Nazira Lajim remembers her brother looking healthy the night before he was hanged.
“He told me ‘never mind; it’s my fate’,” she recalls. “He was very strong. He kept smiling. He was 64 years old.”
Nazeri bin Lajim was executed by the Singaporean government on 22 July 2022, more than a decade after being charged with trafficking of “no less than 35.41 grams of diamorphine (pure heroin)”.
The site of his execution, Changi Prison, sits just 25km from the Johor Causeway, a 1km bridge separating Singapore from its close neighbour, Malaysia.
This is one of the world’s busiest border crossings, with more than 300,000 people travelling between the two countries every day. For drug dealers and mules, however, the causeway has become the boundary separating life from state-sanctioned death.
On the Malaysian side, at least 30 convicted drug offenders on death row have had their sentences commuted over the past month, after the government officially repealed the mandatory death penalty earlier this year — a move widely celebrated by human rights activists.
Meanwhile, on the Singaporean side, at least 16 drug offenders have been hanged since April 2022, when the government resumed state executions after a two-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At least 50 more are believed to remain on death row, awaiting the same fate.
While Malaysia has joined the majority of jurisdictions that are choosing to do away with the mandatory death penalty, the tiny city-state hugging its southern tip has dug in its heels on what now constitute some of the world’s harshest anti-narcotics policies.
In , Singapore is one of six jurisdictions globally—including China, Iran, North Korea, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia—that continues to execute people for drug offences. Anyone caught with at least 30g of morphine, 15g of diamorphine (heroin), 500g of cannabis, 30g of cocaine or 250g of methamphetamine can be sentenced and hanged for drug trafficking.
A growing chorus of voices is calling to change that. Abolitionist groups argue that not only are Singapore’s harsh narcotics laws ineffective at targeting the key players within drug syndicates, they also disproportionately affect people from already marginalised groups, such as ethnic minorities and those experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage.
Many of these are people who have taken up drug crime out of desperation, becoming street-level dealers and mules as a means of survival. Many of them also habitually use drugs, like Nazeri did.
“My brother was a drug addict at the age of 14,” Nazira says. “He came from a very poor family, and he’s not educated, so he got hooked on drugs.”
“That’s why they hanged him: because he had drugs in his hand.”
Who gets executed in Singapore
The in Southeast Asia are for nonviolent, drug-related offences. And in several nations, those numbers are trending upwards.
Indonesia, for example, sentenced 122 people to death for drug offences in 2022, a 37 per cent increase from the year before. Like Singapore, most of those incarcerated for drug offences in Indonesia tend to be from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
Unlike Singapore, however, Indonesia hasn’t executed anyone since 2016. During that same period, Singapore hanged at least 41 people. And while Indonesian legislators are considering a probationary death penalty, where prisoners could be given alternative sentences after 10 years if certain conditions are met, Singaporean authorities remain vocally defensive of the need to execute criminals.
“Capital punishment has deterred drug trafficking and kept Singapore’s domestic drug situation well under control,” said Umej Bhatia, Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations Office, in a letter to the UN in May 2022.
“Consequently, we have avoided the crimes and suffering that many societies with liberal drug laws have had to live with.”
This deterrence factor is the linchpin in the Singapore government’s defence of the death penalty. But abolition advocates denounce claims that such a tough approach is achieving its stated aim to throttle supply chains, disrupt syndicates, and catch kingpins.
Kirsten Han is an anti-death penalty activist and member of the Transformative Justice Collective and has worked alongside families of death row inmates since 2010.
“There’s this very widespread narrative that’s perpetuated by the government that by killing people we are saving lives,” she told SBS Dateline.
“I used to have the same assumption that only the most hardened drug lords get executed. Then when I came to this issue I was shocked to discover that they are drug mules, that they are people from impoverished backgrounds, that they are people in desperate circumstances, that they are ethnic minorities — that really the marginalised segments of society are on death row.”
Nazeri fit the bill. He was no kingpin, but merely a drug user, from an impoverished background and desperate circumstances, who as a member of the Malay ethnic minority was already statistically more likely to face state execution.
A found that although Malays — a majority Muslim people who have historically endured racial discrimination and Islamophobia in Singapore — account for only about 15 per cent of the nation’s population, they make up 84 per cent of executions for drug trafficking.
“I feel that my brother has been discriminated [against]—by the law, by the government, by the judge,” Nazira said. “We’ve been discriminated [against].”
While Nazeri admitted to the court that he intended to sell a portion of the drugs found in his possession, Nazira says he needed the money to make a livable income, since social stigma had made it almost impossible for him to get a job.
Tough approach may be helping drug lords
Not only is Singapore’s death row dragnet failing to bring in the big fish, but the government’s hard-on-drugs approach may be helping the real kingpins rake in higher profits.
Dobby Chew, executive coordinator of the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network, said the relatively high price of drugs in the city-state had stimulated the opposite of a deterrent effect.
For drug traffickers, high risk is compensated by high reward.
“Singapore really doubled down on this idea that ‘our drug policy is an effective deterrence and it has really helped restrict the flow of drugs’,” Chew told SBS Dateline.
“[But] at the same time, what the users indicated was drug prices. We saw that information out there in public, and then we could get the same kind of information from the Malaysian side of the fence.”
The cross-border inflation in these prices was sharp, Chew explained.
“Heroin, for example, is almost 21 times the value just by crossing the causeway from Malaysia to Singapore,” he said.
“So if you look at it financially and economically, it really incentivizes trafficking syndicates to want to traffic more over—because the same amount of stuff, regardless of purity, goes up that much in value the moment you cross one bridge.”
How Malaysia is different
Siti Zabidah Muhammad Rasyid lives on the north side of that bridge, in Malaysia. Her son, Razali, was sentenced to death in 2003 after being caught with 851 grams of cannabis.
“Twenty years I suffered, as a mother, alone,” Siti told SBS Dateline.
The 66-year-old explained how she sold all of her possessions and spent the majority of her pension paying for lawyers and legal appeals. Three times she appealed to the courts, and three times she was unsuccessful.
Then, on 16 November this year, after 20 years on death row, Razali was released. Malaysia’s parliament repealed the country’s mandatory death penalty in April, offering more than 1,300 people the chance to seek a sentencing review.
“We cannot arbitrarily ignore the existence of the inherent right to life of every individual,” deputy law minister Ramkarpal Singh said during a debate in Malaysia’s lower house to pass the reform.
“The death penalty has not brought the results it was intended to bring.”
For those who are granted a sentencing review, it is now up to the courts to decide on a possible alternative punishment, which under the new rules includes caning and a jail term of up to 40 years.
After 12 strokes of the cane, Razali was a free man.
“I feel like I’ve reborn him,” Siti said. “What happened for [the past] 20 years, I already forgot. I don’t want to think about that. He has a new life and I also have to face a new life for him.”
Human rights groups have celebrated Malaysia’s sweeping reforms as an important step in the right direction, stressing the need for other states in the region to follow suit.
“Southeast Asia saw an alarming rise in the resort to executions in 2022,” said Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia, in May.
“But Malaysia’s decision to abolish the mandatory death penalty and establish a re-sentencing process for those on death row brings hope that a more progressive and humane approach to criminal justice can become a reality in the region.”
Since her brother’s death, Nazira has become a loud voice condemning the Singaporean government’s seemingly immovable position. She wants justice for Nazeri, to see the death penalty scrapped, and for people who are struggling with habitual drug use to receive medical treatment rather than capital punishment.
“I want people to know that the death sentence, that hanging, doesn’t work at all,” she says. “I want them to know that the government is cruel. So unfair, and so cruel.”
“My world was shattered after they hanged my brother.”