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Monday, June 13, 2022

The End of the Noose: Celebrating the End of Mandatory Death Sentences in Malaysia


Memories of 1968

I remember the events of that night as if they happened yesterday. But more than fifty years have passed. I was ten years of age and it was 1968. That evening, Dad said he was going for a walk.  This was most unlike him.  Mum asked him if all was right. He smiled and said, “I feel like some of the fish that we have just eaten for dinner are still alive and swimming inside me.”  I asked him if I could join him on his nocturnal stroll and he replied in the affirmative. Soon, we both set off. He carried an umbrella with him not because we expected rain but as a defence against stray, aggressive dogs that sometimes roamed loose on the street where we lived.

He walked briskly and I did my best to keep pace. The street was only about 200 meters long so we must have lapped it at least forty times because we walked for about an hour. Clearly there was something on his mind, but I was only to know what it was the following day.

Dad was an officer in the Royal Malaysian Police Force. Old school. Trained by the British who still occupied senior positions in the Force, even though it was already more than ten years since Independence. Mum was a teacher in a government school. Our home in Kuala Lumpur was small, hardly decorated to a lavish standard, with a lounge, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs.  The master bedroom was occupied by our parents and my youngest baby brother.  I shared the second room with my other brother.

In the early hours of the morning following our evening walk there was some commotion in the corridor outside my room and I heard Dad and Mum having a conversation. No doubt about what I heard.  Dad told Mum that he was going to Pudu prison, as one of the witnesses of an execution. I did not understand very much but clearly Mum was distraught. Dad was in his officer’s uniform and mentioned that he could not be late. That made me look at the analogue alarm clock at the side of my bed which showed 4.25 am in the morning.

After Dad left the house, I soon fell back to sleep.

At 6.00 am, the clock alarm rang. I woke up as I usually did and got dressed. Dad would normally drive me to school, the La Salle School in Brickfields and generally we would set off at about 7 am. But this morning was different. He had left home much earlier and was not back yet. I would only later find out that at the precise time that my alarm clock had rung, a convicted criminal had been executed.

At about 7.15 am, I heard the gate open and Dad’s car drove up the shallow slope into the porch. Dad alighted the car, and in a very soft voice, said he was unable to take me to school that day. He looked sad and shaken. He sounded drained.

Over the next few hours, I gleaned that Dad had observed a man meet his end at the gallows of Pudu prison. There are some words that one does not ever forget and I remember Dad telling Mum that the hanged criminal had a son, about my age and Dad said he would pray that the boy would have a “fair chance in life”, a phrase I did not comprehend at that time.


Cell 2455, Death Row

For some days afterwards, Dad was not his usual self. This whole episode prompted me to visit the school library to seek out some information on executions. The school library for a ten-year old comprised a bookshelf at the back of our class, empty more than being lined with interesting books. This was certainly not a place for books that would inform me about executions. But my quest for some information did not go unanswered for long. A few days later, a book appeared at home. It was entitled, “Cell 2455, Death Row”. This was a book written by Carol Chessman, a male, who himself was executed in the gas chamber of the notorious San Quentin State Prison in California on 2 May 1960.

At the age of ten, I was reading this book and what was interesting were the circumstances of the crime and the subsequent application of the death penalty in the case of Mr. Chessman.

A stamp from Angola commemorating the abolition of the death penalty as a form of capital punishment.

The controversy surrounding the Chessman case stemmed from the state of California’s unusual application of the death penalty for his crime. At the time, a crime that involved kidnapping with bodily harm could be considered a capital offence.  Two of the charges against Chessman alleged that he dragged one victim 22 feet from her car before demanding, against her will, sexual favours. Another charge alleged that he drove a female some distance before raping her. The court of the state of California ruled that both actions were consistent with the law's definition of kidnapping with bodily harm, making Chessman subject to the death penalty under state law. Thus, Chessman was charged under provisions that made his crimes a capital offence. Even though the law was repealed by the time his trial had begun it was in effect at the time of the crimes, and the repeal was not applied retroactively.

Thus was the backdrop against which I first came across capital punishment and it all seemed so wrong and unjust. Chessman was dubbed "the first modern American executed for a non-lethal kidnapping” and later, I was to find out that his execution caused civil reaction, primarily in South America. Even worse, according to some sources, a last-minute attempt by a California Supreme Court Judge to implement a stay of his execution, failed when a court secretary misdialed the prison switchboard's phone number. By the time the call was received and routed to the execution chamber, the execution process had already begun and could not be halted.

The rights to the story of Chessman were acquired by Columbia Pictures and made into a movie that was screened in 1955. William Campbell played the role of Chessman.  Many years later, British rock group, Genesis, in their album “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” would include in the song “Broadway Melody of 1974" the lyrics: "Caryl Chessman sniffs the air and leads the parade, he knows, in a scent, you can bottle all you made."  [See Note 1]

Several months after Chessman's execution, Billy Monk was executed on 21 November 1961, for kidnapping two women, attempting to rape the first and raping the second. After Chessman, he was the second (and last) to be executed for a non-lethal kidnapping in the United States.

The story of Chessman was not the only one that I would come across over the decades that followed. Countries view crimes differently and penalties are set based on the serious current social issues that need to be addressed locally. Religious beliefs and political goals also play a role.

A First Day Cover from Portugal commemorating the abolition of the death penalty as a form of capital punishment.

As the decades passed, I continued to follow reported death penalty cases and when a process seemed unjust, I would sometimes write a letter to the local Embassy or High Commission of the country where the execution was to take place, registering my concern.

An Unusual Death Penalty Case in Singapore

Some of the cases made the headlines for unusual reasons. One such case involved the case of Sunny Ang, a Singaporean who was accused of murdering his girlfriend, Jenny Cheok during a scuba diving trip off one of the islands of Singapore in August 1963. At the time, Singapore was still a part of Malaysia. This was a murder without a body but nonetheless, Sunny Ang was charged, convicted and sentenced to death by the High Court of Singapore for the murder in May of 1965, based solely on circumstantial evidence. In the trial, it was revealed that before her disappearance, Ang had helped Cheok to purchase several insurance policies with the main beneficiary being Ang's mother.  These insurance policies provided coverage of $450,000 for Cheok. The most revealing piece of circumstantial evidence forwarded by the prosecution proved that one of the insurance policies had expired the day before Cheok went missing, but Ang had extended it for five days just three hours before the diving trip. Ang  paid the ultimate price for his crime at Singapore’s Changi Prison in February 1967.

More recently, I wrote about the case of the Malaysian named Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, who was also executed in Singapore on 27 April 2022 for trafficking in about 43 grams of heroin. My understanding is that being in possession of a dangerous drug greater than 15 grams in mass is defined as “trafficking” and trafficking attracts the ultimate penalty under Singapore (and indeed, Malaysian) law.

Both Malaysia and Singapore have executed many drug traffickers over the decades in their effort to keep dangerous drugs out of the reach of their residents so what was different this time?  

The debate revolved around the IQ of the accused. It was reported that even the Singapore government psychiatrist at the trial admitted that the accused, with an IQ of 69, suffered from an “abnormality of mind”.  Apparently only 2.2% of the global population possess an IQ of 70 or less.

A stamp from Portugal  commemorating the 100th anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty as a form of capital punishment.

Should someone be hanged when there was even the slightest of a chance that he or she may not have been able to assess all the consequences of their actions at the time of a crime? 

Timothy John Evans

Timothy Evans, a Welshman, was wrongly accused of murdering his wife and eventually convicted of killing his infant daughter at their home in London, He was executed in 1950, at the age of 26 years by the Britain's most famous hangman, Albert Pierrepoint. During the trial, the chief prosecution witness was John Christie. Christie was later found to have committed the murders as part of a series of killings and himself was hanged. 

The wrongful execution of Evans and the hanging of Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis in 1965 paved the wave for the rejection of capital punishment for murder and (eventually for all crimes) in Britain. 

The End of Mandatory Death Sentences in Malaysia

On Friday 10 June 2022, Malaysians woke up to the news that our government had decided to return the application of the death penalty to the judiciary. Hence, for those crimes that were previously met with a mandatory death sentence, there was now the opportunity for the judiciary to exercise discretion, wisdom and compassion.

A stamp from Chile commemorating the abolition of the death penalty as a form of capital punishment.

So why am I against the use of the death penalty? The fact is that I am not. Perhaps it should be available for crimes which just cannot be tolerated by right-thinking human beings. 

And, there is another consideration that always returns to my mind. Those words uttered by Dad in 1968, when speaking to Mum, about the young son being left behind by his condemned criminal father. You see …. the agony for the criminal ends when the trapdoor swings or the blade of the guillotine falls or the circuit breaker is activated or the cyanide dissolves in the acid or the electric chair goes live. The relevant question then is … when does the agony end for those left behind by the condemned? What crime did they commit to have to carry the infinite and endless pain of seeing a loved one’s life abruptly end?

Nguyen Tuong-van

On 2nd December 2005, Nguyen Tuong-van, an Australian national of Vietnamese descent aged 25, was hanged in Singapore’s Changi Prison after being convicted of carrying 400 grams of heroin through Singapore’s international airport. The court case revealed Van Nguyen had carried the heroin to help his twin brother, Khoa Nguyen, a former heroin addict, pay off $30,000 in court case debts.

In 2013, eight years after the execution, as an Australian television network planned the broadcasting of a show, “Better Man” depicting the story of Tuong-van, it was revealed that his family were still traumatized by the events around the execution. In fact, the mother of Tuong-van called on the television network to refrain from airing the show as it “opened wounds and violated family rights”.

Think about what we all know to be the close bonds that exist between twins within a family. Now imagine the unimaginable .... the never ending pain that the surviving twin brother continues to endure. How does he find peace while his brother rests in peace?

Final Thoughts

Many have been executed and then later found to be innocent of their crime. Indeed, there have been many Timothy Evans' of this world.  Society will never be able to appropriately right its wrong. An irrevocable and fatal error. 

Should a civilized society take such a chance?

 End of Post 

If you found the content of this post of interest, you may also be fascinated by the story of Damien Echols (so-called ring leader of the "Memphis Three"). His story is covered in the book, "Life After Death"

His is a shocking story of an innocent man on Death Row. The New York Times reviewed it as "a haunting book".

Johnny Depp is also quoted: "His story will appall, fascinate, and render you feeble with tears and laughter. A brilliant memoir."


Note 1: All stamps presented in this post are from my personal collection.

Note 2: Sniffs the air" likely refers to the execution method. Also lead singer Peter Gabriel pronounces "in a scent" indistinguishable from "innocent".