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'Before taking your life, they will take everything else away'

COMMENT | I was sentenced to death on May 2, 2017. The judge had said that even though my involvement was just as a courier, he has no other choice because the Singapore prosecutor did not want to issue the certificate of cooperation.

I saw my family break down with my very own eyes. They couldn’t believe what was happening. At that moment, the lowest point of my life, I mustered the strength to stay strong for my family and consoled them by saying, “I can still appeal, there is hope.”

It hurts to see our loved ones in this sort of situation. Words can’t describe the burden which I had placed in their hearts. 

All my family ever did was love me for who I am and who will always be there for me, and all I have given them is burden and pain that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. This realisation hurts more than the sentence itself could ever do.

I was transferred from B2 to A1 in the Special Housing Unit, the death row. Once I arrived here, the first thing the officer did was to shave my hair bald and gave me a white t-shirt and shorts to wear. 

They then led me to cell number 26 and told me that I had to remain in this cell for two more months at least before they could transfer me to a different cell which has a TV.

I was given soap, a brush, a small white towel, toothpaste and a bucket. I stumbled into the cell and my mind was just blank, I hadn’t recovered yet at that point. Everything happened so fast that I couldn’t recollect my thoughts.

The cell was quite creepy and I felt unsettled, to say the very least. Not five minutes had passed, but I already felt alone. I guess that's the point of this place. 

It’s was very dark and gloomy, and you could almost see all the sadness, disappointment and loneliness the place bears. It feels like it could devour you alive.

For someone on the other side of the bar, like the officers or counsellors, they probably don’t understand how we death row inmates feel. Some of them think they do understand or that they know, but I beg to differ. 

In here, you are only for yourself, and only God is your solace if you are a religious person. If you’re not a believer, it would take an immense amount of mental strength and fortitude to find the light of hope in this darkness.

The next day, I was informed that the state would provide a lawyer to do my appeal if I could not afford one, and if the appeal does not go in my favour, then I can send a petition of clemency. If that too doesn’t go well, then I would be hanged, about 14-15 months from that time.

Great! Could any news make me feel ‘better’ than this? 

It made me feel so much ‘better’ that I couldn't sleep at night. To think what lies ahead for us death row inmates was not something encouraging, for you will be torn apart in the war between hope and reality.

For the first two weeks, I was locked down in cell 26 with no access to the one-hour yard time. This meant that I stayed inside cell 24/7, for two weeks, with the lights turned on the whole time. 

It was very hot and I couldn’t sleep. If you use the floor mat given, you would feel hotter, so I just slept on the floor with the lights on. 

Most of the time I slept not because I wanted to, but because my eyes were too tired to be awake any longer. I would wake every one or two hours after I’ve fallen asleep.

I don’t know why they would give this form of psychological torture to someone who is already sentenced to death, who is already suffering mentally and emotionally. 

I don’t know what joy they take in watching their fellow human being been treated in such a way. Reminds me of the stories I’ve read of Nazi concentration camps, although the prisoners there would have suffered far, far worse than I have.

After one week, I got access to newspapers, but still no yard time. Only after two weeks was I allowed to go to the yard. 

I was allowed to keep books which were taken from the yard library. The food is better than before and there are slices of bread available every evening that you could take as much as you can eat. 

The food menu is mostly chicken, egg, sardine, some vegetables, fish and sometimes anchovies. The menu rotates every day.

The cell consists of a toilet and a big iron bar door with four iron rods in between for the air to come in. The cell is just six or seven normal footsteps in length and in width. 

Each cell has a CCTV that runs 24/7 at the top corner of the ceiling where the toilet is. It is not something new, I was living my life for the past five years like this. Doesn’t matter if you’re taking bath or a dump, there are always people watching you. 

Even in remand, you would have to strip and get naked five days a week whenever we entered the yard. There will be two officers at the yard’s gate entrance to see your bare body and genitalia twice – in and out – and you will feel humiliated.

Before they take your life, they will try to take everything else they can from you – your freedom, dignity, rights, dreams, hope, value, and respect. Everything, like a vacuum cleaner, sucked away before our lives are ended. 

That why I mentioned earlier that the others who are not in our shoes don’t know what it is like. There are more things that I could describe here, but this is a summary of pretty much most of it.

There isn’t a fan inside the cell; each cell has a fan fixed outside of it. The wall colours are very dull, pale pastel yellow as though it has been purposely chosen so that your brain would become dull too as you are going to see it every day. Oh, and the floors are grey.

I (and all prisoners) was only provided with one floormat and two blankets, which looks like they were used in World War 2, and no pillows. So one blanket becomes a makeshift pillow. 

One of the most advanced and safest cities in the world, and they can’t even provide us inmates with a pillow. Most mornings you wake up with a pain in your neck – which is how the officers see us.

After two weeks of being on death row, I was told that the coming Friday someone was going to be hanged. 

The guy was also convicted on a drug case – a Singaporean – and that Thursday evening, he came to my cell to say his last goodbye. I didn't know what to say to him. 

It was hard to imagine this healthy young man was going to be hanged tomorrow. Can you imagine seeing someone today, and knowing that tomorrow his/her life will be taken away? This person would cease to exist. 

I personally don’t know him, but I still can’t imagine how hard it must be for him to go through all this. I prayed for him, the very least I could do, and prayed for his family too. 

After two months I was transferred to cell six, which had a TV inside the cell. Apart from that, the cell was the same as the previous one.

Fast forward to April 2019. I have been on death row for two years. My appeal was dismissed on Feb 9, 2018.

The prison also provides inmates in death row a canteen list to order food. It goes by levels. Inmates, who haven’t done with their appea, get to write to the canteen for S$12 of food a month. Those, whose appeal have been dismissed, get S$40 a month, and those who have submited their petition of clemency get S$60 a month.

Before my appeal, I had requested to be baptised in prison, but I was informed that only those whose appeal have been dismissed, would be allowed to do so.

So I would have to wait until the outcome of my appeal. I pray to God, “Lord you know when is the right time for everything, as such I leave this matter to you.”

As my father is a church pastor, he used to say, “Come learn the course and take the baptism.” He was baptising other church members, but I used to answer, “I will learn the course and take the baptism when I am ready." This is because I didn't want to live a double life and take baptism for the sake of just being a Christian.

Miraculously, the only upside to my current predicament is that my relationship with my family and God is being healed and it has been getting stronger these past five years. 

Yes, there were times when I was down, but I got back, only to fail and stand back up again. Now I’ve realised it is a process which I have to go through, to be a better person, to grow in faith and to seek God’s will and purpose in my life.

After my appeal had been dismissed, I did fasting for 40 days in the name of God and prayed. There’s a lot of struggle in that too, as you keep hoping something good will happen – anything that may help to save my life – but what I kept getting was disappointments and setbacks.

Back in my mind, I knew time was flying fast, and once I sent the petition of clemency, my days were numbered without me knowing when it will end.

"In my vision of the dark night, I have dreamed of joy departed, but a warning dream of life and light has left me broken-hearted," says Edgar Allan Poe.

The above rings true when you understand what goes on here. For some inmates (perhaps all), every waking hour reminds usof nothing but pain and regret, and that all these things that we are going through are real.

I cannot only write about what is good and positive. How can I be positive all the time, staying in death row and not even being given a chance for redemption?

Up until April 2019, I have seen 22 persons getting hanged, and in many ways it took a toll on the rest of us. People change as the executions carry on, until it’s their turn.

They would lose sleep, some heavily rely on medication, some become resentful, reserved and taciturn, some even forget how to laugh, some would lose their mind under pressure. They just snap as they can’t take it any longer. 

They start talking to the walls, hearing voices, having nightmares. Some even forget to clean themselves for weeks, lose their appetites (maybe their will to even eat), their social and communication skills fade away, and some even refuse to see their families who came to visit.

Amidst all of this, I have to draw a line, find a balance between everything, between hope and reality, in spirituality, in moral values, in good and the bad, and in almost in everything. 

I have to know where I am standing. If I fail to find that balance, then whatever that I’ve been through or learned these past years, would amount to nothing.

In the midst of all this struggles and troubles, I must not lose myself, but strive ever harder to find myself.


Reflecting on life from death row in Singapore

On my birthday, from death row in Singapore

P PANNIR SELVAM is a Malaysian citizen on death row in Singapore. The above is a letter sent by him to his family who then made it available to the media.

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

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