Monday, 19 November 2012

Stiff drug laws keep our families safe

When Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean addressed Parliament on Wednesday on the proposed changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act, he dealt specifically with four points: First, should Parliament change the law to do away with the mandatory death penalty and leave the discretion with the courts? Second, has the mandatory death penalty been effective in curbing the drug menace? Third, do the amendments send the wrong signal that Singapore is softening its stance against drugs? And finally, will the "substantive assistance" provision be effective? This edited extract focuses on his second, third and fourth points.
The Straits Times, 17 Nov 2012

HAS the mandatory death penalty been effective in helping to curb the drug menace? And do the amendments to the mandatory death penalty send the wrong signal that we are softening our stance against drugs?

A number of MPs, including Ms Sylvia Lim, Assistant Professor Eugene Tan, Mrs Lina Chiam and Ms Faizah Jamal, have asked whether the mandatory death sentence has been effective.

It is not easy to prove a counter-factual conclusively.

But the approaches that other jurisdictions have used to combat drugs and the corresponding outcomes are instructive.

In some jurisdictions, the legal regime is not operating properly and enforcement is not effective. The drug situation is completely out of control and drug cartels rule the roost. Then, there are jurisdictions where laws are strict theoretically, but enforcement is not effective.

There are also jurisdictions where law enforcement agencies are effective, but drug laws are liberal, allowing drugs to become commonplace.

A strong, clear message

IT STRIKES me that families from these countries with more liberal drug regimes and drug laws find that one of the attractions of living in Singapore is that their children are much safer from drugs and crime.

We have to ask ourselves what type of society we want. There may be no death penalty or mandatory death penalty, but the human toll is great. Drug wars take the lives of thousands - innocents, law enforcement officers and members of drug cartels.

Daily, people die of overdoses or adverse drug reactions, including young people and people whom young people idolise - pop stars, movie stars and sports personalities.

The mandatory death penalty is an important part of our comprehensive anti-drug regime. The regime is a multi-pronged one - it involves education, strong enforcement, severe penalties for trafficking, strict rehabilitation for drug abusers and long-term imprisonment for repeat abusers.

The deterrence message is strong and clear.

We send the signal that drugs are bad - bad for abusers, their families and society. Drug traffickers should also beware; there is high certainty of being caught and punished. Punishment is severe, including capital punishment.

The mandatory death penalty strengthens this deterrent message. The incidence of kidnapping and firearms offences fell sharply after the Mandatory Death Penalty (MDP) was introduced for these crimes. From 38 kidnapping offences in 1959, the number of offences fell significantly after the death penalty was introduced for kidnapping in 1961 to just one case, and has remained low.

An ongoing war

FOR firearms offences, the number fell from 174 in 1973 to 97 in 1975 after the introduction of the death penalty in 1973. This has since dropped steadily and there have been no firearms offences since 2007.

For drugs, the war is ongoing. We want to give our drug enforcement officers the tools they need. We know that the MDP has a deterrent effect because drug traffickers deliberately try to keep the amounts they carry below the capital punishment threshold.

This complicates their supply chain, and raises their costs and their risks. This ultimately helps to restrict drug supply in Singapore and helps keep our drug situation under control.

Several MPs have cautioned that we do not send out the wrong signals with the changes that we are making. I agree with them.

We are facing serious and new challenges on the drug front. If we went the way that some MPs are advocating, by doing away with the mandatory death penalty, as Mr Pritam Singh suggested, or doing away with the death penalty altogether, as Mr Laurence Lien mentioned, we will send the wrong signal that the risks of drug trafficking into Singapore have been lowered, that the society is now more accepting of drugs.

Real risks

WOULD Singapore and Singaporeans be better off as a result? I do not think so.

Not if our deterrence is weakened and more people might be tempted to try to smuggle in significant quantities of drugs.

Not if more of them try, get caught and spend the rest of their lives in prison. Not if more victims fall into the downward spiral of drug abuse because more drugs enter into Singapore.

Not if our enforcement officers are overwhelmed by a greater number of traffickers and drug abusers and are unable to get on top of the situation.

These are real risks we face if we weaken our deterrence and the message that we are sending.

I can understand Mr Lien's point of view and the nobility of his motives and his cause. We need people like Mr Lien in our society to try to save every wrongdoer and to give such a person more chances.

But we must also as Parliament carry the responsibility of putting in place an overall system that minimises the number of those who will take the chance and end up becoming wrongdoers in the first place by sending an unequivocal deterrent signal that this is a serious crime and the consequences are severe.

As Members of Parliament, we have to reconcile the two - attend to the concerns of those of our constituents caught on the wrong side of the law and do our best to help them within the constraints of our law.

But we also bear the responsibility of putting in place a legal and policy framework that minimises the temptations for people to commit crime and cause damage to others, thinking they can get away with it lightly.

Members like Prof Eugene Tan, Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Desmond Lee, Mr Chris De Souza and Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap understand this as they have seen the despair and destruction that drugs cause. I do not recall hearing them call for the abolition of the mandatory death penalty.

As Parliament, we must establish a system that not only provides fairness, justice and protection to wrongdoers; we must provide fairness, justice and protection to victims and society too.

Policy considerations

CAN the "substantive assistance" provision really be effective? Minister for Law has already addressed the issues related to how this will operate. Let me talk about the policy considerations.

The policy intent of this substantive cooperation amendment to our mandatory death penalty regime is to maintain a tight regime - to help us in our fight against drugs, and not to undermine it.

Couriers play a key role in the drug network. Illicit drugs are not manufactured or grown in Singapore because of our tough laws and enforcement.

All our drugs therefore have to be couriered into Singapore. Thus, couriers are a key part of the network which has to be vigorously targeted and suppressed in order to choke off the supply to Singapore.

What we are proposing is that where the public prosecutor has certified that substantive cooperation has been provided, judges will have the discretion to sentence them to life imprisonment with caning, rather than death.

We cannot be sure how exactly couriers or the syndicates will respond to this new provision. But we have weighed the matter carefully and are prepared to make this limited exception if it provides an additional avenue for our enforcement agencies to reach further into the networks and save lives from being destroyed by drugs and make our society safer.

Our intent is to make things as difficult as possible for the syndicates and to keep them and drugs out of Singapore.

We expect that after these changes, the syndicates will continue to evolve their operations, and we too will have to watch and assess and adapt our strategies. If we are able to get substantive information that enables us to disrupt the networks, we will have gained in our war on drugs.

Zero-tolerance stance

WE MUST continue our comprehensive approach to tackling the drug challenge, dealing with both demand and supply. It starts with public education, but we have also put in place strict laws with severe penalties, coupled with strong enforcement.

The new measures will enable us to help drug abusers who themselves have shown commitment to get off drugs and stay away from drugs.

And we are introducing new offences and increasing penalties for those who target the young and vulnerable. Offenders have a high certainty of being caught and of facing severe punishment, including death.

We are maintaining the mandatory death penalty for the drug offences where it currently applies, but are making measured and carefully defined exceptions to allow for the courts to impose life imprisonment instead for couriers in cases of abnormality of mind or where substantive cooperation has been provided.

Let me state categorically that we are maintaining our zero-tolerance stance against drugs. Taken in totality, these amendments will make our regime tougher against repeat offenders, introduce new offences especially against those who target the young and vulnerable, and enhance the effectiveness of the death penalty regime.

We will also give CNB (Central Narcotics Bureau) officers more power to deal with emerging threats and improve their monitoring capabilities.

Several members, including Dr Intan (Azura Mokhtar), Ms Ellen Lee, Ms Faizah Jamal, Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap and Mr Zainal Sapari, have called on the Government to put more resources into public education and public outreach. We will do so.

But all of us have the responsibility of spreading the message about the harmful effects of drug abuse - whether as parents, teachers, lecturers, workmates, schoolmates or friends. This is not just the role of the Government.

We should all be prepared to help shape social attitudes in positive directions and away from negative ones - for the benefit of our society and our children.

Singaporeans should have no illusions about the challenge we are facing. We are in this for the long haul. The war against drugs will not be won today or next year or even in the next 10 years.

But it can be lost very quickly, as we have seen in many other countries.

We have gradually and steadily managed to bring the situation under control compared to the 1970s. The measures taken have kept the drug problem in Singapore in check in spite of the serious global and regional situation.

We must continue to have the determination and resolve to take the measures needed, tough but unfortunately necessary ones, to keep our streets free from drugs, and ensure that Singapore remains a safe and secure home for ourselves and our children.

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