Transcript of Astro Awani’s "Consider This" Interview with Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, on 30 August 2022

Published: 30 August 2022

 Astro Awani Interview

Question: In recent decades, there seems to be a clear trend away from capital punishment. I think more than 70% of the world's countries have either abolished the death penalty, in law or in practice. Do you see Singapore's harsh drug policies eventually going the same way? Shifting too?

Minister: Melisa, first, in terms of countries. China, India, the United States – three countries, the three largest countries by population, and together, 40% of the world's population – have the death penalty. Of which, certainly China and the US impose; I am not quite sure about the Indian position. So, I think we need to try and accept that a significant part of the world does impose the death penalty, have the death penalty on the books.

Second, when you say Singapore's “harsh” penalties, I think you have got to understand the framework. How does the death penalty operate in Singapore, and in what context? If you look at our laws, our position on the death penalty is quite clear. We have it because it has been an effective deterrent for us, and it has saved lives in Singapore. So, the question is not the death penalty by itself, but whether overall – are lives being saved in Singapore? 

Looking at the death penalty for drug trafficking – after the mandatory death penalty was introduced for opium in 1990, there was a 66% reduction in the average weight of opium trafficked into Singapore. Net weight. We also know – [there is] clear evidence – that traffickers calculate and bring in less drugs, below the threshold amount, into Singapore to avoid the death penalty. What does that mean? It means the supply is constricted. In the 1990s, we were arresting about 6,000 drug abusers in Singapore per year. Now, we are arresting half that number, or about 3,000, even though our population has grown, and even though Singapore's wealth has grown and people can pay more. That is 3,000 abusers per year saved from the effect of drugs, and countless more – family members, relatives, children. 

So, what would happen if we shifted away to a softer approach to drugs? You don’t have to guess. If you look around the world, globally, 500,000 people die per year due to drug use. What do you think? You know, should those lives be saved? In the US alone, 100,000 people died last year due to drug overdose. 80 babies are born every day with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Opioids have shaved one year off – now look at that, one year off – the average male life expectancy in the US. 

These are big numbers, but you know, we focus on a few drug traffickers. But these hundreds of thousands of lives, are we not compassionate about them? So, this means –

Question: OK, Minister – 

Minister: Let me finish. A baby boy born in the US will die four years earlier than children born in other similarly wealthy countries. If you look at the Netherlands, a well-governed state, the police union chairman described it as a narco-state. Sweden, another country that's well-governed – a wave of bombings, 257 in 2019, from gang violence linked to drugs. This is happening in safe, well-governed countries. Why should Singapore be spared if we change? 

The UNODC said that in our region, in East and Southeast Asia, this region is literally swimming in meth. More than one billion meth tablets were seized in our region last year. Organised crime treat the region like a playground – that is what the UNODC says. And due to the huge supply of meth in the region, meth is becoming cheaper, more easily available. So, our tough laws have kept Singapore low-crime, safe. 

And do we have compassion for the thousands of people who will be affected, when the drug trafficker is somebody who is making a cynical calculation to make money by profiting from the misery of people whose lives he is going to destroy? 

Question: Minister, if I may follow up with the example you gave of the US, I think the US have their own set of problems with the distribution of opioids, they have their Purdue Pharma and OxyContin and fentanyl issues within that country. 

I do want to say that you are citing the UNODC and its statistics on meth. That is quite interesting because, again, the UN saying that drugs is a problem within the region, but also the UN’s common position on drugs is always been to shift governments away from punitive responses because of their ineffectiveness at reducing drugs. 

I want to ask you about the international chorus of criticism over Singapore's use of the death penalty. If you say that these big countries are still using the death penalty as a deterrent against drug trafficking, then why is it that we are seeing such a backlash, such a resounding criticism, over the use of the death penalty? Most recently, the United Nations Human Rights Office, the International Commission of Jurists – those are among the few who are criticizing Singapore, in particular, over its continued executions.

Minister: Well, Melisa, I gave you some facts just now about the thousands of lives we have saved. The UN has got different organisations, so some parts of it say well, you shouldn’t apply the death penalty for drug trafficking, and in fact, you shouldn’t have the death penalty at all. But do you see the same “chorus of criticism” when the United States executes people? 

I think we need to look at what is the basis for the criticism, what are they saying? What are the alternatives? Look at countries like in Latin America. The Financial Times carried an article recently, I think a few days ago. 18 out of the 21 mainland countries now have lost control because of drugs. Organised crime has taken over, their countries are a major source of transit, and big problems – kidnappings, crime. Now, who is looking at the lives of these people?  Have you seen the UN Human Rights Office talk about the lives that have been lost in the US, or in other countries in Latin America and Asia? What about that? Do we not have compassion for the victims?

By having these laws – and everyone knows that Singapore has these tough laws – most people don’t traffic drugs into Singapore. As a result, lives of Singaporeans – and lives of people in Singapore, not just Singapore citizens – are safe. It is a low-crime place. 97% of adults in Singapore feel safe walking alone home at night. So why should we shift away from something that is working for us? And I am happy to debate this. 

You say “chorus of criticism”, but actually it is the same few organisations that keep saying this. And you know, last year, we had nearly $12 billion dollars of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Singapore. There is a flight to quality. The stock of FDI in Singapore is huge – more than $2 trillion in 2020. People put their money here, people put their lives here. More than 4,000 US companies are here, and more than 10,000 European companies are here. The number of people who applied to come into Singapore far exceeds the number of permanent residencies or citizenships that we can give. And many news outlets – the BBC, the Economist – set up their bureaus in Singapore and deploy their correspondents here. 

Question: You don’t think that the international reputation of Singapore has suffered over the executions? 

Minister: Well, tell me, has it suffered? From the flight to quality, or people coming in here in the thousands? And the investment flow, and the deal flow? Singapore's reputation has never been stronger.

Question: What about Singaporeans themselves? Are the majority of Singaporeans persuaded by the government's justification for the continued use of capital punishment?

Minister: Good question. Let's look at Singaporeans, and let's look internationally. 

In Singapore, our most recent survey in 2021 – it's [nearly] 70%. 7 in 10 people say they support the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking; and nearly 80% support the mandatory death penalty for murder. Why do they support it? Because more than 80% believe that the death penalty had deterred these offences in Singapore. 20 to 30% disagree, and in any democratic country, you will have that 20 to 30% that disagree. The data speaks for itself. 

And not just Singapore, let's look at the region. We've done a survey of the region where people could be trafficking into Singapore, to understand their awareness of the situation. You know, a substantial majority – I think about sixty over percent, [69%] of people, and this includes people in southern Malaysia – say that the death penalty is a very effective deterrent, more effective than the life imprisonment. So they are aware, and therefore they either don't traffic, or they traffic below the amount. 

How does Singapore’s reputation suffer? I mean, there are people who are ideologically opposed. But you must be careful to distinguish between a few Western correspondents, who go to the same people in Singapore who oppose the death penalty, quote them, and then write articles. And the majority viewpoint in Singapore, and the majority viewpoint about Singapore, is a well-governed, well-run, well-managed country, where people are free to walk about and do what they want to do.

Question: Can I ask you about that survey? I mean, there were some criticisms that said that this is a Singapore government survey, it's not an independent survey, it doesn't fully inform the respondents about the ways in which the death penalty is applied. I mean, can you conclusively say that the respondents in the survey means that the public is aware of how many persons are executed, waiting to be executed, how the death penalty is applied? Is it an independent and comprehensive survey? 

Minister: You know, when you don't like the results, some people will question the results too. Whereas when the UN Human Rights Office – which has no understanding of Singapore – says something, and they don't explain what their position is on all the deaths, and you explain it away, or you say well, the US has its own problems. What are the problems when they go soft on drugs? They have these problems; that's where it leads you to. And people want to decriminalise cannabis. Many US states have done so – look at the results. 

So, let's be clear. Drugs are bad, drugs destroy more lives. It's a point I make. These large numbers, there is no answer. We are responsible for the lives of Singaporeans. And this survey – I don't design the surveys, I don't look at the questions – they are done by professionals, and we are not in the business of designing questions in a way where we get the answers we want. I'm sure it was done professionally.

Question: Minister, you mentioned a little earlier that in any democratic society, there will be those who disagree. There will be those in that 20 to 30% range. Let's talk about…

Minister: Maybe more, but here, it is 20 to 30% on this issue. 

Question: Sure. What is the government's approach to those working against the death penalty, especially if that effort is coming from across the Causeway?

Minister: Well, our effort is to explain to people why we have the penalty. Any penalty can only be justified if you can explain it rationally as to why you have it. You don't impose a penalty, particularly the death penalty, because you want to be harsh. This is not the question of being harsh for the sake of being harsh. The penalty must be effective, it must be deterrent, and that's what I mean by effective. And it’s a serious deterrent, as I showed you from the survey of the region. People know of the laws in Singapore and therefore they don't traffic. Some decide that they will chance their lives, take the risk, because they want to make a few extra bucks. But, most don't. 

Within Singapore, our task as any government, if we believe that it is the right thing to do, is to persuade our people, including the 20 to 30%, that we are doing the right thing. Of course, if there is a different view that is in the majority, ultimately, that will prevail, and the laws will have to change to reflect the majority viewpoint. But, if you are in the government and you believe that something is right, whether it's majority viewpoint or minority viewpoint, you explain your position, and then you decide whether morally, you are prepared to stay on even though you think the steps that are going to be taken are going to be against public interest. That's my perspective. 

Question: Right, that's quite interesting Minister, when you brought up the viewpoint because Singapore recently…

Minister: Sorry, let me make one other, I have to give you another answer, you asked me about the region too – what if the viewpoints are coming from across the Causeway –  

Question: I will come to the region, but I do want to point out very quickly with a question about viewpoint. I think it's quite interesting that Singapore recently repealed Section 377A of the Penal Code, the law that criminalises sex between men. And this is because public attitudes had “shifted appreciably”. Would that be the same for the death penalty – that the government might reconsider its stand if public attitudes change significantly. 

Minister: Two things, Melisa. 

First of all, it won't be quite accurate to say that the Section 377A repeal was announced by the Singapore government simply because public attitudes have shifted. There is a question of whether s377A raises public order issues. When two men have sex in the privacy of their bedroom, should it be a crime? Is it a public order issue? That's a technical question, but it's not simply a technical question because it is also bound with the social mores and the value systems of people. 

And if you looked at it 15 years ago, Singapore society was not ready for the repeal. It would have been too divisive. Today, our sense is that it is – as I've said myself, and as others have said – repealing is the right thing to do. It is for us to persuade people. There is still a significant section of the population that says you shouldn't repeal, and there is a section of the population that says you should repeal. So, you don't just look at the weather vane and what public viewpoints are simply and count heads, no. But, you look at whether the move that you're going to make would overall be divisive, or whether it can continue on the path that Singapore has taken. Keep the unity of the people, bring the people along, and do the right thing. 

With the death penalty, the issues are slightly different. It's not quite everyday morality, but it's also a question, a philosophical question, when people think when the state should put someone to death, should it or should it not? And it's bound with other philosophical questions which have real life consequences, like – can you put someone to capital punishment, even if you're convinced that a larger number of lives will be saved? 

Now, the point that I've been making to you is that a larger number of lives would be saved. Look at the example in other countries, look at the situation in other countries. By having this penalty, we are saving thousands of lives, and a lot of people who would otherwise be drug traffickers also get saved, because they don't engage in this trade in Singapore. So, it's a combination of factors. But supposing elections were fought and a party puts up on its platform that they're going to abolish the death penalty, and they win. That is their manifesto and they win the elections, then they are duty bound to the electorate to go and abolish the death penalty. So, public opinion does matter. But if you ask me, having looked at the facts, having looked at the data, I will say it is my duty to continue to try and persuade Singaporeans that having the death penalty works as a serious deterrent, and it keeps Singapore safe. And most importantly, it saves thousands of lives, and we don't descend into the state of chaos that a lot of other countries have descended into.

Question: Minister we’ll come to the regional situation. Now, Thailand being the first country in Asia to legalise cannabis, I'm just wondering how you see this impacting the drug situation in the region, how it might impact Singapore?

Minister: Okay. I will come to Thailand. But you know, I believe, we believe in Singapore, that policies need to be based on proper evidence. And in this context, you're talking about drugs, it must be based on credible scientific research and evidence. For us, when you look at the research, it shows clearly that cannabis use is harmful, it's addictive. And because it's addictive, it's even more harmful. And it can cause irreversible brain damage, brain shrinkage, serious mental and psychiatric illnesses. Some pharma companies and NGOs with vested interests have argued that cannabis is a soft drug, that cannabinoids have medical benefits. But really, they are driven by the green rush, the desire to make money. It is a lucrative industry. 

In Singapore, where the doctors require it for medical purposes, we allow it, based on medical advice. If you look at Thailand, what's the situation? I think on 9th June, the government of Thailand allowed, decriminalised the sale of cannabis. Within a week, cannabis was everywhere in drinks, in food, in toothpaste and cookies. 

The government had to then try to rein in the effects. It made all government schools cannabis- free areas, it banned smoking in public, it banned sale to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and so on. And then it moved to try and protect minors and the vulnerable populations. But once it's in cookies, and once it’s in soft drinks, and once it’s in toothpaste – how do you protect breastfeeding mothers? How do you protect pregnant women? How do you protect young children? How do you police this? So, there are difficulties in controlling once you do this.
Would it be a problem? I think the freer availability of cannabis in Thailand, to which a lot of Singaporeans go to and from where a lot of tourists come to Singapore, is going to present more challenges. I'm sure it will. 

Question: Minister, you know Malaysia is also studying or researching, the Ministry of Health is researching, looking at medical legalising medical marijuana as well. Do you see that impacting Singapore? What challenges do you foresee if this actually happened?

Minister: If you mean by impact, whether because Malaysia does something therefore will we follow suit, I think that's not the usual way our legislation works. I told you earlier – we look at the research and we look at the science, and we decide for ourselves. And our laws don't always look like Malaysian laws, and our policies don't look like Malaysian policies. We diverge when we have to. We will do what we think is in Singapore's interest, and I'm sure Malaysia will do what it thinks is in Malaysia's interest. But if Malaysia legalises cannabis or other drugs, given the even greater flow of people between Malaysia and Singapore compared to Thailand and Singapore, of course, it will be more challenging from the law enforcement [angle] and trying to keep Singapore drug free.

Question: Minister, my last question to you, I do want to ask you, Malaysia is planning to abolish mandatory death sentencing, returning discretionary power completely to judges for sentencing capital crimes. Is that something that Singapore would consider? I know that you have certain considerations or certain conditions, to remove mandatory death penalty. However, might you reconsider those conditions and return the discretion to the judges during sentencing?

Minister: Melisa, there is a good reason why we have the mandatory death penalty. It's a matter of policy, in the sense of – we say, 15 grammes of heroin, what does it do? It's enough to feed 180 drug abusers for one week, so you're destroying the lives of 180 people. And sometimes the amounts brought in are enough to feed 2,000, 3,000 people, or even more. 

These are matters for government and as a matter of policy, for a long time, we have decided that once a certain threshold is crossed, in order to have the deterrent effect, people must know that the mandatory death penalty will apply. If we remove that, the deterrent effect of the death penalty will be substantially reduced. 

So, it is not so much whether discretion is given to the judges, or no discretion is given to the judges. It is a question of the deterrent effect. The mandatory death penalty has a very high deterrent effect. Now, that means the people who want to bring in drugs know that if they get caught, there is a very high likelihood that they will face the capital punishment. And if you remove that, you dilute the deterrent effect, and the deterrent effect is part of the government's policy against drugs. 

So, we are not likely to change simply because Malaysia changes. We will change when we think that the deterrent effect is no longer there, for example, or the conditions are different, and you need to adopt a different approach to have that deterrence. It is a question of what's your policy, and how you seek to achieve it.

Concluding remarks: Minister, thank you so much for spending some time with me on the show tonight. That was Singapore's Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, K Shanmugam. That wraps up this episode of 'Consider This’. I'm Melisa Idris, signing off for the evening. Thank you so much for watching, and good night.