BBC HardTalk - Transcript of Interview by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 29 June 2022

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Stephen Sackur: Minister K. Shanmugam in Singapore, welcome to HardTalk.

Minister Shanmugam: Thank you, Mr Sackur.

Stephen Sackur: Let me ask you about Singapore as a model. It was sort of set up by Lee Kuan Yew. It's been in effect for well over six decades. It combines economic openness with a real sense of political control and social control. Do you think that model needs to change?

Minister: Well, I will disagree with the assumptions in your question about political control and economic control. The last elections, we had 61%, the opposition had 40% of the votes. Voting is free and fair. The reason why the PAP has managed a substantial dominance is because in 1965 when we had independence thrust upon us, GDP per capita was about $500. Today, it's $55,000. On any index that you look at, education, health care, housing, law and order, we are in the top three, four in the world. The people understand that, but at the same time, there's a very vibrant set of discussions going on and I would say that, I wouldn't quite put it as political control and social control, but the model –

Stephen Sackur: Okay, well, let's dig into your particular remit. You’re 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 report 2021: 500,000 people died, linked to drug abuse, in just one year. More than 70% of that was linked to opioid abuse. US: 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 One, due in a 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 sec, 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 is caught with the equivalent of three tablespoonfuls of heroin as he entered Singapore. He has 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 working 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 –

Stephen Sackur: He was mentally impaired, Minister, with an IQ of 69.

Minister: 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: It’s about reputation. It’s about your presentation of Singapore to the world, if I may say. Experts on the death penalty, in May 2022, the UN panel said that executions of persons with intellectual disabilities for drugs-related offences represent the violation of the right to life and the right to be free from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. They amount to “unlawful killings”. Is that the way that you want to present Singapore to the world?

Minister: Mr Sackur, this depends on whether you are to accept everything that is said by someone. My point to you is – what's the difference between Mr Nagaenthran and the two persons executed in the US in October 2021, in terms of IQ?

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.

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. 30 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 said that this place is swimming in meth and a record haul of one billion meth tablets were seized in Southeast Asia. We are in that situation.

Stephen Sackur: You keep painting this apocalyptic vision of what Singapore might face. In the end, you are going to be challenged by the international community on the standards that you have set in your judicial system.

Minister: Let me ask you which is better? You look at the Netherlands. The chief of the largest police union talks about the Netherlands being a narco state with a parallel economy controlled by drug gangs, shootings and killings. You consider them to be better? You look at Singapore: law and order, we are number one. World Bank index – 

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 accused, convicted of drugs 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 this – and we will move on after this – but Singapore's international reputation, they say, 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 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 talked about the severe situation in Southeast Asia. And what about the thousands of lives that are at stake from drug trafficking? You know, we're not even talking about Mexico.

Stephen Sackur: You know, you've made the case. You made the case, Minister. Let's move on to a different aspect of what I called social control, and you said was absolutely not an aspect of control.

Minister: 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: Yes. So that's your frame – your frame is that you are saving lives because drugs cost lives. 

Minister: And I can prove it. I can prove it.

Stephen Sackur: Listen, so that's your frame for that particular aspect of your social justification for it. Let’s move on now. 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 their 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, 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, LGBTQ+ 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, 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 LGBTQ+ community, as well as others. And you know, in a system of Cabinet responsibility, what we are going to do can only be announced 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 multi-racial. 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. 93% 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 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, if a Malay or an Indian, starts with, if I remember my numbers right, about a 20% 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 Elections 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: Does it worry you again, as Home Affairs Minister, that the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA), which has been introduced, which allows your government to order social media sites, internet providers to disclose user information and block content that they deemed to be hostile on the basis that it comes from malign foreign interests. Has it worried you that that has been described by Reporters Without Borders, an independent NGO, as a legal monstrosity with totalitarian leanings? You say your government isn't about control. What on earth are you doing passing this FICA legislation?

Minister: Well, you might want to look at the legislation. Reporters Without Borders – it's an interesting organisation. They rank us, you know, in the annual rankings. Last year, they ranked us 160 out of 180, below Gambia, Guinea, Afghanistan, Philippines, South Sudan, Myanmar. South Sudan has been described as having one of the most serious refugee crises. Myanmar had a coup. I don't see journalists queuing up to go to South Sudan, Philippines and Myanmar as opposed to Singapore.

Take a young female BBC journalist – do you think she will feel safer or freer to report from any of these countries compared to Singapore?

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

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, 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 US, 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 worldview, 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, the 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, I think it is, you know, these labels are sometimes used –

Stephen Sackur: How come that's not an easy answer?

Minister: It's not. It's not, because these labels are sometimes used, really 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. It's what Singapore –

Stephen Sackur: Right, well, you're gonna, you’re not going to give me a straight answer. So final question –

Minister: Well, my answer is that we will not choose sides. We will go with what we think is right.

Stephen Sackur: I got that. Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat, I'm sure you know him well.

Minister: I do.

Stephen Sackur: He says Singapore is the most globalised country in the world. How is Singapore going to survive a world where globalisation is in retreat?

Minister: It's a tough one. You know, it's not going to be easy, but at the same time, there are some advantages. I mean the situation, the picture of what China, US, we have spoken about, it's going to become much more difficult, much more difficult to navigate. But at the same time, the pandemic and the situation in Ukraine and so on, has shown the importance of governance. So, if you look at it the last few years, the way COVID-19 has been handled – we have rational healthcare policies, rational economic policies. We have continued growing. We've managed our economy.

So, there's been a flight to quality. People look around, they say which countries are safe? Which countries are safe to be physically in? Which countries are safe to put their money in? And there has been a flight to quality. 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.

Stephen Sackur: Sadly, Minister K. Shanmugam, we have to end there. I do thank you very much indeed for joining me on HardTalk.

Minister: Thank you.