KUALA LUMPUR, June 28 — Malaysian Pannir Selvam Pranthanam’s fate as a prisoner on Singapore’s death row seemed sealed, but his family remained doggedly determined to save him even by going so far as to carry out their own investigative work.
The Singapore High Court in May 2017 had convicted him and sentenced him to death over his role as a drug courier.
In a joint interview with Malay Mail and Malaysiakini, his 35-year-old sister Sangkari Pranthanam said the Singapore Court of Appeal’s February 2018 dismissal of Pannir Selvam’s appeal against his conviction and death sentence had effectively crushed what his family viewed as their last hope.
But Sangkari refused to give up and seized on the idea of tracking down information on “Anand”, to enable Pannir Selvam to provide “substantive assistance” to Singapore’s anti-drug authorities.
Anand was the fake name used by the one who gave Pannir Selvam the drugs to take across to Singapore.
While not legally trained and having never studied law, Sangkari had, in court hearings, picked up on the fact that drug couriers who provide substantive assistance to Singapore authorities can receive a certificate of substantive assistance at the attorney-general’s sole discretion.
This certificate enables the court to sentence such drug couriers to life imprisonment with caning, instead of the mandatory death penalty.
She obtained clues from her brother who had only limited information regarding Anand who he had only known for three weeks, including his “Satu Hati Boy” nickname, a description of his appearance, the places he used to stay in Johor Baru, and that the car he drives is a blue modified Proton Wira, but without information regarding the car plate number.
Sangkari had a false start after spending two weeks gathering information on a Malaysian whom she thought was Anand, but found out later that this recruiter of drug mules into Singapore merely shared a similar name with the actual Anand.
With her parents and a cousin living in Johor, Sangkari walked the streets in Johor Baru for hours until they happened to chance upon a stranger at the Perling Flats who recalled Anand and his car and was able to share the latter’s car plate number.
Sangkari then managed to obtain Anand’s actual full name and identity card number after doing some sleuthing; discovering that he has a record of drug cases and is wanted by the Malaysian police.
Sangkari said she managed to find Anand’s photos from his Facebook account after searching for the account for two days, and also obtained information about Anand’s close friend, who was using a fake name of “Steven” and was similarly involved in the recruitment of cross-border drug mules.
Her digging of information on the actual Anand — from the time she obtained the car plate number — was done within just one week with the help of family and friends.
When her brother asked her how she managed this, she replied, “I said, ‘Do I have any choice left? I have to save you right? I have to push myself to maximum because I want to save you’. He almost cried but he stopped, he controlled himself.
“He said, ‘I never thought you could do such a CID work’... I said, ‘Because of you. You made me do this, I never knew I can do this for you,” she said, referring to the police Criminal Investigation Department (CID).
The family’s appointed lawyer then helped arrange a meeting between Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) and Pannir Selvam for him to share information on the three individuals involved in drug activities, which Sangkari had compiled in a file for him to pass to them.
The CNB met Pannir Selvam twice in August 2018 and September 2018, but did not communicate anything, such as whether they acted on the information, while the attorney general later rejected the request for a certificate of substantive assistance without providing a reason, Sangkari said.
“Being in this position, if I say I am not angry, it is not true. At first I was very confused why they refused to give the certificate of substantive assistance… I mean the information is quite a lot, they should consider it. But I don’t know what is their point of view, or maybe they have their own reason why they can’t, but they did not reveal that. And we are not in a position to question that,” she said.
Expressing her sadness as she said she could only act on her own assumptions without knowing what the Singapore authorities require, Sangkari said: “Is it this information is not sufficient? If it is not sufficient, what other information do you require? But we don’t know, they never tell also.”
Subsequently, Pannir Selvam wrote a 27-page clemency petition to the Singapore president, which Sangkari spent one night typing out, before hand-delivering three sets of the petition on behalf of him, his parents, and his siblings in October 2018 to the president’s office.
Singapore lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam, who provided his services for free, helped submit another clemency petition to the Singapore president in February 2019 containing the information Sangkari found.
The lawyer also passed the same information along with a letter to the attorney general to request for the certificate of substantive assistance, which was met with a written rejection in April 2019.
Receiving the dreaded letters
Sangkari still vividly remembers the events on May 17, 2019, when she had an uneasy feeling after receiving a call from Singapore prisons to inform her of a courier, since there would usually be no calls but letters sent to her mailbox.
Quickly rushing home and with her hands shaking, she opened up a DHL courier package from Changi prison at her mailbox, sighting two envelopes from the Singapore president’s office and the prison which respectively contained two letters dated May 17 informing her of the clemency rejection and Pannir Selvam’s execution date on May 24.
“I was very shocked. I don’t know if I am reading the correct letter… Actually I cry first, I saw the letter, I cried, then I stopped crying, I think ‘why am I crying?’,” she said, adding that she then called Pannir Selvam’s Malaysian lawyer, N. Surendran, who was equally shocked when told of the one-week notice for the execution.
Things moved quickly; she read the letters at 3.30pm and called Surendran and her father before 4pm. The entire family (except Pannir’s younger brother, Joshua, who had to sit for his final examinations for his Masters in the next two days) which was mostly Ipoh-based dropped everything and made it to Kuala Lumpur by 9pm the same day.
While waiting for the family’s arrival, Sangkari continued to scrutinise the courier package which was stated as posted on May 16, which she said was “very unusual” as both the clemency rejection and execution notice were dated May 17.
“The two letters were dated May 17 and they were posted May 16, then I think for some time… I don’t know what they are really trying to do. I feel like there is a mess here, it’s not an organised thing, like they are rushing to hang someone — and it happened it’s Pannir — because they don’t want to waste their Friday. Because normally hanging happens on Friday, they want to hang someone. Maybe they are rushing for it, that’s why they are not organised,” she said.
Saying that she did not know how the backend process worked or whether the Singapore prison has been informed ahead of time, Sangkari questioned how it was possible for her to receive the letters dated May 17 on the same day itself, since even couriered documents from overseas would take at least one working day to reach their destinations.
Noting that the Singapore president’s clemency rejection was dated May 17 and that the prison had posted on May 16 its letter dated May 17 to inform her of the execution date, Sangkari said these raised further questions.
“I feel it doesn’t make sense for them to post the letter on May 16, how the prison knows the clemency would be rejected and you can forecast, is it? Or you make the decision prior to the president’s decision? So I feel like something is terribly wrong over here, and we did not have enough time to consult lawyers to challenge the clemency process if anything else can be done in Pannir’s case,” she said.
Upon the family’s arrival in Kuala Lumpur, Sangkari shared her doubts about the allegedly “misleading” and “confusing” dates that purportedly did not follow the correct sequence, with the family then deciding to not let the matter slide but to find out more.
Sangkari said the family later checked with the Singapore prison authorities, who verbally said it was part of their process, noting that they did not produce any written protocol or documents when asked to back this assertion.
Subsequent court documents show Singapore prison authorities denying that the execution was pre-decided ahead of the Singapore president’s clemency rejection and also carried their assertion that they did not decide on the execution, but were merely complying with a court order — that had the execution date scheduled — received on May 13.
The ‘last week’
The family then left Kuala Lumpur by midnight on May 17 itself (Friday) and arrived at around 4am in Johor, where Pannir Selvam’s elder brother Parthiban stays, before making daily trips to Singapore to visit Pannir Selvam in what was supposed to be his last week before his execution scheduled on May 24 (Friday).
For the last week where the number of visitors from the family was not restricted unlike the usual limit of three visitors, the family woke up daily at 2.30am or 3am to get ready before leaving Parthiban's Johor house by 4am, reaching Changi by 6am or 6.30am where they have their breakfast, and then waiting to register in the prison by 8am for their visit until 5pm (with a two-hour break from 12pm to 2pm).
By 5.30pm, the family would leave the prison to head home to Johor, braving the jam and reaching home by 8.30pm or sometimes 9.30pm, before repeating the trip at 4am the next day.
In that last week, Pannir Selvam seemed to have accepted that he would be executed on the coming Friday and tried to convince his family to do so as well, despite showing “sorrow in his eyes”, Sangkari said.
Despite his limited time left, Pannir Selvam asked for a visit from the Malaysian embassy officials in Singapore where he sought their help to create awareness via social media, radio, television or in schools to spread the message to Malaysian youngsters to not make the same mistake of becoming drug couriers and risk their lives for the sake of money.
The family shopped on May 20 for a set of clothes in Pannir Selvam’s favourite blue colour: a light blue long-sleeved shirt, a dark blue tie and black pants for his pre-execution photo shoot by the Singapore prison. Pannir Selvam also wore a Malaysian jersey for the photo shoot.
Sangkari, who is now four months pregnant, said she sent on May 22 another clemency petition to the Singapore president to ask that her brother’s execution be deferred until she gives birth as she would not be able to take the stress. She received a rejection letter after May 24.
Reprieve at the very last minute
During that same week, Pannir Selvam filed a court application to ask for his May 24 execution to be deferred to enable him time to challenge both the clemency rejection and the refusal of a certificate of substantive assistance.
Just 10 minutes before Pannir Selvam’s application was due to be heard in court on May 23, two Malaysians working in Singapore as lawyers showed up to represent him for free, which Sangkari described as God-sent as he would otherwise have been unrepresented.
The Singapore Court of Appeal on May 23 granted a rare stay of the execution, which gave Pannir Selvam a last-minute reprieve in order to get legal advice and to file his challenge.
It was then in court that Sangkari and her mother managed to touch Pannir Selvam’s hand via a small slot meant for documents, after previously touching him in court in 2017 during his trial.
Other than these two occasions, Pannir Selvam did not have any physical contact with his family for the past five years as they were always separated by a glass partition during prison visits. (The last time the whole family was together outside of prison was during a Christmas trip to Melaka in 2012, Sangkari said.)
After getting another shot at fighting his death sentence with the information he has previously provided, Pannir Selvam told Sangkari that he was grateful to be still alive after May 24, saying it was a “miracle” for the lawyers to have appeared in court at the very last moment.
The ordeal has not ended as Pannir Selvam, who will turn 32 next month, mounts his court challenge, with his younger brother Joshua recently deciding to defer his Masters programme for one semester and with his youngest sister Angelia also recently quitting her job to focus on his case.
The family has spent a lot in the past five years to hire private lawyers, other than relying on government lawyers, for the trial and appeal. In recent months, lawyers have provided their services for free.
“I am having a very good life but still I cannot enjoy my life 100 per cent, because there is a burden in me thinking of my brother. I think the rest of my siblings have the burden also, we cannot enjoy our life when one of our brothers is facing this,” said Sangkari.
*Part I explains how Pannir Selvam ended up on death row in Singapore.