Published: 15 September 2022
Question: Minister Shanmugam, thank you for joining us. Singapore is repealing 377A. The question is where are we on that, in terms of timing? Is Singapore in a hurry to repeal it? Are there issues still being discussed?
Minister: We have had discussions for several months. Prime Minister announced the decision during the National Day Rally. And, you know, the ideas have been crystallised. It’s now a question of getting the drafts ready. I don't think I'm at liberty to talk about precise timelines.
Question: Some indication?
Minister: I have said that it's not likely to be very long.
Question: Can you quantify that? Within this year, next year?
Question: What is the end game, though? Presumably, repeal 377A is just the first step. Are we looking at perhaps marriage equality in the end? If not anytime soon, then somewhere down the line?
Minister: Haslinda, I think we have got to get back to, you know, in an open society in a democracy. You have got to look at where your people are. And the Government has a duty both to lead, but also to understand the people’s wishes. I think on 377A, the repeal, we are trying to forge as much of a consensus as possible and move forward with some social harmony on an issue that has torn asunder social fabrics in many countries – the culture wars and so on. Very few countries have been able to deal with this, you know, in a way that allows a country to move forward. So 377A is what we are looking at, and the repeal of it. And as the Prime Minister pointed out, at the same time Singaporeans don’t want to see a change in tone the very next day on a whole variety of things. And therefore, in fact, the Government would be amending the Constitution, to make it clear that any debate on what a marriage is and – today marriage is defined in law, as between a man and a woman – that any debate on that is in Parliament, and that it is not dealt with through the Courts.
The Courts have said in other situations that they are not best placed, these are matters for the political sphere and for the legislature. So, we will make it clear that it will be dealt with in Parliament, and this Government and the Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence, who has been chosen by his peers to be the next leader, if he gets elected in the General Elections – he and his team – he also does not intend to change the policy on marriage. In fact, I have talked about various other issues where we will try and make sure that people have the freedom to express their views on religion, religious-centred views, as well as views that are opposed as long as it's done in a respectful way. And so, we are not looking at, you know, making major changes on other areas. Repeal? Yes.
Question: No longer a legal issue. A political issue now – an issue that can be debated in Parliament, that can be discussed.
Minister: It has always been a political issue. People have tried to change the law through the Courts and our position is, and as the Court of Appeal has made clear as well in some other cases, these matters ought to be debated in Parliament.
Question: Are you encouraged that perhaps the definition of marriage, which currently is between a man and woman, could be tweaked at some point in time to include two men?
Minister: I have said what the current position is. Current position is that it’s between a man and a woman, and that’s a policy of this Government.
Question: Is civil union an option? Is it something that Singapore may consider
Minister: I will keep telling you the current position. And the current position is that marriage is defined in the Women’s Charter, and it is something that we consider as part of the law, and we will amend the Constitution to make sure that that can only be dealt through Parliament.
Question: There’s been opposition from religious groups, and they're also concerned about how they may be attacked for the views that they hold against LGBTQ as well as equality on marriage. Would Singapore consider a law, passing a law, to ensure there's no, I guess, a cancel culture? Is that something that might happen here in Singapore?
Minister: This is an issue that has concerned us, not just in the context of debates or arguments about 377A, or sexual mores, but on a wide variety of issues. The people’s freedom to express their views is curtailed in real life, in the physical world. We won’t allow five people to gang up and beat you up. That’s against the law. It seems to be possible and happens in a virtual sense, on the Internet. And we need to find the right balance between free speech and aggressive attacking of others to curtail their free speech. In fact, we should be encouraging people to be able to express their viewpoints on all sides, as long as it is not offensive and it doesn’t descend to hate speech. So, these are not easy questions, but these are questions that we have been studying for some time and if we find the right solutions, yes, that should be something that we could see in legislation.
Question: In the near future, perhaps? I mean, what’s the sense?
Minister: Again,I cannot put a timeline. It’s something we’re studying, we have been studying it for a while, we’re gathering viewpoints, we’re discussing. In fact, religious groups talk to us, but also LGBT groups have talked to us and they are being attacked. Religious groups, in particular, feel very put upon, because they feel that whenever they express their views, they are attacked as homophobes. So, there is a line between expressing your view on religion, and becoming homophobic or engaging in hate speech against LGBT groups. And we've got to agree on, you know, these sorts of lines. So, we will have to involve people from the different sectors, get their viewpoints. So, it's difficult to put a timeline on this.
Question: I want to touch on the death penalty. It is a sensitive topic and I guess a lot of different groups including the human rights groups, as well as people like Richard Branson have weighed in on it. We've seen five executions this year, 10 since the start of the pandemic, what would it take for Singapore to review its stance on a death penalty?
Minister: Haslinda, very often when journalists ask us these questions, it seems – I'm not saying this about you, but I think it seems to reflect their own biases and ideology. Because the assumptions, the series of assumptions in your question, there's a lot of talk about this, that there is a significant discourse and that you know, there is a groundswell against the death penalty. When activists who are against death penalty organise protest, they claim that 400 people turned up. Usually these numbers are exaggerated. But even if we assume it's right, 400 people, what are the facts? More than 80% of Singaporeans support the death penalty. More than 65…
Question: That is as of now?
Minister: As of last year, and that is current. More than 65% support the mandatory death penalty. So, you know, the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans support the death penalty. But… what's the task of the government? It is to do right by Singaporeans, what's in the best interest of society. If we believe, and we do, that the death penalty, in fact, saves thousands of lives, because of its deterrent effect. And I can show you examples from all the other countries which don't have the death penalty, and lacks enforcement on drug policy, thousands more people die. So, there are two questions. One, philosophical question, whether under any circumstances, even if thousands of lives can be saved, whether the state should execute anyone. That's a philosophical question, we can debate it. Second, whether it actually has that deterrent effect, we are convinced of it. We believe that it saves a lot of lives and it stops a lot of crimes. Now, therefore, if we believe that it is the best interest of society, Singapore, and if the vast majority of Singaporeans support it, as they do, then do you want us to change policy because four newspapers write about it, talking to the same three activists and quoting the same three activists? And I'm not saying these are precise numbers, but I'm giving you the picture. So, the government policy, if 400 people plus three newspaper articles can change government policy, or if Mr Richard Branson can change government policy, then Singapore would not be where it is today.
Question: Singapore’s tough stance on drugs is well noted. But it is a changing landscape. If you take a look at Thailand, it's legalising, its already legalised marijuana. We take a look at Malaysia. It's mulling over medical Ganja. Against this kind of backdrop, against what its neighbours are doing, how is Singapore.
Minister: Let’s look at thecountries which have had drugs flowing through for some years now. I've given these examples publicly. You've got the Chief of the largest police union in the Netherlands, saying that Netherlands is effectively a narco state. You have Sweden, another well governed country, where there were 257 bombings relating to criminal gangs, related to drugs, 257 bombings. Law and order has now become a serious issue in society. You look at Latin America, Financial Times ran an article, I think last week or the week before, saying that almost all the mainland states in Latin America, South America, have substantial drug gangs operating and you know, they can be considered to be states where significant amount of drugs pass through, criminal gangs terrorise people. Why are we ignoring all of this? And you look at the United States, the life expectancy in the United States for boys is four years less than in comparable countries. And some people who analyse it think that one whole year lost is due to the opioid crisis. You look at all of this, and you tell me that Thailand has allowed cannabis a couple of months or two months ago and Malaysia is talking about it. Let’s look at the facts.
Question: So, are you concerned then, with the neighbouring countries allowing drugs to be legalised? Does it make it even more complicated for Singapore, for you to police?
Minister: Of course it creates more challenges, because the more the availability of drugs, the more challenging it is to deal with it. But by and large, a vast majority of Singaporeans understand that drugs are bad, drugs are bad for society. There is a small group that thinks that it ought to be legalised. And because of the portrayal in popular media, younger people, not the majority, they 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.
Question: So, are we looking at tighter regulations? Will you be monitoring? Will there be… I guess closer surveillance of those coming in from countries like Thailand, like Malaysia?
Minister:The regulations we have, we think are adequate, but the laws, the amount, the kind of evidence that is needed, the assumptions or presumptions that apply, the inferences the courts can draw, these are technical matters, and they are constantly reviewed. And, you know, we have amended the law a number of times and we will amend it as we see necessary.
Question: Do you see greater collaboration among the countries to perhaps deal with the issue? Deal with the potential problems?
Minister: There is significant collaboration with countries but of course, if any particular country changes policy, then the collaboration will be affected by the change in policy.
Question: I want to touch on the non-interference law which has been passed in Singapore. Has it been successful, especially in light of recent developments, like the war in Ukraine, like issues regarding Taiwan?
Minister: I have to say the law was passed but it has not yet come fully into force because we said that we will work out various subsidiary legislation, which are somewhat technical. So the law will be fully brought into force once all that is in place. But we are watching very closely, the developments in Australia, which has taken several steps to deal with this. There are a number of other countries – Israel, India and so on, which have also put in legislation. So, we are looking at their experience. We have a suite of tools to deal with some things, not all, which is why this law was necessary. We hope to bring it fully into force soon.
Question: Soon. I shan’t ask when because you know, let me know. But I'm curious to see, to know what Singapore sees as the biggest challenge that it is trying to address with this non-interference law, where it is concerned.
Minister: It is not just Singapore.
Question: But from Singapore’s perspective?
Minister: Well, what is the problem? Lets define the problem. The problem is that the Internet has allowed both state actors and non-state actors to intervene in your country and pretend to be somebody else. The local police association or local veterans association or something like that, and say inflammatory things, which make people angry with each other and enhance what somebody called the protest potential and create trouble within the country - foreigner or foreign entity - and weaken the country. This is in fact a doctrine. It is even seen as a military doctrine. And interfere in your elections for example, you have seen substantially documented evidence of interference in various elections.
Question: Have you been able to identify perhaps the countries?
Minister: Not in Singapore. We are talking about other countries. It's public. France, US, UK, they all said that they have been targeted.
Question: But for Singapore?
Minister: We have not yet seen substantial interference yet. But if it can happen to others, it can happen to us. So that's why we're taking steps before it happens.
Question: We understand that Singapore was considering an Internet code. Talk to us the thinking behind that.
Minister: The Internet code is done by the Ministry of Communications and Information. And it's really as you know, there is the Broadcasting Act, and there is already a code of practice. I think they are updating it, in consultation with, and discussing with the major platforms. This is not something that only Singapore is doing. I think many countries in the world are doing, talking to the platforms to try and work out something that works for the countries.
Question: And that's going to happen soon?
Minister: That is not something that I am directly in charge of. It is something that's got to be addressed to the Ministry of Communications and Information.
Question: Minister. Singapore is looking at a new leadership. What role do you see yourself playing in this new leadership?
Minister: It's not something that I have given a great deal of thought. Nor do I spend a lot of time at night thinking about.
Question: How do you think you can contribute to the new leadership?
Minister: Well, the new leadership has got to settle amongst itself, who the ministers will be, and what roles some people who are in between the third and fourth generation, and I'm one of the few ministers in between those generations, whether there is some role. But it also depends on how much longer I want to be doing this.
Question: So how much longer would you like to be doing it?
Minister: These are questions I want to discuss with fellow Cabinet colleagues.
Question: There are murmurings on the ground that you could be the next Deputy Prime Minister.
Minister: There are murmurings on the ground as to any number of people being Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister. My advice is to ignore these murmurings, most of them come from people who don't know anything.
Question: What are the biggest challenges you think the new leadership faces?
Minister: There are some challenges that Singapore will always have, has always had and will always have. The fact that it is 760 square kilometers in size and therefore, it doesn't have a hinterland and doesn't have the size of a substantial country, will always impose very substantial challenges for its existence. Those existential questions – and the new leadership will have to deal with that. We will have to continue to see what relevance Singapore has. If Singapore is not relevant to the world, economically and politically, we will just be a piece of barren rock and how do we survive? We survive by being economically relevant, attracting investors, doing things that keep us going, that will always be a challenge as the economic competition heats up.
And there will be other challenges for the aging society. There will be budgetary challenges because with an aging society and healthcare costs going up, and a country with first-world healthcare and living standards. You will need to provide that, but with a reduced manpower base. Where do you get your doctors and your nurses and your allied healthcare workers? I'm just giving you one perspective. So there are economic challenges, there will be significant social challenges all arising from a few factors really – size, the economic competition from outside, the aging society. They have their work cut out.
Interviewer: Minister Shanmugam, pleasure to speak to you.
Minister: Thank you, Haslinda. Pleasure.