Saturday, 2 July 2022

Singapore's death penalty for drug trafficking saves lives, Shanmugam on BBC HARDtalk

A single hanging of a drug trafficker is a tragedy; a million deaths from drug abuse is a statistic
By David Sun, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 Jun 2022

Critics of Singapore's mandatory death penalty for convicted drug traffickers miss the point that it saves lives and protects Singaporeans, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam has said.

In an interview on the BBC's HARDtalk programme that aired on Wednesday (June 29), he noted that the BBC focused on the hanging of one drug trafficker, but not on the severe drug situation in South-east Asia, and the thousands of lives at stake.

"To misquote a well-known quote, a single hanging of a drug trafficker is a tragedy; a million deaths from drug abuse is a statistic. That's what this shows," he said.

Presenter Stephen Sackur had asked the minister whether he had any doubts that the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking was the right policy.

Mr Shanmugam replied that capital punishment is imposed because there is clear evidence that it is a serious deterrent for would-be drug traffickers.

"The trafficker wants to make money. He, you know, is damaging the lives of drug users, their families - damaged, often seriously destroyed," he said.

He cited a 2021 report by the World Health Organisation that showed there were 500,000 deaths linked to drug abuse in just one year.

In America, there were more than 100,000 deaths due to drug overdose in a year, and life expectancy declined in 2015, for the first time since World War I, due in large part to the opioid crisis.

Mr Sackur accepted that the drug problem was serious, but asked if the hanging of Malaysian Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam earlier this year was proportionate and compassionate, given he had an IQ of 69.

Mr Shanmugam said the courts found Nagaenthran was not intellectually disabled - which was confirmed by the psychiatrist called by his lawyers - and had made a calculated and calibrated decision to bring the drugs into Singapore.

He added that in October 2021, at around the same time Nagaenthran's appeal was dismissed, the United States executed two men who had similar IQs and whose lawyers argued they were similarly intellectually disabled.

"What's the difference between Mr Nagaenthran and the two persons executed in the US in October 2021, in terms of IQ?" he asked.

Mr Shanmugam added that in the 1990s, Singapore was arresting about 6,000 people a year for drugs, but this has now dropped to about 3,000 people a year.

Compared with 30 years ago, there are more drugs around the region, and Singapore would be completely swamped without tough penalties, he said.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, he noted, "said that this place is swimming in meth and a record haul of one billion meth tablets were seized in South-east Asia. We are in that situation".

Singapore's deterrent penalties have "saved thousands of lives", he said.

Mr Sackur also asked about Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises homosexuality, and Mr Shanmugam replied that Singapore's position is that people engaging in gay sex will not be prosecuted, and the Supreme Court has said the Government's position has legal force.

He explained that this approach was taken because while societal attitudes are shifting, a significant proportion does not want the law repealed.

"So we have arrived at this sort of messy compromise, the last 15 years, and we have taken this path because these issues are difficult," he said.

But Singapore is relooking its laws and engaging in a wide set of consultations to try and arrive at some sort of landing, he said.

Asked if the law will be repealed in the near future, Mr Shanmugam said he was in no position to answer that question with finality.

Mr Sackur also asked the minister for his thoughts on racism in Singapore.

The minister said it cannot be denied that racism exists here, as in most other multiracial societies.

"The question is how systemic it is, and how much does it happen?" he said.

"My own experience as a minority in Singapore, and the experience of many others is: On the whole, compared with many other societies, it's much less in Singapore."

The minister was also asked about the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, which Mr Sackur said had been described as a "legal monstrosity" by press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

Mr Shanmugam questioned the organisation's credibility, noting that it had in 2021 ranked Singapore below Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar.

"I dismiss Reporters Without Borders. Completely nonsensical," he said. "We invited them in for a select committee hearing, and in the true heritage of free speech, they chickened out."

Mr Shanmugam was also asked about geopolitics and US-China tensions, and which side Singapore would pick if it had to.

He said: "We will not choose sides. We will go with what we think is right."

Mr Sackur ended the interview with a question on how Singapore is going to survive in a world where globalisation is in retreat.

Mr Shanmugam said it would be much more difficult, but added that people have been asking which countries are safe to physically be in and to put their money in.

"There has been a flight to quality," he said.

"There has been a movement to Singapore - money, as well as people. And I think there's an appreciation that Singapore is one of the good places to do business in."

'A single hanging of a drug trafficker is a tragedy; a million deaths from drug abuse is a statistic'
Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam responded to criticism of Singapore's tough policy against drug trafficking in an interview with BBC journalist Stephen Sackur which was aired on his Hardtalk programme on Wednesday (June 29). Here are excerpts from the interview.
The Straits Times, 30 Jun 2022

Stephen Sackur: You are Home Affairs Minister, you have been for some time, as well as being Law Minister. Singapore is very well known around the world for its, many would say, draconian criminal code, and particularly when it comes to drugs, narcotics and the bringing of drugs into Singapore - you have a mandatory death penalty for that particular crime. Do you have any doubts at all, that that is the right policy?

Minister: I don't have any doubts. Capital punishment is one aspect of a whole series of measures that we have, to deal with the drug abuse problem. It's imposed on drug traffickers, and it's imposed because there's clear evidence that it is a serious deterrent for would-be drug traffickers. The trafficker wants to make money. He, you know, is damaging the lives of drug users, their families - damaged, often seriously destroyed. You look at the devastating impact of drugs worldwide. WHO (World Health Organisation) report 2021: 500,000 people died, linked to drug abuse, in just one year. More than 70 per cent of that was linked to opioid abuse. United States: more than 100,000 deaths due to drug overdose in the year ended April 2021. Life expectancy in the US declined for the first time in 2015 since World War I, due in large part to the opioid crisis. I don't think enough attention has been paid...

Stephen Sackur: Let me stop you, Minister, just for a second, because you said some very important things that I just wanted to dig into a little bit. You framed the whole thing in terms of an effort to crack down on traffickers, on the big business of illegal drugs across the world. No question. It's a very serious problem. But the fact is that one of those high-profile cases that your system has dealt with in the last few months is that of an individual from Malaysia, Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, who was caught with the equivalent of three tablespoonfuls of heroin as he entered Singapore. He had an IQ of 69. Medical experts say that represents intellectual disability, and after more than a decade on death row, you hanged him. Does that seem proportionate and compassionate to you?

Minister: You've got your facts wrong. The courts found that he had the workings of a criminal mind, and he made a deliberate, purposeful, calibrated, calculated decision to make money, to bring the drugs in. The psychiatrist called by the defence agreed and confirmed that he was not intellectually disabled. And last year when his final appeal was dismissed, at the same time in October 2021, the US executed two men whose lawyers argued that they were similarly intellectually disabled. They had similar IQs, same range, somewhere between 64 and 72, 63 and 95. The courts, the US Supreme Court in one instance, upheld the executions. The men knew what they were doing for those reasons. Now, I don't see the BBC...

Stephen Sackur: Surely you should be holding yourself to a universally high standard? You are a minister who has talked about making sure that compassion is at the centre of the judicial system in Singapore. So, it's no good pointing to other countries which may have their own flaws. I'm asking you to look at this on its merits.

Minister: On its merits, this is the point I will make. This is a man who brought in drugs, in order to make money. He had the workings of a criminal mind. His own psychiatrist confirmed that he was not intellectually disabled.

And look at the context: we are talking about saving lives. What do I mean? In the 1990s, we were arresting about 6,000 people per year. Thirty years later today, there are more drugs around the region. Singapore is wealthier. Afghanistan and Myanmar are among the largest producers of drugs in the world. We are a logistics centre. We would be completely swamped. The UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) said that this place is swimming in meth and a record haul of one billion meth tablets were seized in South-east Asia. We are in that situation.

Stephen Sackur: I believe I'm right in saying, minister, you have about 60 people on death row at the moment, don't you, and the vast majority of them we know are convicted of drug offences?

Minister: We do, but we have also saved thousands of lives. Because we are now arresting about 3,000 people per year. That's 3,000 people...

Stephen Sackur: The Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network says Singapore's international reputation has deteriorated significantly as the result of things like the execution of this individual, Nagaenthran. That's what you have to confront. Are you prepared to see your state's reputation sink because of the draconian decisions you insist on making?

Minister: I think the key thing is the lives of Singaporeans and protecting Singaporeans. You know, people focus on, and the BBC focuses on, this one person. You ran four articles (on this case) from October of last year to March of this year. One of them was the headline, overtaking the Ukraine war. But you haven't run any article on what the UNODC said about the severe situation in South-east Asia. And what about the thousands of lives that are at stake from drug trafficking? You know, we're not even talking about Mexico.

Before we move on, let me just make this point, Mr Sackur. I think the media reporting and all the things that you've quoted, make this point - that a single hanging of a drug trafficker, to misquote a well-known quote - a single hanging of a drug trafficker is a tragedy; a million deaths from drug abuse is a statistic. I think that's what this shows.

Stephen Sackur: Now, let's move on from drugs. Another aspect of your social policy, and that is the fact that in Singapore, homosexuality is still defined as a criminal act. Now that's not saving lives. So, what on earth is the justification for that?

Minister: The position in Singapore is that people engaging in gay sex will not be prosecuted. Even though there is this old piece of law which makes gay sex amongst males an offence, the Attorney-General has confirmed the position, and the Supreme Court has said that the Government's position has legal force.

Why are we taking this approach? Because a significant proportion of our population, the middle ground as it were, don't want that law repealed. Attitudes are shifting somewhat, but still, governments cannot - the Singapore Government cannot - ignore those views. So, we have arrived at this sort of messy compromise in the last 15 years and we have taken this path because these issues are difficult. They are not easily settled. And we have made clear that LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning) individuals are entitled to live peacefully without being attacked or threatened. We have, in fact, laws that protect the community.

Stephen Sackur: What is the message sent? What is the message sent to gay men in Singapore that you are not prepared to remove that Section 377A of your criminal code, which quite explicitly says that gay sex between men is illegal? That simply encourages, does it not, a culture of shame and homophobia?

Minister: As I said, you know, this is a compromise that we have arrived at, because of where our society is. And if you believe in a democracy, you've got to take into account where your main ground is. And let's face it, it's not as if others have solved the issue. A Supreme Court judge from the United States suggested a few days ago that court decisions on legality of gay sex and same-sex marriage may have to be reconsidered. But our approach is to deal with these issues in Parliament, and I've said earlier this year that we are relooking our laws, and our laws have to change and keep pace with the times. And, in a Singaporean way, we are engaging in a wide set of consultations to try and arrive at some sort of landing.

Stephen Sackur: Minister, I'm listening very carefully to your words. They're very interesting. And if I say to you, say you know public mood and public opinion matters, I say to you that one of the leading polling agencies, Ipsos, in Singapore has found "a steady shift in societal attitudes led by younger adult Singaporeans, who are more ready to see the country now properly embrace same-sex relationships". So, if that's the reality, are you saying to me that we can expect in the near future, your Government, to actually strike off Section 377A and make it clear to gay men in Singapore that they can be open about their sexuality with no fear that anybody is going to regard them as criminal?

Minister: There are two points. First of all, the Ipsos survey seems to us a little bit of an outlier in the context of other surveys, internal and public, that we have. At the same time, I did say to you that attitudes are shifting, but I'm not quite sure they are shifting as much as what Ipsos has said.

The second point is, I said that we are in deep consultations with stakeholders, including the LGBTQ+ community, as well as others. And you know, in a system of Cabinet responsibility, what we are going to do can be announced only once a decision is reached. I'm in no position to answer that question with finality at this point.

Stephen Sackur: I see in The Economist magazine, which has some influence, it referred to a rising tide of ugliness with regard to racial discrimination in Singapore, which it said is provoking a reckoning over race. Now, as Home Affairs Minister, are you worried about the evidence presented - of routine systemic, discrimination particularly against Malay people in Singapore, and to a certain extent, Indian people as well?

Minister: Again, you know, there are various assumptions, that there is routine discrimination, and that this is systematic. You're not producing any evidence to this effect. I would say -

Stephen Sackur: Well, as I said, The Economist magazine and others have produced evidence which gets to the very heart of the problem.

Minister: What is the evidence?

Stephen Sackur: It shows that when people look for housing, to rent housing, it is quite plain. And many people have done this - quite plain - that in many places, ethnic Chinese people are favoured, and it's impossible for Indian or Malay people to rent in certain neighbourhoods. When it comes to the workplace, often jobs are advertised which say "Mandarin essential", when it is quite plain that Mandarin actually isn't essential, but it's a way of ensuring that ethnic Chinese people get the job. That happens. You live in Singapore; you know it happens!

Minister: Let me explain to you, let me tell you. First of all, no one will deny that racism exists in Singapore, just like it exists in most other societies which are multiracial. The question is, how systemic it is, and how much does it happen? And if you want an extended discussion on that, I'm happy to do it. But my own experience as a minority in Singapore, and the experience of many others is: on the whole, compared with many other societies, it's much less in Singapore. And this thing about housing is interesting. Ninety-three per cent of Singaporeans live in their own housing. So, what you're talking about are foreigners who are seeking housing in Singapore. So, you know, people get their facts confused and mixed up.

Stephen Sackur: I suppose the biggest test of all of this - if I may say so - the biggest test of all of this will be what happens at the very top. Now, the current Prime Minister has just made it plain who his successor is going to be. It's going to be Lawrence Wong, the current Finance Minister. That will mean that the four leaders of independent Singapore in the modern era have all been ethnic Chinese. You're a very senior minister yourself. You've been in ministerial jobs for much more than a decade, you perhaps could have aspired to the top job. Isn't it the reality that you, with your Indian heritage, are never going to be able to be prime minister of Singapore, and that is a great shame, is it not?

Minister: Leaving me aside, I don't think it is accurate to say an Indian cannot be a prime minister, or a Malay cannot be a prime minister. How many non-white prime ministers have there been in the United Kingdom? So, let's get real. Race does matter in politics. Survey after survey shows that for each race - whether it's the Chinese, or the Malays, or the Indians - there is a substantial preference for a person of their own race to be the prime minister. So, a Malay or an Indian starts with, if I remember my numbers right, about a 20 per cent gap. But it's not unbridgeable. A good candidate, in my view, a Malay or Indian candidate, can bridge it as long as the MPs have the confidence that he can lead them into the general election and win the elections. I think it's entirely possible, so I would not rule it out. And I don't refer to myself.

Stephen Sackur: Let's quickly, because we don't have much time left, move on to the geopolitical situation you find yourselves in, in Singapore. You've traditionally tried to maintain very good relations with the great powers in your region, and it is of course China, but also the United States. That's becoming increasingly difficult as hostility grows between Washington and Beijing. You're going to have to pick sides. Which side will you pick?

Minister: No, we will not pick sides. I think, you know, for us, it's important that we deal and navigate in the environment. But picking sides is not the right way to go. I mean, the US and China, everyone can see the tensions are deep.

On the side of the US, there is a bipartisan thinking, consensus, that China poses a direct threat. It's always an us-versus-them mentality. In China, there's a growing perception that the East is rising, the West is declining, and that the US is seeking to contain China, constrain China's growth. So, if the tense relations continue this way, (there will be) more bifurcation of technology and supply chains, you know, or worse. But Singapore, like many other countries in this region, will want to maintain good relations with both Washington and Beijing.

Stephen Sackur: Yeah, the point is, that may not be possible. And it may be that it isn't just about the US and China, it's about authoritarians and democratic systems increasingly polarised around the world. You've made a stand on Ukraine. You're one of the few Asian countries that has imposed sanctions on Russia. Your PM called the Putin invasion an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country. That suggests to me that right now, in terms of values and world view, you are actually closer to Washington than you are to Beijing.

Minister: We also opposed the US invasion into Grenada. So it's a matter of principle, it's not choosing one over the other. As a small country, with a very keen eye towards survival, sovereignty, international law is extremely important. When one country invades another without proper justification, whether it's the US invading Grenada or Russia invading Ukraine, we take a stand.

Stephen Sackur: Right, but this is interesting, about values. If democracies and authoritarian systems are increasingly at loggerheads around the world, which camp will you be instinctively in?

Minister: The way we would look at it... you know, these labels are sometimes used in a hypocritical way. I think the real issue is, what is a country's interest? How does it work within the context of values? And how do you think the international system is going to play out? You've got to look at all these things. Look at the people the US deals with - are they all democratic? So, let's get real. My answer is that we will not choose sides. We will go with what we think is right.

*  Singapore's drug policy not determined by external parties, but the interest of its citizens: Shanmugam in interview with Bloomberg
By Lim Min Zhang, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2022

Singapore's drug policy and penalties for drug abuse are determined by what the Republic considers to be the best interests of Singaporeans, and are not made in Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on Wednesday.

Mr Shanmugam was asked by Bloomberg Television's Haslinda Amin about the effect evolving stances in regional countries on the use of controlled drugs, such as cannabis, had on Singapore.

The greater availability of drugs creates more challenges but a vast majority of Singaporeans understand they are bad for society, he said.

Thailand legalised the consumption of cannabis in June, while Malaysian officials have reportedly been considering its medical use recently.

Mr Shanmugam said: "There is a small group that thinks it ought to be legalised. And because of the portrayal in popular media, younger people - not the majority - tend to have a slightly different view of cannabis, and these are all challenges we have to deal with.

"But you know, (Singapore) government policy doesn't get made in Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. Nor does it get dictated to by 400 people, or three or four international newspapers."

He cited negative effects observed in other countries, such as a rise in bombings by drug-linked gangs in Sweden and the opioid crisis in the United States, where deaths from drug overdose spiked in the last decade.

"You look at all of this, and you tell me that Thailand has allowed cannabis a couple of months ago, and Malaysia is talking about it. Let's look at the facts," said the minister.

Earlier in the interview, Mr Shanmugam was asked what it would take for Singapore to change its stance on the death penalty.

Ms Haslinda cited human rights groups and British tycoon Richard Branson, who earlier this year urged clemency in the high-profile case of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, a Malaysian who was executed in April for trafficking heroin to Singapore.

Mr Shanmugam replied that there is an assumption that significant discourse and public support against the death penalty exist here.

"When activists who are against (the) death penalty organised a protest, they claimed that 400 people turned up," he said in apparent reference to one such gathering at Hong Lim Park in April.

But more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans polled by the Ministry of Home Affairs last year supported the death penalty, he said.

The Government's task is to do right by Singaporeans and what is in the best interest of society, he said, adding that it believes the death penalty saves thousands of lives because of its deterrent effect.

"If 400 people plus three newspaper articles could change government policy, or if Mr Richard Branson could change government policy, then Singapore would not be where it is today," he said.

**  Singapore rebuts Richard Branson’s post on drug laws, death penalty, invites him to live televised debate with Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam
By Isabelle Liew, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2022

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has rebutted British billionaire Richard Branson’s blog post criticising the use of the death penalty to deter drug trafficking, and invited him to a live televised debate with Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

Responding to the Oct 10 blog post, MHA said Mr Branson had made untrue statements about Malaysian Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, who was hanged in April for drug trafficking. The ministry said Mr Branson also made false assertions about alleged racial bias and the treatment of capital defence lawyers.

Referring to the proposed live televised debate, it said: “Mr Branson may use this platform to demonstrate to Singaporeans the error of our ways and why Singapore should do away with laws that have kept our population safe from the global scourge of drug abuse.”

It added that his flight to and accommodation in Singapore will be paid for.

In Mr Branson’s blog post, he said that Nagaenthran had a “well-documented intellectual disability” and was hanged despite that.

The ministry said on Saturday: “We have clarified on several occasions that this is untrue. The Singapore courts held that Nagaenthran knew what he was doing and that he was not intellectually disabled.

“Mr Branson also suggests that Singapore had breached our international commitments to protect people with disabilities by carrying out the capital punishment on Nagaenthran. This too is untrue, as Nagaenthran was not intellectually disabled.”

On Mr Branson questioning Singapore’s approach to drugs, including the use of the death penalty on those who traffic large amounts of drugs, the ministry said its priority is to protect Singapore and Singaporeans from the scourge of drugs.

“The capital sentence has had a clear deterrent effect on drug traffickers in Singapore. It has also helped prevent major drug syndicates from establishing themselves here,” it said.

It said that after the mandatory capital sentence was introduced for opium trafficking in 1990, there was a 66 per cent reduction in the average net weight of opium trafficked into Singapore within four years.

In the blog post, Mr Branson said all 11 men executed in Singapore in 2022 were “small-scale traffickers, often of Malay origin or Malaysian nationals”, and that he suspected racial bias.

Mr Branson said the “continued harassment” of capital defence lawyers and human rights defenders was “another worrying matter”, and this has a “chilling effect on the willingness of lawyers to represent those on death row”.

MHA said defence lawyers have never been penalised for representing and defending accused persons.

“Every accused person who faces a capital sentence is provided with legal counsel to defend them,” it said.

“However, this does not mean that lawyers can abuse the court process by filing late and patently unmeritorious applications to frustrate the carrying out of lawfully imposed sentences,” it added, citing Nagaenthran’s case where the Court of Appeal dismissed last-minute applications and described them as an abuse of the court’s process.

The ministry said: “Mr Branson is entitled to his opinions. These opinions may be widely held in the UK (Britain), but we do not accept that Mr Branson or others in the West are entitled to impose their values on other societies. Nor do we believe that a country that prosecuted two wars in China in the 19th century to force the Chinese to accept opium imports has any moral right to lecture Asians on drugs.”

Singapore’s policies on drugs and the death penalty are derived from the country’s own experience, it added.

“Nothing we have seen in the UK or in the West persuades us that adopting a permissive attitude towards drugs and a tolerant position on drug trafficking will increase human happiness. Where drug addiction is concerned, things have steadily worsened in the UK, while things have steadily improved in Singapore,” it said.

Singapore has issued similar challenges to foreign critics in the past.

The late New York Times columnist William Safire was invited to a one-to-one debate with then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in Singapore in 1995, which he turned down as he insisted on debating with founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in Switzerland instead.

The invitation came after Mr Safire and another academic at Williams College in Massachusetts opposed the college’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate on Mr Goh. Mr Safire had also criticised Singapore’s trade with Myanmar, as well as attempts to control access to certain websites.

In 1990, Mr Lee challenged journalist and author Bernard Levin to a face-to-face interview on the BBC after the Briton wrote in The Times of London an article that the Government said was a broad attack on Mr Lee, his premiership in Singapore and the judiciary in Singapore.

Although the BBC was prepared to broadcast such a programme, the late Mr Levin declined the interview.

***  Richard Branson declines death penalty debate with Shanmugam, says it turns serious issue into ‘spectacle’
By David Sun, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 31 Oct 2022

In a statement issued on Monday, he said he is declining the invitation as he feels a debate on such a platform will lack nuance.

“I have decided to decline this invitation. Here is why: A television debate – limited in time and scope, always at risk of prioritising personalities over issues – cannot do the complexity of the death penalty any service,” he said.

“It reduces nuanced discourse to sound bites, turns serious debate into spectacle. I can’t imagine that is what you are looking for. What Singapore really needs is a constructive, lasting dialogue involving multiple stakeholders, and a true commitment to transparency and evidence.”

In his statement, issued on his blog on the website of his Virgin Group conglomerate and disseminated on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, he added that the conversation needed local voices.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) previously rebutted his Oct 10 blog post that said the Singapore Government “seems bent on executing scores of low-level drug traffickers, mostly members of poor, disadvantaged minorities”.

Mr Branson said Malaysian Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam was hanged in April for drug trafficking despite having “a well-documented intellectual disability”.

MHA said the psychiatrist called by Nagaenthran’s defence had agreed in court that he was not intellectually disabled, and that the ministry had clarified on several occasions that Nagaenthran knew what he was doing and was not intellectually disabled.

It said on Oct 22 that Mr Branson also made false assertions about alleged racial bias here and the treatment of capital defence lawyers.

The ministry said the capital sentence has had a clear deterrent effect on drug traffickers in Singapore and has helped prevent major drug syndicates from establishing themselves in the city state.

It cited the reduction in quantity of opium and cannabis trafficked into Singapore since the mandatory capital sentence was introduced for such drugs.

For instance, there was a 66 per cent drop in the average net weight of opium trafficked into the Republic within four years of the sentence being introduced in 1990.

The Government had invited Mr Branson to debate the death penalty on live TV in Singapore with Mr Shanmugam, saying that the Briton’s flight to and accommodation in the Republic would be paid for.

“Mr Branson may use this platform (of a televised debate) to demonstrate to Singaporeans the error of our ways and why Singapore should do away with laws that have kept our population safe from the global scourge of drug abuse,” MHA had said.

In his response on Monday, Mr Branson said he has “enormous respect” for Singapore and Singaporeans, and is compelled to speak out “when I see things go as horribly wrong as Singapore’s use of the death penalty”.

Instead of a television debate, the Government should engage Singaporean stakeholders, he said. He called on the Government to engage anti-death penalty advocates, lawyers and journalists, and cited groups like the Transformative Justice Collective as well as Mr M. Ravi, who was Nagaenthran’s lawyer.

Mr Branson said that as a “global advocate for abolition of the death penalty”, he will continue to raise the issue and will celebrate if Singapore does abolish it.

He also claimed there is no evidence that the death penalty reduces crime.

“There is no evidence to support its continued existence. Just ask those in Singapore who know,” he said.

Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo said last Saturday that the Government will remain steadfast in its tough approach against drug trafficking, including the use of the death penalty.

Mrs Teo, who is also Second Minister for Home Affairs, said that the death penalty is an effective deterrent, and interviews with drug traffickers and analysis of their operations show that the death penalty has significantly reduced the amount of drugs trafficked into Singapore.

Surveys conducted or commissioned by the MHA also show that six in 10 Singaporeans think drug traffickers should be sentenced to death, and people living in the region agree that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. Mrs Teo said: “Some people, however, make the disingenuous argument that because drugs are still being trafficked into Singapore, it shows that the death penalty has failed as a deterrent. It’s an illogical argument, but they will grasp at any argument.”

****  Richard Branson ‘pontificating from a distant mountaintop’, his reasons to decline debate don’t hold water: Ministry of Home Affairs
By Hariz Baharudin, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 5 Nov 2022

Reasons given by British billionaire Richard Branson for declining Singapore’s invitation for a live televised debate on the death penalty do not hold water, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Saturday.

MHA gave a point-by-point counter to the British billionaire’s assertions, one of which was that a televised debate would reduce “nuanced discourse into sound bites”, with the ministry noting that no suggestion has been made that he should only engage in sound bites.

The Singapore Government offered the debate to give Mr Branson “every opportunity to explain himself fully”, and he would have been able to put forward his views, it said.

MHA added: “We can only surmise that Mr Branson realises he will be shown up, because what he has been saying about Singapore is not true.

“Mr Branson’s sudden scrupulous desire not to engage in sound bites is at odds with the sound bites and broad unsubstantiated allegations, which he has been making, in his blog posts.”

The British entrepreneur, who founded the Virgin Group of companies, had on Monday declined Singapore’s invitation to participate in a live televised debate with Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

MHA said on Oct 22 that it had invited Mr Branson to such a debate, in a statement where it also rebutted one of his blog posts that had said the Singapore Government “seems bent on executing scores of low-level drug traffickers, mostly members of poor, disadvantaged minorities”.

Mr Branson had also on Monday made a suggestion that the Government engage Singaporeans, instead of him, on discussions related to the death penalty.

To this, MHA said on Saturday that it has done so extensively. This includes discussions with thousands of Singaporeans this year alone, and in Parliament by MPs several times in recent years. The ministry added that the Leader of the Opposition has agreed that in Singapore, the imposition of the death penalty is necessary.

Singaporeans overwhelmingly support the death penalty, the ministry said, adding that a study showed 74 per cent supported its imposition for the most serious crimes, while another study found 80 per cent agreed it deters crimes like drug trafficking, firearms offences and murder.

“The Government’s offer to debate Mr Branson was in addition to its ongoing engagements with Singaporeans. He has been publicly peddling falsehoods about Singapore, using his celebrity status to campaign to change Singapore’s position,” said MHA.

The 72-year-old has a following of more than 12 million on Twitter and 4.8 million on Instagram.

The ministry said: “If his facts are wrong, it is important this be publicly exposed. If Mr Branson is convinced he is correct, he should take up our offer of a debate, and not offer lame excuses to opt out.”

Referring to how Mr Branson had cited several people and organisations that the Government should be engaging, MHA stressed that it is not for Mr Branson to tell the Government who it should talk to here.

The ministry said that some of those he named were “quite clearly among those who have been feeding him misinformation and untruths”.

MHA noted that a few of the people indirectly referenced by Mr Branson had travelled to Malaysia in 2018 to congratulate Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on being elected prime minister, and to ask him to bring democracy to South-east Asia, including Singapore.

“These are persons who turn to foreigners like Dr Mahathir and Mr Branson to pressure Singapore, because they do not get much support from Singaporeans,” it said.

On Mr Branson’s suggestion that Singapore study the lessons from other countries, MHA said the Government already looks at what is happening in the United States, Britain, Europe and other parts of the world.

“We see the high rates of drug abuse and drug-related crime, and the countless lives lost and families destroyed. Singapore is not completely free from the drug menace either, but our drug situation is under much better control,” said MHA.

By adapting what works to Singapore’s situation and avoiding practices that have failed, children here largely grow up free from drugs and people here live without fear of violence or crime, said the ministry. It added that through such an approach, “Singaporeans and foreigners alike enjoy the genuine freedoms in a vibrant, global city with a very low crime rate”.

The Government is fully capable of taking its own decisions, explaining them to Singaporeans and getting support for them, including at the polls, said MHA.

Mr Branson’s “disregard for facts, his condescension in declining the debate” and his failure to recognise that Singapore has considered these matters point to two possible conclusions, said the ministry.

“He either believes that he should be listened to without question, simply because of who he is, or he knows that what he has said cannot be defended. And to avoid being exposed, he has offered an elaborate set of non-explanations,” it added.

“We do not accuse Mr Branson of hypocrisy as some British media have done. We do not question (as others have), his prioritisation of profit over the human rights principles which he so loudly professes. Nor do we judge him for taking drugs together with his son (as he has publicly admitted to doing). But Mr Branson should act with some honour.

“If he takes a public position on a matter which can impact thousands of lives in another country, then he should be prepared to explain himself.”


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