The Woman Behind ‘Nagen’ Nagaenthran — His Sister Fights On
Top image: Sarmila Dharmalingam
All images: Razlan Yusof for Rice Media

“There’s going to be a lot of negativity around (about Nagen’s case), but there will also be those who grant us positivity. Let’s focus on taking the positives.”

It’s a sentiment Sarmila’s husband shared, a statement to lean on as things get harder throughout her brother’s time on death row for the past ten years. She is the sister to Nagaenthran a/l K. Dharmalingam, a 33-year-old Malaysian convicted of drug trafficking who now faces an impending death sentence.

There has been extensive discourse on social media, international news, and amongst activists about Nagaenthran’s brush with the death penalty. His case has garnered the attention of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and international news organizations like Al Jazeera, the BBC, and even British entrepreneur Richard Branson.

It’s these fiery debates that leave me anxiously awaiting my interview at 5 pm with Nagaenthran’s sister, Sarmila Dharmalingam, and his mum, Panchalai Supermaniam, on a rainy Friday evening. 

As soon as the Whatsapp video call begins and Sarmila starts talking, the pressures of what this article entails slip into distant white noise. Sarmila’s voice is like the cheerful chatter of female leads in Kollywood movies, and for a while, it’s all I hear. The sparkle of her teeth pierces through the pixelated video each time she smiles at our colleague, Dari, interviewing her in Tamil.

As the interview wears on, I observe the silent but unmovable presence of Nagaenthran’s mother in the room. Panchalai is a silent statue on the couch next to Sarmila, but her stillness is not unwelcoming. Instead, she looks peaceful, almost as if she has conceded the weight of this conversation to her daughter, confident that Sarmila knows best how to narrate this story.

A bedroom in Nagen's family home.
The bedroom Sarmila shared with Nagen

Mosaic futures

Everything about Sarmila, from demeanour to words, shows her love for her brother. It’s in the ways she affectionately coos “Nagen”, almost as if to delicately undo the smearing his name has suffered through online media reports, international news outlets, and casual chatter on online forums.

Sarmila, a mother of three, lives in Ipoh with her mom. She manages her family duties on top of the administrative processes she has to sieve through to secure respite for her brother, who remains incarcerated in Singapore.

But this wasn’t always the way things were. She recalls a fond childhood with Nagen as teenagers dreaming up a future for themselves.

“Nagen and I slept in the same room, and on some nights, we would browse through copies of Courts magazines,” she shares. “We’d flip through the pages and point out the sofa and table we want to buy for our future houses.”

“I’m not sure if Nagen remembers any of this, but I do.”

With only two years between them, Nagen and Sarmila enjoyed a closer bond than the rest of the siblings. Beyond dreaming up fanciful houses, Sarmila was also the person he would discuss future plans with. 

“When we talked about the future, we often just considered what we dreamed for our family. We talked about how we wanted to pursue our education and study hard, how we’d eventually hang up graduation photos on the wall. We wanted to buy our own house and provide for our parents one day.”

Nagen's mother, Panchalai Supermaniam
Nagen’s mother, Panchalai Supermaniam, holding a photo of Nagen

The day Nagen was caught

Nagaenthran was arrested on 22 April 2009 after being convicted of trafficking 42.72 grams of heroin into Singapore.

“Our cousin’s sister was getting married in May that year, and Nagaenthran had promised to be a part of the bride’s entourage,” recounts Sarmila. “He was supposed to come back, but then we found out that he had been arrested.”

She recalled the day she was first informed about the arrest. Sarmila received a call from one of Nagaenthran’s friends who told her that he was merely caught carrying illegal cigarettes on him. 

It was only the next month, May, that she found out about the actual charge—one involving the trafficking of drugs. 

“How did your family react to finding this out? Were you shocked?” Dari asks.

“Of course, lah sister, kandippa shock-a irrunduchi (we were definitely shocked),” Sarmila replies, smiling through her nervous laughter. Her grin remained wide while her eyes gleamed with affliction. 

She went on to share how terrifying the experience was for her too—they had never heard of such things happening, not in their area or neighbourhood. 

“When his friend first told us, he only said that Nagen was carrying a parcel of cigarettes. Imagine my shock when I found out that it was drugs.”

Exterior of Nagen's home in Malaysia.
Nagen’s family home

Through the bars and borders

It’s been over a decade since Nagaenthran was convicted, but Sarmila has only visited him a handful of times.

“The last time we saw him in person outside of prison was in 2008 during Deepavali. Our father was admitted to the hospital, and he came to visit. Still, we didn’t get to spend much time together because we were mostly focusing on ensuring our father was well,” says Sarmila.

When they finally made the arrangements to see Nagen in May 2009, Sarmila, her mother, and her auntie were only allowed a 20-minute visit at the Queenstown Remand Prison. While waiting to see him, they overheard some officers discussing amongst themselves about a prisoner who hid drugs on his thigh. As they listened, they wondered who these officers were talking about.

To their dismay, it was none other than Nagen. This was the moment they fully grasped what he had gotten into. 

“Nagen seemed like he didn’t fully understand what was going on either. We were devastated after finding out the truth of his crime,” Sarmila recalls. “We spent the whole time with him that day just crying.”

Over the years, Sarmila remained the point of contact for all things pertaining to Nagaenthran’s case, almost like a case manager for her family. She organizes all their visits and has settled most, if not all, of the legal and administrative processes.

“We are Malaysian, so we don’t know the laws and regulations in Singapore. That’s why we had to read a lot and get in touch with various contacts. I’ve spent so much money trying to ensure my brother’s sentence doesn’t go through.”

When we asked Sarmila how much, she laughed shakily and replied, “RM37,000”. 

Nagen's sister, Sarmila

Preying on the desperate

Back in October 2010. Sarmila paid a group of Malaysians RM37,000 (S$12,000) with the promise that they could help stop Nagen’s trial. They assured her that they had contacts in Singapore, individuals they could rely on who would ensure Nagen’s case would disappear. They promised he wouldn’t go to court.

They promised her his life.

The group eventually absconded with the money, and her brother’s charge remained unchanged. They left Sarmila scrambling to make hasty arrangements to attend a trial that was ongoing. 

At this juncture, for the first time in our half-hour conversation, I hear Sarmila’s voice increase in volume and intensity. Her bubbly speech gradually shifted into an indignant outcry.

“What made me angry was how people manipulated us. They knew we were desperate and vulnerable. They knew we would do anything to help our family. And they knew we didn’t fully comprehend the situation. They were trying to take advantage of us and cheat us of our money.”

Her anger eventually subsides as she recounts the abundance of help—both financially and legal-wise— she has received from others. Sarmila is a housewife, and her mother is a cleaner, so whatever money they had, finished fast. She had to borrow some money from a cousin working in the Malaysian civil service and applied for personal loans from banks too.

Ever since they have been trying to repay their family debts. They are currently relying on bank loans to fund their expenditures for visits and legal fees. 

Nagen's mother holding a picture
A Taj Mahal model Nagen made in prison using orange peels, paper, and rice. Officers took a photo of the model and sent it to Sarmila, which she then laminated and keeps with all his letters

Festival of Plights

After multiple back and forth with Singapore officials or “putar balik,” as Sarmila puts it, everything culminated into a letter they received last year on October 2021, telling them that her brother was slated to be executed on 10 November the same year—six days after Deepavali. 

Sarmila recounts how from 2014 to 2016, Nagaenthran refused to keep in touch with any of his family members—no calls, no letters, no physical visits. Her memory of those years, however, was hazy due to the flurry of events occurring simultaneously. 

What she remembered clearly, though, was that despite all their efforts—from calling the prison multiple times and coming to Singapore in person—he rebuked their gestures. It didn’t make sense to her why he was behaving that way. 

The last time she visited him was in 2015 when she was pregnant with her first child. She then gave birth to two other kids and therefore couldn’t come down to Singapore to see him. So they only communicated through letters. Eventually, the replies from Nagen became less frequent, and not as consistent as Sarmila would have expected.

“I only started receiving his letters again and speaking to Nagen over the phone from 26 October last year. Every day he will call me and tell me that he had no idea he had avoided any interaction with the family over the two years. He would ask, “Did you really come to see me, and did I really refuse to come and meet you?'” shares Sarmila. 

“Ever since, I’ve just been constantly thinking about him. He’s always on my mind. I’m recording his voice and listening to it every night.” 

An altar in Nagen's family home

Between coherence and lucidity

Then she realised that his mental health condition has degraded over the years. 

Sarmila tells us he has changed significantly since the years they lost touch. One of the most profound differences was how he seems to have wholly forgotten many things they have shared with him.

“I remember after I had my third child in 2018, I told him about it in a letter and even sent photos over,” she recounts. “But then he couldn’t recognize who my child was.” Once again, Sarmila breaks out into a laugh, but her eyes fail to hide her pain. “When I told him over the phone that I was a mother of three, he was shocked.”

Nagen also started showing signs of social regression, referring to his family members and friends using the terms “vaanga, pongaa,“—formal ways of addressing strangers or acquaintances or a way to speak with the utmost respect, like to one’s elders. He couldn’t even recall working in Johor Bahru, Sarmila added.

Sarmila can’t think of an explanation for Nagaenthran’s mysterious shift in behaviour, but she mentioned that Nagen had been moved into a single-person cell since his sentence began in 2010. At times, Nagen seems to be aware of his charge on death row, but there were moments when he didn’t seem coherent. 

“Since he’s started speaking with us this year on the phone more frequently, he’s shown a lot more excitement and anticipation at the possibility of coming home.”

“Then, suddenly, three weeks ago, when we spoke, he asked me why I was doing all of this,” she said, her tone changing. “I got confused especially since he had given us the approval to start talking to lawyers and to get his case published.”

Sarmila is unsure if her brother’s shifts in behaviour are a result of the stress from being in a cell for so long, or even perhaps the medication that she alleges he has been prescribed while in prison. Sarmila is not sure what this medication is for or how long he has been taking it. 

“The fact that I did not clarify what medicine it was is my fault. Because I’ve only recently heard that Nagen’s taking medication,” Sarmila explains. “Even the other day on a call, Nagen told me that he was speaking like that because he was on daily medication, which he said he needed to control his emotion. So I thought it would be better not to try and ask him more questions about it.” 

Although Sarmila recognizes that her brother may not be in the same state of mind as when she last saw him in Malaysia, she feels it matters little so long as she gets to see Nagen again outside of death row. 

The burden of intellectual proof

When discussing his case, a sticking point that tends to surface is his mental condition. In court documents RICE obtained, four psychiatric and psychological experts conclude that Nagaenthran has an FSIQ (Full-Scale Intellectual Quotient) that ranges between 66 to 74, placing him between the Extremely Low and Borderline range of functioning

In the same court documents, other reports found that, despite Nagen being within the borderline range of functioning, he did not have an intellectual disability. In his judgement on 14 September 2017, Justice Chan Seng Onn dismissed Nagen’s resentencing application to convert his death sentence to one of life reimprisonment.

He says that “He (Nagaenthran) has not shown that he “was suffering from such abnormality of mind (whether arising from a condition of arrested or retarded development of mind or any inherent causes or induced by disease or injury) as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts and omissions” in relation to his offence. The applicant thus cannot avail himself of the benefit of being re-sentenced to life imprisonment pursuant to s33B(1)(b)”.

“Honestly, I have no qualms about his condition,” Sarmila says when I ask how she felt about these findings. “I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to help him when he comes back home.”

Sarmila also brought up how M Ravi, the lawyer previously defending Nagaenthran, was put on MC and temporarily barred from practising law because of his bipolar disorder. 

“If someone is diagnosed as too mentally unstable to fight Nagen’s case, then how can you put Nagen himself, who himself has been diagnosed as an intellectually disabled man, on death row?” Sarmila asks. 

“I have so many questions I want to clarify, but I cannot because I’m afraid of the consequences.”

Nagen’s mother, Panchalai, holding a photo of the Taj Mahal model Nagen made in prison

What are we waiting for?

Since Nagaenthran was tested positive for Covid-19 last year, his execution has been delayed. For Sarmila, finding out about Nagen’s Covid-19 diagnosis was a blessing.

“Many people may have lost their lives to the virus, but in this case, Covid-19 may have just saved my Nagen’s life.”

Sarmila’s words are plain yet profound. Throughout our interview, Sarmila’s tenacity of spirit is astoundingly remarkable. For a woman who spent most of her twenties putting in the legwork for her brother’s legal proceedings, she is unwaveringly jovial. It’s evident she has taken on the mantle of caretaker for her family.

Beyond being robbed of her best years with her brother, Sarmila managed to raise a family of her own. It’s a jarring parallel to her brother’s fate; every birth of a new child is another year closer to her brother’s possible death. 

Her bubbly exterior is unsurprising for a mother of three but astonishing as we grasp how she must constantly face the dread of her brother losing his life.

Still, on Tuesday, 29th March 2022, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon has dismissed the latest appeals against Nagaenthran’s execution.

Amidst the many court hearings, appeals, and media scrutiny, Sarmila turns to her faith, both in humanity and her religion. She tells us how she’d never have expected the kind of international attention that the case is gaining. Nor does she know how to thank the people who’ve constantly supported her—the advocates and lawyers who never asked for a single cent.

What she does know is that she wants to see her brother again. She wants to hug him after over a decade. And most of all, she wants him to come back home.

“My kids are waiting for their Mama (uncle).”

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