Explained: How a Malaysian landed on Singapore’s death row...and had his execution deferred

Pannir Selvam Pranthaman who is from Ipoh was scheduled to be executed on May 24, but has been given more time to challenge the death sentence. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family
Pannir Selvam Pranthaman who is from Ipoh was scheduled to be executed on May 24, but has been given more time to challenge the death sentence. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family

KUALA LUMPUR, June 29 — Last month, Malaysian Pannir Selvam Pranthaman gained a last-minute reprieve when the Singapore courts made a rare decision to postpone his execution scheduled for the next day.

But how did Pannir Selvam come to be on Singapore’s death row and how did he secure more time to challenge his death sentence?

Here is what you need to know about Pannir Selvam’s case, based on court and legal documents sighted by Malay Mail:

On the morning of September 3, 2014 (a Wednesday), 27-year-old Pannir Selvam took four packets of brown-coloured substance from the drain across his house, which he then taped up with black tape before hiding three in his groin area and one in the back seat compartment of his motorcycle.

It was raining that afternoon when the raincoat-clad Pannir Selvam rode his motorcycle through the Woodlands Checkpoint at the border crossing in Singapore.

He was stopped for a random check by Singapore officers which resulted in all four packets being discovered.

The content of the four packets included diamorphine — a drug which is classified as a Class A controlled drug.

Pannir Selvam was charged with unauthorised import of drugs — via four packets containing over 1.83 kg of granular or powdery substance found to contain not less than 51.84 g of diamorphine. (Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs have said that 51.84g of diamorphine is equivalent to about 4,320 straws of heroin which it said would be enough to feed the addiction of over 600 drug abusers for one week.)

He was charged under Section 7 of Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act for the offence of importing a controlled drug into Singapore, which can be punished under Section 33(1) or alternatively under Section 33B of the same law.

Pannir Selvam’s trial proceedings went on for a total of six days in 2017 (February 21-23, 28, March 1, May 2), where he did not dispute that the drugs were found on him or that he had possession of the drugs.

But Pannir Selvam argued that he did not know what the drugs were and that he has rebutted the presumption under Section 18(2) of the Misuse of Drugs Act of knowing what the drugs were. (Pannir Selvam argued that he thought the drugs were an aphrodisiac or sex medicine, but this was disputed by the prosecution.)

Under Section 18(2), anyone proven or presumed to have had a controlled drug in their possession is then presumed to have known the nature of that drug, unless it is proven otherwise.

On May 2, 2017, trial judge Lee Seiu Kin sitting at the High Court ruled that Pannir Selvam had failed to rebut the presumption and convicted him of the charge.

The judge also noted that Pannir Selvam’s involvement in the drug case falls within the Section 33B(2)(a)(i) exception, where drug couriers can escape the death penalty if they meet certain conditions.

This point is crucial as the import into Singapore of the amount and type of drugs found in Pannir Selvam’s possession (more than 15g of diamorphine) carries a mandatory death penalty, which means the judge must hand down the death sentence if an accused is found guilty.

Section 33B enables the court to not impose the death penalty on drug couriers, but to instead sentence them to life imprisonment and at least 15 strokes of the cane, with two conditions.

The two conditions are that the convicted person manages to prove that his role was only limited to transporting, sending or delivering a controlled drug, and if Singapore’s public prosecutor certifies to the court that the accused person had “substantively assisted” Singapore’s anti-drug agency Central Narcotics Bureau in disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore.

Despite finding Pannir Selvam to have merely been a drug courier, the judge handed down the mandatory death sentence on Pannir Selvam as the public prosecutor did not consider the latter to have provided substantial assistance. (Under the same law, the decision on whether substantive assistance was provided is at the attorney general’s sole discretion, which cannot be challenged unless proven in court that it was done in bad faith or with malice.)

Pannir Selvam Pranthanam, who is seen here in Cameron Highlands at the age of 23, has been in Singapore prison for the past five years. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family
Pannir Selvam Pranthanam, who is seen here in Cameron Highlands at the age of 23, has been in Singapore prison for the past five years. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family

One chance to appeal

Pannir Selvam then appealed to Singapore’s Court of Appeal, which on February 9, 2018, dismissed his appeal and upheld his conviction for bringing drugs into Singapore.

Unlike Malaysia where criminal cases can be appealed from the High Court to the Court of Appeal and then further to the Federal Court, cases at Singapore’s High Court can only be appealed to the Court of Appeal as the city state does not have a Federal Court.

Seeking pardon

On February 26, 2019, Pannir Selvam sent an 18-page petition to Singapore’s president to ask for clemency or a pardon. (The granting of clemency in Singapore is believed to be extremely rare, at least based on known cases.)

In the petition, Pannir Selvam shared how he had allegedly been manipulated by a man known as “Anand” — who he had met only one month before his arrest and treated him like a “brother” — into becoming a drug mule by claiming that the items to be brought into Singapore were merely an aphrodisiac.

Pannir Selvam listed out five reasons why he should be granted clemency, including his young age and high propensity for rehabilitation; his full cooperation with authorities including giving potentially self-incriminating information regarding Anand and two other associates; further substantial assistance by sharing Pannir Selvam’s sister’s investigation findings of Anand’s personal details including his real name, address and car plate number, personal details of two cross-border drug mule recruiters by the names of Steven and Shanmugam.

Pannir Selvam said the additional information he had given to authorities could potentially go a long way towards disrupting the importation and trafficking of drugs into Singapore, saying that he gave full cooperation, even after his death sentence was passed, as a sign of his remorse and regret.

Noting that he played a minimal role as a drug courier, he was nevertheless greatly ashamed of and acknowledging there was no excuse for his actions. 

Pannir Selvam also said he was “deeply remorseful” and pleaded for mercy and forgiveness to spare his life, promising to do his best to repay the goodwill and devote his life to the betterment of society to atone for his wrongs if spared from death.

Pannir Selvam, seen here in May 2014 months before his arrest, expressed remorse over his actions and asked the Singapore president to pardon him. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family
Pannir Selvam, seen here in May 2014 months before his arrest, expressed remorse over his actions and asked the Singapore president to pardon him. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family

News of execution

On May 16, 2019, two letters dated May 17 respectively from the Singapore president’s office and Singapore prison service were sent out to Pannir Selvam’s family in a single courier package.

In the first letter, the Singapore president’s principal private secretary Benny Lee informed Pannir Selvam’s Ipoh-based parents that the president has decided that his death sentence should be maintained following consideration of the petition for clemency and the Cabinet’s advice.

In the other May 17 letter, the Singapore prison service told the parents that Pannir Selvam would be executed on May 24 (about eight days later), and listed extended visiting hours from May 21 to May 23 (10am-12pm, 2pm-4pm) while also saying that advance arrangements have to be made if they intend to visit during May 18-May 20 (Saturday-Monday). 

The family was asked to make the necessary funeral arrangements, but were also informed that Singapore would assist with the necessary arrangements in accordance with the country’s laws if the family was unable to do so.

Plea for time 

On May 21, Pannir Selvam applied to the courts to suspend his execution, as he wanted to file for judicial review to challenge both the attorney general’s April 2019 refusal to issue the substantive assistance certificate and the Singapore president’s May 2019 clemency rejection.

In an affidavit to support his application for a stay of execution, Pannir Selvam said the attorney general’s refusal is unreasonable and legally void as he believed he and his family had provided “important information” that substantively assisted the authorities in the anti-drug war.

Pannir Selvam cited the same May 17 date of both the Singapore president’s clemency rejection letter and the Singapore prisons’ execution notice, arguing that this suggested his execution was pre-determined before the clemency rejection and had seriously prejudiced the clemency process.

Noting that both May 17 letters were sent out a day before on May 16, he said this also raises serious doubts on the transparency of the clemency process. 

Emphasising that the extremely short one-week notice of his scheduled execution has caused difficulty in finding Singapore lawyers to challenge the clemency process, Pannir Selvam said this application was not a “tactic” to delay his execution.

The curious dates

In an affidavit, the Singapore president’s principal private secretary Benny Lee explained that the Singapore Cabinet had, on an unspecified date before May 7, 2019, advised the president that “the law should be allowed to take its course” in Pannir Selvam’s case.

Lee said he had on May 7 signed three letters dated May 17 meant for Pannir Selvam, his Malaysia-based parents and siblings to inform them that the death sentence stands, and that the Singapore president had on May 10 sent to the Court of Appeal a copy of an order for Pannir Selvam’s execution to be carried out on the specified date of May 24.

On May 14, the Singapore president’s office sent the three letters dated May 17 to the Singapore Prison Service to be forwarded to Pannir Selvam and his family, Lee said.

In a separate affidavit, Singapore Prison Service (SPS) senior assistant director Toh Gek Choo said a warrant by the Court of Appeal was received on May 13 for Pannir Selvam’s execution on the stated date of May 24.

Having received on May 14 the three May 17 letters from the Singapore president’s office, Toh said the SPS then sent two of the letters out on May 16 via courier to ensure they would reach Pannir Selvam’s family on May 17.

Toh argued that it was incorrect to say SPS had decided to proceed with the execution before the clemency rejection, arguing that SPS instead had to carry out the death sentence according to the law after receiving the court warrant on May 13.

Pannir Selvam asserted that the attorney general had in an April 4, 2019 letter declined to grant him a certificate of substantive assistance, while the attorney general’s chambers argues that the refusal happened prior to the May 2, 2017 sentencing and that the April 4, 2019 letter was to tell Pannir Selvam’s lawyer that it was unable to agree to the latter’s request for a certificate.

(Pannir Selvam’s lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam had on February 20, 2019 sent to the Attorney General’s Chambers the information regarding Anand and the two men believed to be recruiters of drug mules to carry illegal drugs from Johor Baru to Singapore — including details such as their actual names and identity card numbers.)

Hours before scheduled execution

Just minutes before the May 23 court hearing scheduled at 2.30pm was to start, two Singapore-based Malaysian lawyers — Too Xing Ji and Lee Ji En — stepped in and were appointed as Pannir Selvam’s lawyers for his application to stay or postpone the execution. 

He would otherwise have been unrepresented, as the family’s Malaysian lawyers were unable to find lawyers in Singapore who could represent him for this, given the extremely short notice.

After a hearing of almost 40 minutes, a three-man panel at the Court of Appeal chaired by Singapore’s Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon decided to grant a stay of execution, which effectively meant the execution scheduled the next day (May 24) would be suspended and deferred to enable Pannir Selvam to file his challenge against the clemency process.

In deciding to defer the execution, the Court of Appeal noted that there are “extremely narrow grounds” where the clemency process can be challenged and that Pannir Selvam should be given a “reasonable opportunity” to get advice on whether he can mount a successful challenge. 

“In the way in which matters have transpired, he was notified of both the rejection of his clemency petition and the scheduled date of the execution of his sentence just one week in advance,” the court said, noting that the prosecution had “candidly conceded” that the brief one-week notice did not leave Pannir Selvam much time to seek advice on his options.

Judith Prakash and Steven Chong were the other two judges on the panel, which also said there was nothing to suggest that Pannir Selvam had acted with undue delay or abused the court process. 

With that, Pannir — who will turn 32 next month — will have another chance to challenge his death sentence.

Read Part I and Part II of Pannir Selvam’s story, as told by his sister Sangkari Pranthaman.

Pannir Selvam’s lawyers and family in front of Singapore’s Supreme Court on May 23, 2019, with several pastors from Malaysia also showing up in support of the family. — Picture courtesy of Latheefa Koya
Pannir Selvam’s lawyers and family in front of Singapore’s Supreme Court on May 23, 2019, with several pastors from Malaysia also showing up in support of the family. — Picture courtesy of Latheefa Koya

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