an interview. “This hanging sentence is not just a punishment for the person who committed the wrongdoing, it is a punishment for all of us.”
In an emailed statement, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs said Nagaenthran Dharmalingam had been accorded “full due process under the law,” and noted the courts had struck down his attempts to overturn the sentence.
The courts “held that Nagaenthran’s mental responsibility for his offense was not substantially impaired,” the ministry said. “Nagaenthran was found to have clearly understood the nature of his acts, and he did not lose his sense of judgment of the rightness or wrongness of what he was doing.”
Prison officials, the statement added, have been in touch with his family to explain travel procedures. Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said in a statement that diplomats are extending consular aid to the family.
Dharmalingam was caught at age 21 in 2009 crossing into Singapore from Malaysia with 1.5 ounces of heroin, and sentenced to death by hanging the following year. Singapore has a mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking; at the time, there was no scope for mitigation.
He lost an appeal in 2019 to reduce his penalty to life in prison. If hanged next week, Dharmalingam would be the first person executed in Singapore since 2019.
M. Ravi, a Singapore lawyer who represents 24 other inmates on death row, is contesting the court’s decision as unconstitutional and calling for a stay of execution and for the decision to be reversed.
“He is like a 5-year-old child, he doesn’t speak much, he just kind of looks at you,” Ravi said of his client. “He doesn’t understand what he has been going through.”
Ravi said Dharmalingam struggled to grasp his predicament and had mentioned having a “headache” when people discuss the law. His client had spoken of being in a garden and too afraid to leave it, he said.
“In all my cases I’ve never seen a condition like this, I’ve never handled something like this,” the lawyer said.
Singapore has defended the death penalty as an effective deterrent and cites widespread support for the mandatory punishment. An independent study published in 2018 found that while a majority supported the death penalty when the question was asked in general terms, it is not an opinion held “strongly or unconditionally.”
“It would therefore be misleading to say, without qualifications, that there is public support for the death penalty in Singapore,” the survey said, particularly when it comes to the mandatory death penalty, which has “weak support.” Only about one-third of respondents favored mandatory execution for drug trafficking and firearm offenses.
Dharmalingam’s case has garnered attention in Singapore, where the government tightly controls mainstream publications and social media has emerged as a space for activism. Advocates helping the Malaysian national’s family raised more than $14,000 for flights, quarantine hotel rooms and other arrangements, including a funeral, in just two days.
“I was surprised to see that amount of support, just from crowdfunding,” said Kirsten Han, a journalist and activist. “It is a combination I think of it being covid, really tough on the family and that he has a borderline intellectual disability — it makes this particularly harsh.”
Others have pointed out that the timing of the execution — just after the Diwali religious holiday — is particularly hard for his family, who are Hindu.
More than 46,000 people have signed an online petition appealing to Singapore’s president to pardon Dharmalingam, though such clemency is rarely granted.
Sarmila Dharmalingam, 35, said she and her siblings had been putting off telling their mother, a cleaner, why she had to travel to Singapore. On Tuesday, surrounded by 10 family members, they finally told her of her son’s imminent execution.
“She still can’t accept it,” she said.