This story has been republished with Kirsten’s agreement from her We, The Citizens newsletter.
Rocky, a fellow member of the Transformative Justice Collective, called in the afternoon. “I have some bad news,” he said.
I immediately knew what he was going to say. I just didn’t know whose name I would hear on the line next.
“Tangaraju got an execution notice today.”
The last execution in Singapore took place in October last year. Since then, death row prisoners, their loved ones, and abolitionists have had a short reprieve after a brutal year in which 11 men were hanged for drug offences in about a seven-month period. We were cautiously hopeful that two ongoing legal challenges, involving multiple death row prisoners, would stall executions for awhile more. But we could never really let go of the breath we’d been holding — with the Singapore government dead set on defending capital punishment and their war on drugs, we knew that it was just a matter of time before they’d be back to their murderous ways.
Still, no matter how much you tell yourself to moderate expectations and be ready for the worst, it’s always too soon. There is never enough time.
Tangaraju s/o Suppiah is 46 years old. He was arrested on 23 January 2014 for drug consumption and failure to report for a drug test. About a couple of months later, the authorities identified him as potentially linked to the arrests of two guys, Mogan and Suresh, back in September 2013. Two phone numbers, one of which had been used to coordinate a delivery of cannbis with Mogan in September 2013, were claimed to belong to Tangaraju. As a 2022 court judgment states, by the time Tangaraju was linked to Mogan and Suresh’s arrests, he was “already in remand and none of his mobile phones could be recovered for analysis.”
As is the practice with investigations in Singapore, Tangaraju was questioned by the police without a lawyer present. Tangaraju said he’d asked for a Tamil interpreter while his statement was being recorded, but had been denied; because of this, he’d had trouble properly understanding the English-language statement that was read back to him.
The High Court found Tangaraju guilty of conspiring to traffic 1,017.9g of cannabis, and sentenced him to mandatory death in 2018 (with written grounds of decision provided on 31 December 2018).
I don’t care if you are in favour of the death penalty, if you believe that it’s necessary for public order or security. Even if you do, you cannot look at Tangaraju’s case and tell me this is justice.
This case is a shitshow of problems; both long-standing issues related to access to justice in Singapore and matters unique to Tangaraju. He never handled the drugs that he’s been accused of conspiring to traffick. He was questioned without a lawyer and not given an interpreter when he asked for one. The case revolved around two phone numbers that were said to belong to him but his mobile phones were not recovered for analysis. The statements taken from Suresh and Mogan at the time of their arrest weren’t disclosed to Tangaraju and his defence counsel. Unable to find a lawyer who would take on his case post-appeal, he had to self-represent in a legal application last year. (It was rejected.)
The idea that a man might soon be hanged for abetting an attempt to traffick one kilo of cannabis — a plant-based substance that’s being decriminalised or legalised in a growing number of jurisdictions — is, in and of itself, outrageous in the most horrifying way. But it feels even more terrible and surreal when compared to where I’ve been.
For the past few days I’ve been surrounded by people who use drugs, harm reductionists, academics and researchers, human rights defenders, advocates and activists. At the Harm Reduction International conference there was a firm consensus that the war on drugs is a failure, that criminalisation fixes nothing but causes immense harm, and that we should respect people’s agency and self-determination, even if they make decisions we would not. People have to be met where they are, and our priority should be to work with them to maintain their health and well-being, rather than punishing and coercing them into behaviours they did not choose for themselves.
It’s a totally different world from what we face in Singapore. The execution notice issued today was a reminder delivered in the form of a gut punch.
Whenever we push for the abolition of the death penalty or suggest drug policy reform in Singapore, one of the most common responses is: But what about the victims? Why do you only care about the drug traffickers on death row and not the people whose lives have been ruined by drugs? Don’t you know about how much suffering drugs have caused? What about the opioid crisis in the US? Don’t you know that people are dying?
The implication is that abolitionists and advocates for ending the war on drugs are overly ‘idealistic’, naïve, impractical, or outright neglectful of those who have suffered due to drugs and addiction. The assumption is that we deny the devastating harm that drugs can cause, and overlook the negative experiences of drug users and their families. The debate is framed as being between prohibitionists championing “zero tolerance” to ‘protect’ society, and “bleeding heart” activists who are more concerned about death row prisoners than the lives that have been destroyed by drug use.
But as I attended plenaries, panel discussions and press conferences this week, as I went on site visits and checked out booths and talked to people one-on-one about their work, the falsity of those assumptions became blatantly clear. Every single person I met at the conference was extremely clear-eyed about the devastation of opioid crises and overdose deaths and the spread of HIV or viral hepatitis. Many work on the front lines and have seen the suffering for themselves. Many of them have lived experience of drug use and/or treatment for drug dependence. They know, better than anyone. And they are demanding an end to the war on drugs and prohibitionist policies because they know.
It’s absolutely untrue that abolitionists and harm reductionists don’t care about people whose lives have been harmed by drug use or the drug trade. In fact, what the Harm Reduction International conference made clear to me was that no one else lives, breathes, or obsesses over the well-being of people whose lives have been impacted by drug use more than harm reductionists do. This is what they do, day in, day out. While prohibitionists talk over people who use drugs and insist that they know what’s best, harm reductionists are working on the ground alongside the communities they serve, engaging with people who use drugs and considering the intersectionality of drug policy with human rights, colonisation, capitalism, exploitation, racism and oppression. They are immersed in this complex web of interconnected issues because they are determined to save lives and increase overall well-being.
Singapore’s oppressive war on drugs — built on hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of policing, surveillance, government propaganda, fear-mongering, prejudice, stigma, and torture — ignores the myriad reasons why people might use drugs and refuses to recognise the spectrum of drug use, where only a fraction of the total number of people who use drugs develop chronic dependence. Our “zero tolerance” isn’t just intolerant of drugs, it’s intolerant of people and their experiences and their choices. Our harsh criminalisation drives the drug trade underground where it is impossible to regulate, leaving people at risk of using substances that are tainted or contaminated, or are of indeterminate potency (so people might accidentally take too much), or that contain components not yet well understood by medical practitioners and are therefore difficult to address in the event of an overdose. Our tough stance leaves people traumatised and shattered, because it buries them under messages of rejection, shame and blame. Our punitive approach disrupts lives and relationships and jobs with mandatory drug detention or imprisonment. Our prejudice and judgment blocks people from accessing healthcare or harm reduction services that can help address the root causes of their use and equip them with information on how to manage it in ways that will keep them as safe and healthy as possible.
These are all the harms caused by prohibitionist policies. When we in Singapore say “drugs wreck lives”, we fail to recognise that it is often our policies that are doing a lot of the wrecking. Harsh, uncompromising measures like the death penalty are not proven to have a deterrent effect. Not a single person who uses drugs is helped or supported by a hanging of another, likely from a minoritised or marginalised community. It is especially useless, pointless, and heartless when it comes to a case as problematic as Tangaraju’s.
The countdown clock has begun; time is running out. Tangaraju and his family only have a week left.
The death penalty thrives on people’s indifference. The state can get away with a lot when people aren’t paying attention. Visibility is crucial; people need to know about this imminent execution, need to be aware of Tangaraju, need to be reminded that Singapore is killing people here.
If you’re part of an organisation, issue a public statement to call for his execution to be halted. If you’re not part of an organisation, use your personal platforms as much as possible to draw attention to his case and express solidarity with the campaign to save him. Write to your elected officials. If you’re in Singapore, submit a clemency petition on his behalf to the President; you can deliver it to the Istana in person. If you’re outside Singapore and live in a place where this is safe to do, protest the imminent execution in public space. Share this piece, or any of the Transformative Justice Collective’s posts on this imminent execution. Raise your voice. Please do not be silent. Tangaraju needs all the help he can get.
Kirsten Han is a Singaporean journalist and social activist, who writes on the death penalty and increasingly on drug policy reform issues. You can follow her work on We, The Citizens and her new newsletter on drug policy stories, Altered States.