Focus for this week – Pannir Selvam, the Death Penalty and Drugs

By May 27, 2019 February 24th, 2020 Courtroom, Government

This week, we thought we would focus on 2 old topics that have gained some new attention: Drugs and the Death Penalty.

If you have an interest in human rights matters, no doubt you would have heard or read about the case of Pannir Selvam Pranthaman, a Malaysian citizen who was convicted of trafficking 51.84g of heroin in 2017 and sentenced to death.  Until recently, he had been languishing in prison, awaiting execution.

Here’s a summary of what happened:-

  • After being arrested on 3 September 2014 at the Woodlands Checkpoint and following a period of investigation, Pannir was charged with drug trafficking in 51.84 g of heroin.

  • On 27 June 2017, after a 6-day trial in the High Court, Pannir was convicted for the offence of drug trafficking and sentenced to death.
  • An appeal to the Court of Appeal was dismissed on 9 February 2019.
  • In early 2019, Pannir sought a presidential pardon from Singapore’s president, also known as a “clemency petition”.  This attempt failed, and the way in which it failed is what has given rise to the present publicity.
  • Based on a report from Channel NewsAsia on the ongoing court proceedings, prior to 7 May 2019, the President had already been advised by the Cabinet against granting clemency.
  • The President agreed with this advice.  Accordingly, the President’s principal private secretary Mr Benny Lee was instructed on 7 May 2019 to inform Pannir Selvam and his family of this decision.  The secretary later signed 3 letters informing Pannir Selvam and his family that the death sentence would continue to be meted out.
  • The letters were dated 17 May 2019, and sent by the Istana on 14 May 2019 to the Singapore Prison Service to be delivered to Pannir Selvam and his family.
  • Another letter, also received on 17 May 2019, was written by the Singapore Prison Service which informed Pannir Selvam and his family that Pannir would be executed on 24 May 2019.

In Comes the Lawyers for Liberty and the Malaysian Government 

On 18 May 2019, Lawyers for Liberty issued a press statement, alleging that the clemency petition to the President was tainted with “illegality and unlawful acts by the Singapore authorities”.

In addition, the following allegations were made:-

  • That Pannir was a mere drug mule.
  • Pannir had provided critical information about “Anand” who was the mastermind who had “duped” him into committing trafficking.
  • Pannir was unreasonably denied the certificate of assistance by the public prosecutor.

See the press statement here:

On 21 May 2019, Pannir filed a motion to the Singapore Court of Appeal to stay his 24 May execution in order to challenge the clemency process.  It would appear from news reports that the gist of his challenge was that he had been prejudiced because the decision of the prison to proceed with the execution was made prior to the rejection of his clemency petition.

The Court of Appeal granted a stay of execution on 23 May 2019 (i.e. Pannir now has more time to properly challenge the clemency process).  We quote the following parts of the Channel NewsAsia report:

His lawyers argued that the accused was only told a week ago of his execution date and that his petition for clemency to President Halimah Yacob had been rejected.

 Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said that Pannir Selvam should “have a reasonable opportunity to take advice on whether he can mount a successful challenge”.

During the hearing, Deputy Public Prosecutor Francis Ng “candidly” acknowledged that this would not have given Pannir Selvam much time to obtain advice on any options he had to appeal the execution of the sentence, said Chief Justice Menon.

See the report here.

The Malaysian government also sought to assist Pannir through diplomatic channels.  On 21 May 2019, The Star reported Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah as saying that the Malaysian government would seek to help Pannir, and Malaysian Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Liew Vui Keong was making the effort, presumably to speak with his Singapore counterparts, regarding Pannir’s case.

Notably, Datuk Saifuddin recognised the limits of diplomatic assistance, as he was reported as saying:

Asked how Putrajaya could resolve the issue of allegedly short notice for carrying out the death sentence, he said there was nothing much the Malaysian government could do.

“This is the way Singapore administers its law. There is not much room for us to complain but normally what we do is we will try our best to help our people,” he said.

Read more here.

A Scuffle Ensues Across the Causeway

Datuk Liew Vui Keong was unable to speak to Singapore’s Minister for Law and Home Affairs, Mr Shanmugam, but he communicated with Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Law, and further wrote an e-mail to the Singapore government on Pannir’s matter.

2 things then happened.

On 23 May 2019, the Ministry of Home Affairs gave a statement saying that the clemency petition of Pannir had been carefully considered.  (See the report here)

Later, on 24 May 2019, Mr Shanmugam spoke at the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) Workplan Seminar, and on the topic of Pannir Selvam, the Minister made the following points:

  • It is not tenable for Singapore to grant special treatment to Malaysian drug offenders caught on the Singapore side.
  • Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan party had members who were “ideologically opposed” to the death penalty and that Singapore respected that position.
  • Likewise Singapore imposed the death penalty and Malaysia was expected to respect that position similarly.
  • A majority of Singaporeans supported a tough anti-drug stance, including using the death penalty against drug traffickers.

See the report here.

Neither Malaysia nor Lawyers for Liberty were happy about Mr Shanmugam’s points, to say the least.

Adviser N Surendran of Lawyers for Liberty posted a number of posts on his Twitter feed in response:

You can also read about the tweets here, on the Online Citizen. Do note however that there is mis-reporting by the Online Citizen in stating that the Court of Appeal granted Pannir’s request for clemency – This is incorrect and likely a typographical error.  Only a stay has been granted.

In respect of Datuk Liew Vui Keong, he seemed to have to fend off allegations (the sources of which are unclear) that he had interfered with Singapore’s decision to grant the stay of execution in respect of Pannir.

The minister said that such allegations were “totally unfounded and baseless” and were “purely a figment of an imagination on someone’s part”.  Read more about Datuk Liew’s response here.

So now you are all caught up on what has been going on.

Given the renewed interest in the legitimacy of the death penalty, whether Pannir rightly deserved clemency or not, and whether we (Singapore) are being too hard on drugs, we thought it would be an apt time to factcheck some of these issues.

Have a think and let us know your views! Our commentary pieces are coming soon 🙂


  • J Lim says:

    Soften our stand and you will get more attempts to bring drugs in. Some will succeed some will fail. A gamble for some years in sg prison is worth it for drug traffickers wannabes.

  • John M Lukamto says:

    Death penalty is too harsh on a small mule. It doesn’t affect the drug flow. His cooperation with police to nail the bigger drug lord can be used as consideration for life sentence instead of death.

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