Death Penalties For Malaysians Ignite Debate on Abolishing Capital Punishment

Hadi Azmi and Muzliza Mustafa
Kuala Lumpur
Death Penalties For Malaysians Ignite Debate on Abolishing Capital Punishment An activist holds a placard to protest the impending execution of Nagaentharan K. Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man sentenced to death by a Singapore court for trafficking heroin, in Kuala Lumpur, Nov. 3, 2021.

Updated at 11:25 a.m. ET on 2021-11-13

The video of the mother of nine wailing heartrendingly and begging for mercy after a Malaysian court condemned her to the gallows gained worldwide attention and ignited a debate on ending capital punishment in the country.

The impending execution in neighboring Singapore of another Malaysian – a man said to be intellectually disabled – has similarly drawn international condemnation and appeals for his sentence to be revoked.

With Malaysians now having to confront the horror of capital punishment through these two cases, the issue can be discussed in a more humane and rational manner, said Dobby Chew, executive coordinator at the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network.

“I think the recent case of a single mother of nine being sentenced to death, and now the [pending] execution of an intellectually disabled person in Singapore has help set a more positive stage to discuss the death penalty,” Chew told BenarNew

“Previously people did not see the ugly part of the death penalty, now its front and center.”

Hairun Jalmani, the 55-year-old mother of nine, was sentenced to death by a court in the state of Sabah last month, after being convicted for possessing and distributing 4 ounces of methamphetamine in 2018.

Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, 33, was sentenced to death in Singapore in 2010 for smuggling in 1.5 ounces of heroin. His execution, which was scheduled for this week, was postponed after he contracted COVID-19.

While Nagaenthran’s chances of not being hanged appear slim, Hairun in Malaysia has the relative advantage of a moratorium on executions since 2018. 

At that time, the progressive Pakatan Harapan government said it would begin efforts to end the death penalty, calling it the right thing to do for a “new Malaysia.”

The government, however, backtracked on its decision. In 2019, Pakatan announced it would retain the death penalty but not as a mandatory punishment, giving judges the power to decide what type of punishment to mete out based on their due diligence.

Two years before that, the Dangerous Drug Act 1952 was amended, lawyer and former prosecutor Samantha Chong told BenarNews.

Under the amendment, if a case met certain conditions, such as no evidence of buying and selling drugs, the court could only sentence a convict to life in prison, “and whipping of not less than fifteen strokes if such conditions are satisfied,” Chong said.

Despite that amendment to the country’s 69-year-old drug law and the ongoing moratorium on executions, Malaysian courts continue to sentence people to death as there is no other recourse under the law.

UMNO lawmaker calls for repealing death penalty

According to statistics from 2019 – the latest that are publicly available – 1,281 people are languishing in 26 detention facilities across the country awaiting their hanging, the execution method used in Malaysia.

Amnesty International, which conducted a study in 2019 on why Malaysia must abolish the death penalty, reported that most of the people on death row had been sentenced for drug-related offenses.

“Of the total, 73 percent have been convicted of drug trafficking. This figure rises to a staggering 95 percent in the cases of women,” Amnesty said in its study.

“[L]imited available information indicates that a large proportion of those on death row are people with less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds.”

As Amnesty said on Oct. 18, three days after Hairun’s sentencing, her “life chances were stacked against her.”

“She was a single mother in Malaysia’s poorest state trying to support 9 children. Her case is an example of how Malaysia’s death penalty punishes the poor with particular discriminations against women,” the human rights watchdog said.

Women who have been subjected to violence, abuse, and exploitation “have little to no chance to get these factors taken into account at sentencing,” Amnesty added

“Current drug policies have failed to address the underlying socio-economic factors that increase the risks that lead people to use and sell drugs, including ill-health, denial of education, unemployment, lack of housing, poverty and discrimination,” Amnesty said.

BenarNews contacted Law Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar’s office for comment, but his media representatives said a statement would be shared when he was ready to speak about it.

Chew, of the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network, is optimistic about the eventual abolition of capital punishment in Malaysia, starting with ending death sentences for drug offenses.

“We do have staunch abolitionist advocates from the two main political factions in the country,” he said.

Only this week, Nazri Abdul Aziz, a senior member of the ruling United Malays National Organization, urged the government to abolish the death penalty for narcotics-related offenses, saying the punishment was usually meted out regular people and not drug lords.

“We are in the position to repeal the death sentence,” Nazri told parliament.

“We have the power to sit down and stop this.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report contained an incorrect attribution.


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