Malaysiakini Letter

Staying in touch with my death row brother

Sangkari Pranthaman

LETTER | (The writer on visiting Pannir Selvam, her brother who is on death row in Singapore’s Changi prison following a conviction for a drug offence.)

After my night prayers, my husband will drop me and my sister at the TBS bus station. The bus moved around 11.55pm on Friday heading for Beach Road, Singapore, expecting to reach the next day at 5 am on Saturday. The process of booking the bus needs to be carefully done so that we don’t miss the bus for any part of the journey. So, I normally do all the bus ticket reservations one week earlier to avoid the last-minute hassles. I travel to Singapore twice a month, without fail, to visit my brother for just 40 minutes. I can’t explain the unsettled feeling that I go through each Friday that I travel. I question myself each time, asking if this is the most challenging moment of my life. Getting no answers, I tell myself, “O God, be with me as I go through this! It seems like this journey is never-ending."

While I’m travelling on the bus, without fail, I recall back the memories I have of my brother from 15 years ago. The memories of eating cookies while cleaning and decorating our home, running around in the yard and the moments when everyone at home wears new clothes on festive days and when we comment and tease each other. We share in the frustration of waking up early on Sunday morning at 5am every week of the month, of the year, without any fail, to attend Sunday’s church service. All this remains fresh in my mind. I could never foresee his life turning out the way it is now. Six Christmases have passed without my brother being at home to celebrate with us. Fast forward to today, we have to travel all the way to Singapore to see Pannir now.

When we were young, attending church as a family on Christmas Eve was a tradition we practised, but for the past few years, the tradition and our little paradise of a family have died and the dream we have is no longer alive anymore. While everyone else is sharing joy and happiness with their loved ones, we think and worry if we would ever celebrate with our brother Pannir again.

Before passing through the border, the passport-checking step is the most troublesome of the lot. We have to get in and out of the bus a few times with our belongings. Sometime the customs checkpoint will be terribly crowded, by the time we queue up and reach our turn at the counter to stamp my passport, my legs will be swollen but I have no choice other than applying some medicated oil to ease the aches.

After reaching Beach Road at around 5am we will walk a little further to the Lavender bus stop which is nearby a McDonald’s, where we will sit until 6am, waiting for bus No. 2 that is heading to Changi Road to arrive. Upon arriving at the Changi Prison, we will have to register, and the next steps will be to pass through the checking process and thumbprint scanning to access the entrance. We then go underground, walking a long way that leads to the corner of the building to condemned cells where there are small rooms with a half-glass divider in the middle. The moment I lay my eyes on my brother, I thank God for still giving me a chance to visit him and see him in flesh. It just lights up my spirit.

Pannir always welcomes us with a genuine smile while placing both of his hands on the glass divider that keeps us away from him. We are near but yet too far. We will respond to him by doing the same, and placing our hands over his on the glass panel. How delighted would it be if we could touch Pannir’s hands each time we visit him. It will ease the burden of having him on death row. Pannir has always been a good person and a good spirit. Pannir has no hatred towards anybody because he believes that in order for God to help him, he can’t hold anger towards the people who wronged him. 

Pannir has a strong sense of family, counsellors are visiting him, prisoners are giving him encouragement. We have no choice other than to accept, understand and overcome the challenges of having a loved one on death row. It is an intense process, laced with fear and grief. We realise the limitation of the relationship behind the bars where high-level restricted rules are involved in death row visitations. All these have deeply impacted our life. I always wished that I had a closer relationship with my brother Pannir. We slowly recall back what had happened so far and try to recover from this deathly trauma we are facing.

Pannir always shows us a positive face despite where fate has placed him. He cares for Malaysia, he cares for the nations around the world, he talks about all the good news and stories that he could remember. At times, we shed tears as we begin to speak. We talk about how his life would be like if he is not being locked up in prison. In all my time with him, Pannir never failed to serve as a good example of a responsible brother.

Even though sometimes we struggle to find the time, the financial expenses and emotional energy required to maintain this weekly visit, we still make it there to see Pannir. The gratefulness and positivity of having our brother Pannir in our lives are undeniable even if the relationship could only occur from him being on death row. All the visits done in the past have thought me several life lessons.

The only wish I have now is for us as a family to have those memories back again with my brother. We miss him, love him, and every night, cry to sleep thinking about him. If you were to ask me what I want in my life, I want a second chance for my brother. I will be utterly grateful if this happens and if we could get him back. Singapore, please give me a chance to celebrate New Year as a whole family once again, together. 

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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