State of the death penalty in Southeast Asia



The new Malaysian government, which is really just a collection of old Malaysian governments, is determined to change the path of the country. Some of these reforms are largely motivated by spite for the previous prime minister, Najib Razak, but others have been unexpected and extraordinarily progressive for a country hardly known for taking chances. An announcement was made on World Day Against the Death that the next sitting of the parliament will see the death penalty be formally abolished. Will Malaysia's neighbours follow suit?

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks at press conference (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

Legal experts are split on the abolition reform, but agree that despite the announcement and the fanfare it produced little is known on how abolition will come to fruition. With such a wide range of crimes under the death penalty banner, what will sentencing in the new Malaysia look like? And what timeline can be expected, given the government has a diverse suite of policy priorities for its first term.

Malaysian justice has meted out the death penalty for a range of crimes from drug trafficking to child abuse to terrorism with an estimated 1,000 prisoners currently on death row. One case in particular has gripped hearts and minds in Kuala Lumpur. Earlier this year 29-year-old chronically ill Muhammad Lukman was sentenced to death for his purchase and sharing of medicinal marijuana. Like much of Asia, Malaysia is particularly hardline when it comes to drug use and in the eyes of Malaysian law medicinal versus recreation is not a distinction worth making. Lukamn’s lawyers maintain he is a devout Muslim who shared marijuana oil with sick friends who could not afford to procure it themselves.  

Lukman’s death sentence in August was a game changer. His story prompted widespread outrage and the lobbying of lawmakers, including the returned Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, for a review. Interestingly, the new government has also reportedly discussed the benefits of medicinal marijuana. If Malaysia were to legalise marijuana use, it would be the first in the region.

Malaysia's increasingly progressive stance at odds with the rest of Southeast Asia. The Philippines has had a complicated recent history with the death penalty in the years since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship. Abolition has been on the cards and then off again before being officially ended in 2007. But, recent moves by the Duterte administration show that abolition campaigners have to remain vigilant.

President Rodrigo Duterte is no friend of reform or rehabilitation. His disregard for the law when it comes to the war on drugs is so resolute the thousands of deaths have given rise to the blunt term ‘extra judicial killings’, commonly called EJKs, and renewed calls to reinstate the death penalty. Despite the enduring influence of the powerful Catholic church, support for reinstatement remains high among ordinary Filipinos. Reinstatement stalled in the Senate last year, but with a tight midterm race approaching in May the death penalty is an issue some hard-right candidates will likely see as an edge.


"Han points out two startling facts. Firstly, that while neighbouring Malaysia is looking towards abolishment, executions in Singapore are on the rise. And secondly, no pardons have been granted by any President since 1998 based on Cabinet advice."


Which, as dark as it is, is at least somewhat transparent. The same cannot be said for Singapore where four men were hanged within a week last month. Singaporean journalist and abolition campaigner Kirsten Han has written on length about the cases, particularly that of Malaysian national Prabu N Pathmanathan. His family was given just a week’s notice of his execution for drug crimes. Since then, they have been very open about Pathmanathan’s story, putting a face to a secretive sentence.

Han points out two startling facts. Firstly, that while neighbouring Malaysia is looking towards abolishment, executions in Singapore are on the rise. And secondly, no pardons have been granted by any President since 1998 based on Cabinet advice. She predicts we may see even more obfuscation of executions and activists increasingly left in the dark.

Indonesia also continues to be a complicated case. No executions have taken place since 2016 when four Nigerian nationals and one Indonesian man were shot to death on drug trafficking charges. It is not an official moratorium period, like as seen under previous president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but there doesn’t appear to be a desire to reignite a flurry of international criticism for current President Joko Widodo.

Interestingly, recent incidents of the execution of Indonesian nationals abroad could be helpful to reframing the conversation in Jakarta. The execution of migrant worker Tutu Tursilawati in Saudi Arabia after she was convicted for murder, a charge her supporters maintain was out of self-defence. The death prompted protests at the Saudi Embassy in Indonesia as well as anger from the government, although relations with Saudi are difficult to balance.

Elements of Tursilawati’s story are reminiscent of Mary Jane Veloso, a Philippine national who was meant to be executed during the same 2015 round as Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Veloso was not working as a domestic worker at the time she was arrested for drug trafficking, but has previously and is very much of the same socio-economic class as Tursilawati. Veloso has remained on death row but avoided execution over reports she may have been trafficked, herself a victim rather than a criminal. When it comes to a very specific sort of death row inmate, Indonesia’s justice system can find empathy.

It can gives us a small amount of hope, but not much. Maybe when Malaysia is done transforming itself from the inside, it will lead the way in Southeast Asia.



Erin CookErin Cook is a Jakarta-based journalist with a focus on South East Asia, and editor of the SEA news digest Dari Mulut ke Mulut.



Main image: Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks at press conference (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Erin Cook, death penality, Malaysia, Southeast Asia



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Existing comments

Interesting how the modern world generally (and through the UN) campaigns for abolition of the death penalty for the proven, unwanted guilty while at the same time demanding the death penalty for the unwanted innocent in a mother's womb. Is there anything the human being can not bugger up?
john frawley | 14 November 2018

Thank you Erin. Interesting that Malaysia has the death penalty for child sexual abuse amongst other offences. Wouldn't that put the cat amongst the pigeons if sentencing of that nature occurred in Australia, USA, Italy, Argentine, Chile for example. Hitherto in the wake of the RC, all we have had is an apology by Scott Morrison (who shouldnt have had to make such an apology), but nothing other than a talkfest from the Catholic Church who should be sacking all the perpetrators.
Frank Armstrong | 14 November 2018


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