Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

DPRU Q&As: Kirsten Han, anti-death penalty advocate in Singapore


Kirsten Han
Independent journalist and activist, Singapore


Time to read

6 Minutes

In the third of the DPRU's series of Q&As with death penalty experts from around the world, Kirsten Han, an anti-death penalty advocate in Singapore, tells DPRU Research Officer Jocelyn Hutton about her current work and about her involvement in the case of the recently executed Nagaenthran Dharmalingam.

Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you do in relation to the death penalty?

A lot of my contribution to the campaign to abolish the death penalty in Singapore has to do with storytelling, since that fits with the skills that I have as a writer and journalist, and because abolitionist perspectives, or any in-depth coverage of capital punishment, are missing from the local government-controlled mainstream media. I write about death row prisoners and the experiences of their families, try to humanise this issue. For many Singaporeans, it’s so distant and so abstract that it’s very easy to dismiss; so I think it’s important to expose what the death penalty is really like, how it’s imposed and who it affects the most.

At the same time, I work with and support the families of death row prisoners with whatever they might need in relation to the case. For example, many of the Malaysian prisoners come from working-class families who struggle to afford the trip to Singapore to visit them — although we’re neighbouring countries, costs of transport, accommodation, food and other expenses can add up quickly. The Transformative Justice Collective, which I’ve been a part of since it was formed in 2020, runs a support fund that allows us to support families with these costs. There are times when it can feel like the bulk of my anti-death penalty work is actually about logistics! But this is important too; when people are already grappling with the distress of having a loved one at imminent risk of execution, the least I can do is take as much of the more practical and administrative tasks off their hands.

This is often also a starting point for me to spend more time with family members and find other ways to support them, whether it’s with campaigning publicly, or just being a source of moral support. It all depends on what they want and are comfortable with.

What led you to work on the death penalty?

In 2010, I came across the case of Yong Vui Kong, a young man from Sabah who was on death row for drug trafficking in Singapore. It was the first time that I had really come face-to-face with the death penalty and Singapore’s drug policy — before, it had been so easy to just accept what the government and the police were telling us about “zero tolerance” and the necessity of capital punishment as a “deterrent” to keep drugs out of Singapore. Learning about Vui Kong, meeting his family and reading up on the law had a profound effect on me and I ended up joining the campaign to halt his execution and also to call for the abolition of the mandatory death penalty. That’s where I started, and then my position quickly developed to become completely anti-death penalty, because I was seeing and learning more and more about the unfairness and devastating impact of capital punishment.

Can you tell us a bit more about Nagaenthran Dharmalingam’s case? Who was he, how did he end up on death row, and what made his case so special to you and to so many Singaporeans?

Nagen was from a working-class family in Ipoh, Malaysia, and he was arrested in Singapore when he was only about 20 or 21 years old, and charged with trafficking about three tablespoons of heroin. He spent over a decade on death row before he was executed in April 2022.

I think what shocked a lot of people, especially if they weren’t really familiar with how the death penalty is imposed in Singapore before, was that the state was determined to hang him even though it was not a matter of dispute that his IQ was 69, and that he had other cognitive impairments. People were also taken aback by how cold and cruel the first execution notice — sent to his family just before Deepavali, an important Hindu festival — was, especially since it was accompanied by a long list of COVID-19 travel regulations that they were expected to navigate to come to Singapore to see him before his hanging. So even though anti-death penalty activists know that Nagen’s case isn’t exactly unprecedented — Singapore has hanged people with low or borderline intellectual functioning before — for many Singaporeans it was a jolt to the system that made them face up to the cruel and inhuman punishment that is the death penalty.

Why do you think states apply the death penalty to drugs cases? Do you think these reasons are founded?

The Singapore government has repeatedly insisted, for decades, that the death penalty deters the drug trade in Singapore, thus keeping us safe from drugs. This is a widely accepted narrative in Singapore, because it is pushed so hard and so consistently by the government. I think it’s completely wrong.

There’s no clear evidence that the death penalty is more effective than any other punishment in deterring drug offences. And Singapore’s current drug policy is much more fixated on punishment and shame than truly getting to the root of the matter and supporting people in ways that make sense to their lives, experiences and needs. The Transformative Justice Collective recently published a report on prison conditions in Singapore in which formerly incarcerated people — many of whom were imprisoned or detained for drug offences — told the researchers that state-run Drug Rehabilitation Centres were just prisons by another name, that the rehab and counselling programmes weren’t useful, and that overall their incarceration just made it even more difficult to reintegrate into society and find jobs that can give them financial security. We see from the story of Abdul Kahar, who was executed in March this year, how badly the current system can fail someone.

What efforts are made to prevent vulnerable people from receiving the death penalty in Singapore?

I don’t think there’s sufficient effort to prevent vulnerable people from being sent to death row. Most death row prisoners in Singapore are ethnic minorities. Many of the families I’ve met are working-class families. For all the talk about how the death penalty is about fighting a drug scourge, I have never seen a privileged drug lord — the people who really profit from exploiting others and peddling huge amounts of drugs — on death row in Singapore.

What is it about migrants that can make them especially vulnerable to being used as drug mules?

Many drug mules caught in Singapore are Malaysians who have crossed the border. Based on the cases I’ve seen, they tend to come from working-class families, and are often facing financial pressures. Some might have not have had access to education, and may not be very well-informed about drugs and the laws in Singapore and Malaysia. For drug syndicates on the lookout for cheap smugglers, young men from backgrounds such as these can be easy to recruit and exploit.

Do you think the backlash against Nagen’s scheduled execution marks a turning point for the abolitionist cause in Singapore?

I was genuinely surprised by not only the support for Nagen from Singaporeans, but actual action. I hadn’t expected there to be a particularly big turn-out for our protest in early April, but about 400 people showed up, which is very significant for Singapore. And later that month, when we held another protest/vigil for Nagen and Datchinamurthy Kataiah (another young Malaysian man on death row), the turn-out was around 400 again. It was really powerful to see so many Singaporeans not just support or ‘like’ posts on social media, but actually feel strongly enough to show up. We are now hearing of pockets of action that people are spontaneously taking: submitting clemency pleas to the Cabinet and the President, organising online petitions, etc. and it’s really encouraging.

What could make the difference for Datchinamurthy’s case?

Unfortunately, it is not yet clear that the government will heed the calls of a small but growing number of Singaporeans, which makes it hard for me to assert anything about the chances of success in halting Datchina’s execution. But we press on nonetheless. Datchina has been incredibly brave and has been fighting very hard; we have every reason to show solidarity and none to discourage ourselves from action.

What do you think is the most effective way of lobbying against the death penalty?

I’ve learnt that it’s not realistic to make someone change their mind; that’s a deeply personal step that people can only take for themselves. But it’s important that we provide as many entry points as possible for people to encounter this issue, learn more about it, and have as much access as they can to information that will allow them to consider the matter deeply and come to their own conclusions. We have to amplify the voices of people on death row and their families, we have to tell stories, expose the cruelties inherent in the system, and do it through articles, videos, social media posts, events, protests… you never really can tell how someone might one day come across something, and have that be the path that leads them towards becoming an abolitionist!

Kirsten Han is an independent journalist and activist. She is a member of the Transformative Justice Collective, an anti-death penalty organisation in Southeast Asia. She also runs the newsletter We, The Citizens, covering Singapore from a rights-based perspective.