KUALA LUMPUR: It has been almost 10 years since Sangkari Pranthaman’s brother was imprisoned in Singapore, and in that time, she has only held his hands twice.
Both occasions were marked by extreme emotion.
The first time was crushing heartbreak when she heard the court convict and sentence her brother, Pannir Selvam Pranthaman, to death for trafficking 51.84g of heroin in 2017.
“I held my brother’s hand. I told him, no matter what, we will try our best,” she said.
The second time was in relieved jubilation when Singapore’s Court of Appeal gave him a stay of execution on May 23, 2019, a day before he was scheduled to go to the gallows.
Sitting next to Sangkari is her younger sister Angelia, who holds a photo album full of pictures and mementos from their childhood. They spoke to Bernama at their home in Kuala Lumpur.
It is now near the end of the road for 36-year-old Pannir Selvam as Singapore has stepped up the execution of drug offenders post-pandemic.
The city-state halted executions for two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic but resumed them in March 2022. Eleven people, all convicted of drug trafficking, were executed last year.
Almost out of legal options, this Christmas is likely the last Pannir Selvam will see as he awaits his execution in the new year.
Realising this, Angelia and Sangkari, who prefers to be known as Shan, tear up as they tell Bernama about their brother, their childhood, and the nightmare that they are unable to wake up from.
Knowing that Pannir Selvam will likely never have the comforting trappings of home and family before he dies weighs heavily on them.
“Even after the execution letter came out (in 2019), (during) that one-week visit, we were not able to hug or touch… or bring our home-cooked food,” said Angelia, adding that their brother’s favourite dish is mutton curry.
For a family like theirs, brought closer through years of hardship, it was a special kind of torture to distill all their years together into those two occasions when they were able to see him, knowing that time was running out.
Forged in joy, tempered by suffering
In the letters he wrote to his family, as well as his musings while in prison, Pannir Selvam described life growing up in Ipoh, Perak, as happy but hard for his family of eight (his parents, three brothers and two sisters), especially when their lorry driver father gave up his job to become a pastor.
They had to rely on his father’s monthly church allowance of RM1,000 to make ends meet. Pannir Selvam also worked during the school holidays to help his family.
Describing his father as strict, he wrote about being under constant scrutiny as the children “(carried their father’s) reputation” in church.
“As he is an important member of the church, all eyes will always be on us, on everything his children do and say,” he wrote.
It was perhaps this experience, chafing under the pressure and the need to help his family financially, that made him decide to go to Singapore to work in 2010 – far enough away to be independent but close enough for emergencies.
To save money, he lived in Johor Bahru and commuted across the border to Singapore, staying overnight in his company’s accommodation if needed.
Shan told Bernama that Pannir Selvam was prone to silence, not contacting the family until they did.
“We were all young 10 years ago. Pannir Selvam was also very young, so he didn’t really call family often. But once in a while, we would call him and speak to him,” she said.
As a lone wolf, Pannir would gamble and drink at a gambling den near his apartment in Johor Bahru, which is where his sisters said a drug trafficker called Anand befriended him.
“It’s easier to manipulate someone who is single, rather than surrounded by family. Because if someone is with family, there is someone to take care of them,” said Shan.
One fateful evening on Sept 4, 2014, officers at the Woodlands Checkpoint in Singapore stopped Pannir Selvam and found packets of heroin, weighing 51.84g, that Anand had asked him to deliver to someone called Jimmy.
Under Singaporean law, smuggling more than 15g of heroin is a capital offence.
Pannir Selvam told officers that he thought they were aphrodisiacs. According to court documents, this was not the first time he had brought in “items” for Jimmy, having made deliveries three times before.
Pannir Selvam was remanded and sent to prison, where he has been since. His family did not find out until two weeks later.
His sisters never denied that Pannir Selvam made a mistake, saying he was too trusting for his own good. But one mistake should not compound another.
“He can be punished for the mistake he has made. But he’s not supposed to be given the death sentence for this mistake… We have to give them a second chance for them to repent,” Shan said.
Nearing the end
Pannir Selvam’s fate is currently up in the air, according to his sisters. He has already exhausted his appeals and his application for clemency was denied in 2019. His only hope now is an ongoing civil litigation.
“There is no positive outcome, or negative. It’s very neutral now, very hard to predict whether we will win or we will lose,” Shan said.
They expect to know Pannir Selvam’s fate in February, which is when the Court of Appeal will conduct another hearing on a lawsuit filed by Pannir Selvam and 12 other death row inmates challenging the Singapore Prison Service for releasing private letters to the Attorney-General’s Chambers without their consent.
Their lawsuit was previously dismissed. Upon appeal, the court requested more information.
The sisters said as long as the case was ongoing, Pannir Selvam could not be executed. If the court upholds the dismissal, then the countdown begins.
While being in constant litigation may technically allow for a reprieve from the gallows, in the past, the courts in Singapore have gotten irate with last-minute litigation they consider a waste of time.
Describing her family as a psychological, emotional and financial mess, Shan said they could not give up on Pannir Selvam. They keep hoping for another miracle, like his 2019 stay of execution which was granted at the eleventh hour.
“We cannot give up on anyone in our family. The hope is there,” she said, adding that the ordeal had brought them closer as a family.
In their corner are numerous anti-death penalty groups such as Singapore-based Transformative Justice Collective and Amnesty International. On its website, Amnesty International states that Singapore’s use of the death penalty is a violation of international laws and standards.
“Drug-related offences do not meet the threshold of the ‘most serious crimes’ involving intentional killing. Death sentences are also imposed as mandatory punishment and after proceedings that do not meet the highest standards for a fair trial,” it said.
Singaporeans reportedly support the death penalty for drug traffickers but a 2018 study by the National University of Singapore found that the support may be more nuanced.
The study, involving 1,500 subjects, found that one-third of respondents favoured mandatory capital punishment for drug trafficking. When presented with specific scenarios, respondents showed “little support for the death penalty in typical cases of drug trafficking brought before the courts”.
Despite this, the chances of Singapore backtracking are slim to none. Calls by the US, the United Nations, the European Union, billionaire and anti-death penalty activist Richard Branson and neighbouring Malaysia for clemency and to commute the death sentence have largely fallen on deaf ears. Malaysia removed the mandatory death penalty for drug offences this year, leaving it to the court’s discretion.
Instead, Singapore has doubled down, calling the death penalty for drug offences a part of its “comprehensive harm prevention strategy which targets both demand and supply”.
After almost a decade, all of their efforts may come to naught. But Shan and Angelia said they had made peace with Pannir Selvam’s possible death.
“In the event that we fail, he said don’t worry about him because he has become a better person,” Shan said.
“He said, ‘You don’t have to feel bad because you have tried your best, in all ways and all methods,’” she said with a wobbly smile. Next to her, Angelia clutches her hand, the album open to a picture of a young and beaming Pannir Selvam.