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Nagaenthran: Death Sentencing in Singapore

‘Warning: Death for Drug Traffickers under Singapore Law’ – a familiar notice you’d come across on the SG Arrival Card (commonly known as the white card) when you intend to get into the country. Despite all that warning, unfortunately, some still commit the crime, and Singapore has not slacked its punishments.


In the recent case of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, a 21-year-old boy was caught at Woodlands Checkpoint for trafficking heroin into the country. As per the country’s law, he was sentenced to death by hanging by the High Court of Singapore.


Singapore was headed in the right direction in July 2012 when it sought to amend its death penalty laws. The amendments, which placed a moratorium on all executions then (including Nagaenthran’s), came into effect in January 2013. This law provided judges’ the discretion to reduce the sentence from the death penalty to life imprisonment with canning if:



  • the accused was merely a drug courier, provided, the Public Prosecutor certifies that the accused has substantively assisted the Central Narcotics Bureau in disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore, OR
  • the accused was merely a drug courier and he was suffering from such abnormality of mind as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts and omissions concerning offence.

This was a success in some cases (Yong Vui Kong; the first drug trafficker on death row to be sentenced to life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane, under amendments made to the Misuse of Drugs Act). However, Nagaenthran did not reap the benefits of this amendment.


This case has gone through the trial and a sentence has been made. The purpose of this article is not to question the proceedings of this trial but to question the law on the death penalty for drug trafficking. Why, is a country like Singapore, known to be heart of Asia, still practicing such draconian law in 2022?

History of the death penalty – Code of Hammurabi

The death penalty dates as far back as the 18th century to the Code of Hammurabi – the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’. One of the most prominent examples of Hammurabi’s Code is the law of retribution. Under this system, if a man broke the bone of one his equals, his own bone would be broken in return.

In today’s world, this principle is outright barbaric and as Gandhi very well put it, ‘an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’.

Drug trafficking in Singapore and Why Death Penalty?

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Singapore in 2019 conducted a survey with a sample size of 2000 residents on their views on capital punishment and the majority of them agreed that the death sentence is a strong deterrence against serious crimes such as drug trafficking.

Singapore’s Justification for the death penalty​

According to the MHA website, there is evidence stating that there was a 66% reduction in the average net weight of drugs trafficked in the four-year window after the introduction of the mandatory death penalty in 1990.

That said, does Nagaenthran hold any chance of escaping the gallows? The Malaysian will need a miracle for that to happen based on the precedence set in regards to the death penalty in Singapore. However, there are two instances where leniency may be granted:

Clemency by the President

Nagaenthran may seek presidential clemency. However, according to Singapore Legal Advise, historically, this approach has only proven to be successful for Singaporeans so far. Will President Halimah Yacob grant presidential clemency for Nagaenthran at this eleventh hour?


Singapore amending the death penalty laws

As stated above, Singapore did attempt to reduce the death sentence in special circumstances to life imprisonment – an Act that came into effect in 2013. However, this does not abolish capital punishment entirely. Whether or not Singapore will do this remains an issue of public policy.

The law as it stands ​

Unfortunately, Malaysia is no different. The offence of trafficking drugs will end up in the offender being sentenced to death. Similar to our neighbour, attempts have been made to reduce the possibility of a death sentence, as per Section 39B (2A) of the amended Dangerous Drugs Act. 


The death penalty has continuously been a hot topic for debate internationally. Many institutions are working towards abolishing capital punishment.


The case of Nagaenthran has shed light that many are indeed against capital punishment. We have seen the Yang Di Pertuan Agong himself has appealed to President Halimah Yacob to grant clemency to Nagaenthran. Does this mean we are heading towards abolishing the death penalty? 


What’s right, Malaysia? You decide.


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