Parliamentary Speeches

Second Reading of the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill and Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill - Wrap-Up Speech by Assoc Prof Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, Minister of State, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of National Development

Published: 21 March 2023

1.   Mr Speaker, I thank the Members for their support of the Bills. 

2.   I would like to first address an issue raised by Mr Louis Ng on the use of presumptions in the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill (MDA). 

3.   As Mr Ng pointed out, the use of presumptions, and the application of more than one presumption acting on the same set of facts, is not new under the MDA. We should remember that the fundamental reason for the use of presumptions in drug offences is because the facts which are being presumed are often exclusively within the accused person’s knowledge. In the example given by Mr Ng relating to having a key to a place, the presumption places the onus on the person found in possession of such a key to explain why he did not know the drugs were there, in spite of having the key to that particular place. 

4.   Where there is no presumption, the burden is generally placed on the Prosecution to prove a fact.  

5.   Our long experience in dealing with drug trafficking syndicates is that without legal tools such as presumptions, drug traffickers would be able to evade legal responsibility by simply saying that they did not know the drugs were there, or they did not know what they were carrying. The drug mules in the past, and still today, are trained to say certain things upon arrest. The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) knows this. The Prosecution, despite having proven that the drugs were in the accused person’s possession, are often not able to prove the accused person’s knowledge of the drugs beyond a reasonable doubt, so long as he simply says that he did not know the nature of the drugs. 

6.   The presumptions have been in existence since the introduction of the MDA in 1973, and they have worked well. Without them, we would not have been able to keep the drug trafficking situation in Singapore under control. We would also have otherwise only been able to punish people who came clean and confessed to the offences, while the guilty traffickers who lied to the authorities would go free. 

7.   I would add that there are other presumptions which have also worked well for other drug offences, such as the presumption that a person whose urine test is positive is presumed to have consumed drugs.

8.   Legally, the presumptions can be rebutted, and historically, they have been rebutted many times. Whether the presumption can be rebutted turns on whether the accused’s account is to be believed or not. He cannot simply say he did not know, or he did not care. The facts or evidence required to rebut the presumption would very much depend on the nature of the defence raised by the individual, and the credibility of his account.

9.   The issue of more than one presumption acting on the same set of facts has been raised in the past. Because the presumptions in the MDA presume different facts, more than one presumption can be triggered in respect of one set of facts. For example, if an individual possesses the keys to anything containing a controlled drug, he can be presumed to have that drug in his possession, and also presumed to know the nature of that drug.

10.   However, the presumptions cannot be used unfairly to prejudice the accused. For example, the presumptions of possession and knowledge cannot be invoked together with the presumption of trafficking, as these presumptions each serve a different function. The courts are careful to ensure that the burden on the accused is not so onerous that it becomes virtually impossible to discharge.

11.   The Court of Appeal has said that notwithstanding the use of presumptions, innocent persons can prove their innocence without any difficulty, whilst guilty persons cannot avoid liability by merely asserting a lack of knowledge without more, therefore undermining the general policy of the MDA itself. In fact, the courts have also said that the MDA presumptions strike an appropriate balance between the rights of accused persons on the one hand, and the rights of persons in the wider society on the other, who would otherwise be adversely and directly impacted by the availability of drugs on the open market.

12.   Turning to NPS specifically, while I understand Mr Ng’s concern, it is incorrect to state that the application of the MDA presumptions is more concerning when applied to NPS. The presumptions operate in the same way, to presume facts that are especially within the accused’s knowledge. In fact, the Bill contains specific defences for NPS that do not apply to traditional controlled drugs.  For example, it is a valid defence for an individual to prove that the psychoactive substance is an excluded substance; or that he intended to use the psychoactive substance for a legitimate purpose other than human consumption. To address Mr Ng’s related question on this, an individual who claims that the substance is an excluded substance can either prove factually that the substance is an excluded substance, or where the section 18A(2) presumption applies, prove that he believed and had reason to believe that the substance was an excluded substance.  

13.   These defences are not applicable to traditional controlled drugs. We believe our proposed approach straddles an appropriate balance between ensuring that those who are in possession of NPS for illegal purposes can be dealt with under the law, while at the same time, ensuring that those who are innocent can show this without an unfair burden on them.  

14.   On the same topic of presumptions, Mr Zhulkarnain asked about the safeguards in place to protect innocent landlords. During the investigations, CNB will establish who was in possession of the drugs, and how the drugs came to be at a particular location. Landlords who simply rent their premises to others have nothing to fear if they have given the tenant exclusive possession of the property. CNB or AGC do not simply prefer charges against people who own properties and rely on the presumptions to prove their case. 

15.   In any event, as with controlled drugs under the current law, an innocent landlord can easily rebut the presumption of possession by proving – on a balance of probabilities – that the psychoactive substance was not in his possession. To do so, the innocent landlord could, for instance, point to the fact that a third-party occupier had full access and control over the property in question. Alternatively, if the innocent landlord was in possession of the item but did not know of its nature, he could then rebut the presumption of knowledge by, for example, explaining that he did not know that the item has a psychoactive effect when consumed. 

16.   To address Mr Zhulkarnain’s point about there being “two separate presumptions of knowledge based on an initial presumption of possession”, I should clarify that the new section 18A(2) represents only one presumption of knowledge, namely knowledge that a substance is in fact, a psychoactive substance. As I explained in my opening speech, the new section 22B provides that such knowledge comprises two elements – it is established if the person knew the substance had the capacity to have a psychoactive effect on an individual when consumed, and did not know or have reason to believe that the substance is an excluded substance. Sir, I hope I have addressed all the issues about presumptions.

17.   Next, I would like to thank Mr Derrick Goh, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Zhulkarnain for their questions on the new control regime for NPS.  As mentioned in my opening speech, with this new framework, all newly discovered psychoactive substances will be subject to the new legislative framework by default, and CNB can take action against persons dealing with them, unless the substance is excluded under the Fifth Schedule. 

18.   Specifically, to address Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Derrick Goh’s questions on the processes undertaken by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) before listing newly discovered substances under the First Schedule or Fifth Schedule of the MDA:

(a)   If a newly discovered psychoactive substance intended for abuse, emerges in the local market or is identified for international control by UNODC, CNB will indeed seek to list it in the First Schedule of the MDA. Before listing, CNB will work with the HTX and Health Sciences Authority (HSA) to conduct rigorous testing and industry consultations to ascertain if the substance has legitimate purposes. 

(b)   If the substance is found not to have any legitimate uses, it will be listed as a controlled drug in the First Schedule. This is the same approach adopted currently for substances we list under the First Schedule. For example, in June 2022, we listed a synthetic cannabinoid, in the First Schedule, after it was first detected in circulation in November 2021. This took approximately eight months for the necessary testing, verification and legislative amendments to be carried out. For completeness, to answer Ms Lim’s question if MHA intends to eventually list all psychoactive substances that are found to have no legitimate uses and intended for abuse under the First Schedule; the answer is yes, we do. We hope for the MDA to be as comprehensive in its coverage of these harmful substances. 

(c)   If the new substance is found to have legitimate uses, or is regulated under other existing laws or regulations, it will be listed under the Fifth Schedule as an excluded substance. The frequency of such listings will depend on the emergence of new substances in the market. 

19.   If a newly discovered substance is legitimately being used for scientific or medical research purposes, and this can be proven with supporting evidence, such research activities would not constitute offences under the new regime. If, as in Mr Zhulkarnain’s example, a person is found to have failed to comply with the expected standards in the handling of a psychoactive substance for legitimate purposes, like for medical research, they will not be prosecuted under the MDA. They may instead be taken to task by the relevant governing authority or Ministry. To reiterate, the amendments are not meant to target legitimate substances or activities. Instead, it is aimed at psychoactive substances created for the purposes of abuse. 

20.   On Mr Goh’s question of resources expended in verifying an accused person’s defence that the NPS he is dealing with has legitimate uses, I wish to emphasise that the current provision specifies that the accused bears the burden of proving on a balance of probabilities that the substance indeed had legitimate uses other than for human consumption. It would not be for CNB or the prosecution to prove or disprove his claim. This would prevent persons from attempting to employ such a defence without sufficient basis.

21.   Mr Goh also asked if the new saliva test kits can detect NPS. Presently, the test kits deployed by CNB cannot detect NPS. While there are commercially available test kits that can detect certain classes of NPS, this would not be exhaustive due to the sheer number and diversity of NPS. The test kits used by CNB are meant as a screening tool and are able to detect the key controlled drugs that are commonly abused in Singapore. Nevertheless, CNB will continue to monitor the NPS trends and with advancements in technology, CNB will be able to assess the feasibility of deploying more comprehensive test kits that are capable of detecting more NPS in the future.  

22.   I cannot agree more with Mr Goh’s point on the importance of preventive drug education and keeping the public informed of NPS trends. Since the emergence of NPS abuse in Singapore, CNB has been proactively publishing informational brochures on NPS and their harms. CNB also engages the youth within schools and through those in positions of influence over youths, such as parents, counsellors, educators, youth advocates and national service commanders, to educate them on NPS and their harms. 

23.   I would also caution that if anyone is unsure if he is in possession of a psychoactive substance, he should undertake reasonable means to find out what is the nature of and the intended purpose of the substance in question. For example, by asking the person who gave him the substance. If the person continues to be unsure, he should report this to CNB or the Police immediately.

24.   Mr Goh asked about the statistics of youths abusing NPS. In my opening speech, I provided NPS abuse numbers in the last five years. Mr Goh may wish to also refer to the annual statistics release published by CNB, that provides a more detailed profile of drug abusers arrested, by drug type, including NPS. We cannot afford to be caught on the backfoot, and only take action when NPS abuse becomes pervasive in Singapore.  

25.   Ms Sylvia Lim asked whether the amendments to introduce a tiered punishment framework for the drug possession offence are targeted at cases where the persons are charged with trafficking, but the trafficking charge fails in court. The short answer is no. The question of whether charges would be preferred for trafficking or for possession would be determined by the facts as established by the investigations. 

26.   Ms Lim also asked for further justifications on why we need to increase the penalties for possession. CNB has observed in recent years that drug syndicates are smuggling larger quantities of drugs per transaction. We are concerned that this may drive up demand locally, and may cause downstream law-and-order issues. Hence, that is why we want to be proactive to deter local possession of large quantities of drugs. 

27.   Ms Joan Pereira rightly pointed out Singapore’s vulnerability to the threat of drug trafficking due to its trans-national nature and asked if regional information sharing partnerships can be enhanced, and the role Singapore plays in committing some resources to such efforts. CNB actively participates in international and regional efforts for information sharing and operations. For example, CNB is part of the ASEAN Airport and Seaport Interdiction Task Forces, which provide platforms for enforcement agencies to collaborate, and interdict drug trafficking in the region.

28.   CNB also works closely with its overseas counterparts to share intelligence, and this has resulted in significant arrests and seizures both locally and overseas over the past years. In 2022, CNB also organised an inaugural workshop on Singapore’s Drug Control Strategy for our international counterparts, to contribute to their capacity building and promote cooperation. Such cooperation has been crucial in helping to keep the threat of drugs at bay. Specifically for NPS, information sharing in the region has allowed countries to quickly list NPS for control once they have first been detected in one country.

29.   In fact, MHA and CNB plans to further its commitment to the international fight against drugs, by seeking membership at the global Commission of Narcotics Drugs for the 2024-2027 term. This will allow us to have a bigger voice in shaping international drug control policies and sharing our best practices on a global stage. 

30.   Mr Louis Ng also asked whether MHA works with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and social service agencies to ensure that children of drug offending parents are cared for appropriately. I will not go into a detailed reply, as this topic has been discussed in the House before.  In gist, yes, there is currently a referral process between CNB and MSF. CNB officers can conduct early identification of vulnerable family members at the scene of arrest and make the necessary referrals to MSF. Even if there remains a caregiver for the child after the arrest, CNB will still alert MSF, as long as the child was at the scene of the arrest. 

31.   Mr Zhulkarnain asked what MHA is doing in concert with HSA and other ministries to address vaping. This topic was discussed at the Ministry of Health (MOH)’s Committee of Supply debates earlier this month. MHA works with MOH, Ministry of Education (MOE), HSA and other agencies through the National Committee on Prevention, Rehabilitation and Recidivism to tackle the problem of substance abuse, particularly amongst youths.

32.   I would like to thank Mr Christopher De Souza for his strong support on the Bill and for raising very important issues relating to our drug policies. While we strengthen our enforcement framework against drugs with these amendments, MHA is still committed to ensuring that drug abusers receive the rehabilitation they require. 

33.   Ms Nadia asked if the Government can provide more personalised support to recovering drug addicts. Similarly, Ms Pereira asked if more comprehensive and long-term mental health resources and support could be offered to drug abusers who have gone through rehabilitation. MHA recognises that ex-drug abusers need community support in order to successfully reintegrate and not relapse. Some ex-drug abusers struggle with mental illness, or juggle multiple stressors such as securing employment or managing strained family relationships. The Singapore Prison Service works with various community partners like the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, Singapore After-Care Association, and religious Social Service Agencies, to provide continual prosocial support and engagement for drug abusers after their release. During the time that an ex-drug abuser is placed on CNB's supervision, the CNB supervision officer assigned to the ex-drug abuser will regularly check in on his or her wellbeing, and assess their reintegration needs. The supervision officer will make referrals to social service agencies, such as Family Service Centres, to provide further support for their mental, psycho-social, and other needs. As Ms Nadia has pointed out, our current rehabilitation programmes take a calibrated approach based on the individual’s risks and needs. At the same time, CNB and Prisons conduct regular reviews, including with MSF, to determine what more can be done to support ex-drug abusers in their rehabilitation.

34.   Ms Nadia also asked if MHA would consider adopting harm reduction strategies. At the 2018 Committee of Supply debates, the Minister for Home Affairs had set out MHA’s position concerning the harm reduction approach. Our position remains the same. As mentioned in my opening speech, we take a harm prevention approach. In Singapore, our tough laws have kept the drug situation here relatively under control, and so, we must continue to keep drugs at bay, to prevent the harms from overwhelming us. Harm reduction strategies have limited application to Singapore’s drug situation. Countries which adopt harm reduction measures are focused more on minimising further cost from HIV or other blood-borne infections transmitted through intravenous drug use, rather than on preventing drug use, because they have reached a tipping point where drug use is too pervasive to effectively control. Singapore is not in a state where we cannot deal with the drug situation. Therefore, there is no benefit or need for Singapore to adopt harm reduction measures. 


35.   Mr Speaker, these amendments to introduce a new framework to regulate NPS, and to increase the penalties for the drug possession offence, reflect the Ministry’s efforts to ensure that our drug laws remain an effective deterrent, and to keep our drug situation under control. At the same time, as Members have mentioned, we also focus on educating our public on the harms of drugs, and adopting evidence-based approaches to rehabilitation and aftercare. 

36.   Against the backdrop of a worsening global and regional drug situation, we must continue to press on in our fight against drugs, to keep our streets safe and our families protected from the perils of drugs. With continued support from Members in the House, our community partners, advocates, and members of the public, we will work towards maintaining a drug-free Singapore. 

37.   Mr Speaker, I beg to move. Thank you.