Pannir Selvam: The Ipoh boy on Singapore’s death row (Part I)

Pannir Selvam Pranthanam, who is seen here in Cameron Highlands at the age of 23, will be turning 32 next month. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family
Pannir Selvam Pranthanam, who is seen here in Cameron Highlands at the age of 23, will be turning 32 next month. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family

KUALA LUMPUR, June 28 — Up until the eve of his execution in Singapore, the family of Malaysian Pannir Selvam Pranthanam never stopped trying to save him. And on that day, the Singapore Court of Appeal granted a stay of his execution so he can challenge the clemency process.

For this close-knit family from Ipoh, trouble started five years ago when the then-27-year-old Pannir Selvam was arrested on September 3, 2014, after Singapore authorities — in a random check — discovered the four packets of granular substance totalling 1.83kg he was carrying contained 51.84 grammes of the diamorphine drug.

This constituted an amount punishable by death.

In a joint interview with Malay Mail and Malaysiakini, his sister Sangkari Pranthanam, 35, gave us an idea of the man behind the headlines.

Pannir Selvam, the third of six children of an Ipoh family, is seen here at the age of six. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family
Pannir Selvam, the third of six children of an Ipoh family, is seen here at the age of six. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family

He grew up in a family of six children (including him) under the close and strict supervision of his parents.

The third child, Pannir Selvam, was active in sports in school and was a school runner for ACS Ipoh. (Some of his siblings were more academically-inclined, such as his younger brother who is studying for his Masters, and his two sisters who obtained scholarships at university.)

He was also a gifted musician who could play drums, guitars, keyboards in the church band during his youth.

Pannir Selvam, aged 16 or 17, is seen here playing drums in church together with his elder brother Parthiban plays the guitar. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family
Pannir Selvam, aged 16 or 17, is seen here playing drums in church together with his elder brother Parthiban plays the guitar. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family

After obtaining his SPM qualification in 2004, Pannir Selvam left home a year or two later to work in Johor as a warehouse assistant where his hard work saw him being promoted within three months.

He went to Singapore after that to work as a security guard.

As the sibling closest to Pannir Selvam, Sangkari said she made weekly phone calls to him while he himself would call home from time to time.

His 55-year-old father is a pastor in an Ipoh church while his 55-year-old mother is a homemaker; Sangkari was the only one living in Kuala Lumpur until their youngest sister came over to study.

Sangkari said Pannir Selvam had few friends in Johor Baru and Singapore, noting that he often chose to take on multiple shifts in Singapore instead of making daily trips between Singapore and his rented room in Johor Baru.

“He got no friends. Because Pannir is a very hardworking person, sometimes he even work double shifts, if necessary three shifts he wanted to earn more,” she said, adding that Pannir Selvam was also then contributing to the expenses of their youngest sister.

Sangkari said Pannir Selvam was hot-tempered but soft-hearted, citing one example when he bought drinks for some migrant workers he saw working in Singapore and also his previous donation to the Singapore Heart Foundation.

Manchester United fan and motorcycle enthusiast Pannir Selvam is seen here in May 2014 with his newly-purchased motorcycle which he used to visit his elder sister Sangkari. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family
Manchester United fan and motorcycle enthusiast Pannir Selvam is seen here in May 2014 with his newly-purchased motorcycle which he used to visit his elder sister Sangkari. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family

Three weeks of ‘friendship’ that led to prison

Things started going wrong in August 2014 when Pannir Selvam took a one-month break from work in order to renew his soon-to-expire passport. That was when he met a Malaysian man who went by the name “Anand” in a gambling den.

Anand was the one who asked Pannir Selvam to take the four packets containing drugs into Singapore.

Sangkari said that while her brother smoke, drank and gambled, he was not facing any financial problems at the time when he met Anand and nothing seemed amiss when he visited her a few months prior to that on his new Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle.

“He came from Johor, he came to visit me with this bike. I think just to show me he got a bike, he’s very happy to own that bike he wanted to change jobs, he got one-month leave, that one month screwed up,” she said.

Sangkari said Anand told Pannir Selvam about his alleged financial problems, earning her kind-hearted brother’s trust by refusing to take money from him.

“Only three weeks knowing him (Anand), within these three weeks Pannir ended up in prison,” Sangkari said.

“I asked him this question, ‘Why you go and involve with this person?’ He said ‘You know right, I have no friends, I got not much friends, this Anand he has some friends, very true friends, and he also knew some brothers, if we are in trouble, they really will come forward and help’,” she said.

Sangkari said Pannir Selvam now regrets having placed his trust in Anand, who allegedly convinced him that the powdery substance was merely sex medicine or aphrodisiac. (Anand had previously paid Pannir Selvam to bring in what he claimed to be sex medicine in tablet form into Singapore.)

“He was never involved in any illegal activities, until he met this person and he was so blind to trust this person and be involved in all this.

“He regrets because he was so careless to trust someone blindly. He lost his mind to go and trust someone he just know for three weeks, how stupid he was.”

Pannir Selvam (blue) at the age of 21 with all his brothers (left to right) Isaac, Joshua and Parthiban and his two sisters (left to right) Sangkari, Angelia. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family
Pannir Selvam (blue) at the age of 21 with all his brothers (left to right) Isaac, Joshua and Parthiban and his two sisters (left to right) Sangkari, Angelia. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family

Family bonds stay strong

The Singapore High Court in May 2017 found him guilty of being a drug courier and sentenced him to death. He has been in prison since then.

If love and dedication can be measured, it is in the trips that Sangkari has made every month without fail these five years — except for three months in 2017 — from Kuala Lumpur to Changi prison in Singapore, so much so that she knows the public transport routes and schedule there by heart.

For these prison visits that are limited to only three people unless prior arrangements are made with the Singapore prison, Sangkari has made many trips alone via bus from Kuala Lumpur on Friday nights before returning by Saturday night, while her family members, who are mostly living in Ipoh, came along when they could.

“I must go and see him. I feel better, because I need to support him. Because I don’t want him to think that after he got caught in this situation, nobody stand beside him.

“I always tell him that no matter what happened, I’m here with you, because I said, everybody does mistakes even if it’s not the illegal things, everybody makes mistakes. It’s just you get caught or you don’t get caught. So whatever he has done, he’s still my brother,” she said.

She noted that Pannir Selvam feels guilty for putting his family in this situation, but she would express support every month and tell him the family will do their best and try to save him until the end.

Pannir Selvam at the age of eight, with his younger sister Angelia whose expenses he helped out with during her university days and who he later shared study tips with during his jail term. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family
Pannir Selvam at the age of eight, with his younger sister Angelia whose expenses he helped out with during her university days and who he later shared study tips with during his jail term. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family

Meanwhile, Pannir Selvam, who has access to a television inside his Singapore prison cell, has been following up on all the latest Malaysian news.

He would diligently write down notes from television programmes or from what he was reading to share with Sangkari and their youngest sister.

“So whenever I go to see him, he will have a pen and book with him, he got a lot of information, one by one he will tick,” Sangkari said when sharing how he would tick off items on his checklist to be shared with her.

“He said maybe I am too focused in his case and I don’t watch pregnancy programmes, so he will do that for me,” she added, having acknowledged however that most of her time outside of her work is spent on his case, such as doing research and dealing with lawyers.

Pannir Selvam also never fails to send birthday cards and anniversary cards home and regularly writes to his family.

Pannir Selvam, seen here at age 19 during Christmas carolling, received a book titled ‘Dr Mahathir’s Selected Letters to World Leaders’. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family
Pannir Selvam, seen here at age 19 during Christmas carolling, received a book titled ‘Dr Mahathir’s Selected Letters to World Leaders’. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family

What has changed

Sangkari said her brother now spends most of his time reading after picking up this habit despite not liking to read before, noting that he has now become a “very knowledgeable person” as he reads about a wide range of topics including politics, economics, law, health, education, tourism and fiction.

Pannir Selvam also recently requested reading materials on 20 prominent individuals, including Nelson Mandela, Lee Kuan Yew, Abraham Lincoln, Marco Polo and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, with the family managing so far to provide him with printouts from online encyclopaedia Wikipedia on close to half of the personalities on his list and purchasing a book on Dr Mahathir for him.

Sangkari said: “After the new government took over, he closely monitored the news, he wants to know what is happening in Malaysia. He asked for Dr Mahathir’s book because he was very impressed that he took over the government again at 93 years old and he wants to know how he is going to manage the government at this age.”

While feeling “proud” to be a Malaysian following the electoral change last year, Pannir Selvam has feelings of guilt as a Malaysian in a Singapore prison “that he let the Malaysian name down”, Sangkari said.

“He said he still has a lot to offer society...He has also become a man of faith. If given a second chance in life, he wants to work with prison outreach officers to educate others on drug abuse prevention and support prison reform programmes. He said he treats everyday as a new lease of life,” she said, adding that he wishes to study political science if given a chance to do so.

Pannir Selvam got baptised several months ago and received the Christian name of Paul Silas, she said.

*Read Part 2 to find out what his family did to try and save his life, and also about his “last week.”

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