Transcript of The Star’s Interview with Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, on 30 August 2022

Published: 30 August 2022

Question: It’s good that we are having this interview with regards to criminal issues affecting both Malaysia and Singapore, particularly Malaysians that were hanged in Singapore, with Nagaenthran Dharmalingam and Kalwant Singh’s cases. There has been a lot of local and international pressure on Singapore to show some clemency with regards to these cases. How do you view this?

Minister: Let me first tell you about our drug policies in general, because that helps set the context when you look at specific cases. 

Our drug laws are tough, and they have been so for nearly 50 years. Why are they tough? Just look at our region. We, Singapore – and Malaysia too – are near major heroin-producing regions, the world centres. Drugs from Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle, plentiful, they flood this region. The UNODC this year published a report. They said that our region is “literally swimming in meth”, and I quote, “the scale and reach of the meth and synthetic drug trade [here] is staggering”. The UNODC went on to say that organised crime “treats the Mekong region like a playground”. So, you have a serious regional situation, a lot of money being made by drug syndicates. Now, if we are not tough in Singapore, we would be flooded with drugs. Look at the countries in the region and the impact of drugs on them. You don’t even need to guess what the result would be, if we are not tough. 

Look around the world. Globally, 500,000 people die annually because of drug use. In the US alone, [there were] 100,000 deaths last year due to drug overdose. Just last week, the Financial Times reported that opioids have reduced US male life expectancy by one year. Every American baby boy born now can expect to live four years less than a child born in other similarly wealthy countries, and that one year less is primarily because of drugs. Look at the cost in terms of lives. In the Netherlands, the largest police union chief described the Netherlands as effectively a “narco-state” because of the free play of drugs. Sweden, a country that we all consider very highly and well-run, in 2019, 257 bombings due to drug-related gang violence. You see in safe, well-governed countries, that these things are happening. If drugs come through in a large scale into Singapore, the number of serious crimes will go up, homicides will go up, and my view – the number of people who die as a result of drug abuse and crime will increase. This is my view based on what we see around the world, and really, not enough attention is being paid to the victims of the drug trade – the children, the families, the victims of crime. 

Our tough policies have kept Singapore safe and relatively drug free, and lots of lives have been saved. In the 1990s, we were arresting about 6,000 drug abusers per year. Now, we are arresting about half that number, about 3,000, even though the population is much larger. So, 3,000 abusers per year, saved. And countless more, if you look at their families, close relatives, and friends. 

Unfortunately, some people, despite knowing our tough laws and position, nevertheless take a chance and try and bring drugs into Singapore, traffic drugs into Singapore for money. They really don’t care about the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of lives they will destroy.

Nagaenthran – you look at the facts, what the Courts found. He was not intellectually disabled. A psychiatrist called by Nagaenthran’s own Defence said that he was not intellectually disabled. The Court held that he was not intellectually disabled. So, you know this thing being repeated about intellectual disability is contrary to the facts. The Court found that he had the “working of a criminal mind”, and that he had carefully calculated his decision, weighed the risks, and decided to take the chance. Nagaenthran brought heroin into Singapore, enough to feed 510 abusers for one whole week. 510 lives. 

You also mentioned Kalwant Singh, the other case, two cases you said. Kalwant Singh trafficked enough heroin to feed more than 2,000 drug abusers for one week. So these people are making money off the misery of others. I can understand the compassion towards Nagaenthran and Kalwant Singh, and we ought to have compassion, but we also need to be compassionate to their victims. And you talk about international pressure and local pressure. I can later on go into statistics with you, there isn’t much pressure. 

Question: It is said that you were instrumental in calling for reviews with regards to tough drug laws in Singapore, particularly mules, carriers. Is Singapore moving towards that, in light of those cases, and in light of what Malaysia is doing right now? We’re having a moratorium and we are looking at reviewing death sentences, giving discretion to the judges. 

Minister: I think there are different parts to your question – whether the mandatory death penalty will be changed to the discretionary death penalty, whether we will follow the Malaysian example of putting a moratorium on the death penalty, and whether there are reviews of the laws. 

Now, there has been a review of our laws. If someone is found to be a pure courier, he was only a courier, and he is able to give substantive assistance in dismantling drug rings, he will be given a certificate and he will not face the death penalty. So that change was made in the laws some years ago. Then Deputy Prime Minister and now Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean and I were involved in those changes. 

In terms of Malaysia and the death penalty, I have explained to you why we have the death penalty in Singapore, and our laws are effective, I have explained to you how our laws are effective. Traffickers, both from Malaysia and other places, who think about trafficking or who may want to traffic drugs into Singapore, are aware of our laws, and are aware that our laws are very strict and therefore they are very careful. 

Our evidence shows that they consciously bring in amounts into Singapore which are below the threshold for capital punishment, so that constraints the supply of drugs. Why? Because they, like any other rational person, want to avoid the death penalty. Some take the chance, but many avoid it. So, our policy works, and in fact, is saving more lives in Singapore. It saves more lives than the number of people who face the death penalty. 

Malaysia has to define the laws and policies for Malaysia. Likewise, Singaporeans will have to decide the laws and policies for Singapore, based on what works for us. 

Question: Most of the cases which involved Malaysians – they have been caught for drug trafficking or, as you said, trying to smuggle drugs to Singapore. Is there a figure which Minister has? Those who are facing capital punishment, and those, like what Minister said, are smuggling just below the threshold? 

Minister: I can give you the number of Malaysians whose cases are concluded and who are facing capital punishment. There are 10 Malaysians in Singapore who are facing the death penalty. You know, there are still some processes, like clemency processes, to be dealt with. I think they were mostly convicted for trafficking, but the number who have been charged and whose cases are at various stages, I do not have the figures off-hand. They may or may not face the death penalty.

Question: So, there are still 10 Malaysians who are on death row, right now?

Minister: Yes.

Question: Looking at the drug war. As what Minister said, we are situated basically, in the heart of the Golden Triangle. Based on a UN report recently – synthetic drugs, is it becoming a problem with regards to it being smuggled? They do not require large areas to produce. How is Singapore dealing with this? 

Minister: Last year, over one billion meth tablets were seized in this region. And not just that, as I mentioned earlier, the UNODC is saying the region is literally swimming in meth, organised crime has all the ingredients in place to treat the region like a playground, and UNODC said that due to the huge supply of meth in the region, prices of the drug have decreased even further. So, it is becoming, ironically, more affordable and accessible. That is a very serious situation. All of us, including Malaysia, I think, need to take this seriously if we want to protect lives.

Question: With regards to the trafficking and smuggling of drugs, what sort of drugs do they involve? Do they involve synthetic drugs or basically heroin, what sort of drugs? 

Minister: You have all sorts. You have cannabis, you have heroin, you have new psychoactive substances because people can go into the chemistry and make new drugs, you have meth – a variety. Because it is so profitable, people do everything.

Question: How is Singapore looking at Thailand? Thailand has just recently legalised using cannabis, including planting your own. In Malaysia, we have had this problem of people crossing over, and doing a urine test when they come back to Malaysia. How is Singapore looking at its policies on this?

Minister: Thailand has decided to go down this way. 

If you look at Singapore, our own policies are based on science and research, and so if you look at the science and research, for example on cannabis, it is clear that the use is both harmful and addictive. It is harmful, and because it is addictive, it is even more harmful. Studies show quite clearly that regular cannabis use causes irreversible brain damage. It causes brain shrinkage. It causes serious mental and psychiatric illnesses.

So, you know, whatever money that you make, some governments go down this route. We know in the West they have done it because they think oh well, you know, we can tax trade rather than having it underground. But they are finding that the amount of money they are spending on healthcare is now beginning to outstrip whatever tax benefits they are getting. And legalisation is not such an easy route. 

And you know there are people who say cannabis may have medical benefits. Look, if a pharma company is pushing cannabis on the basis that it has medical benefits, I will be very sceptical because they want to make money. If a reputable medical association says they need cannabis for medical use, then we will take it seriously and in Singapore, we leave it to the doctors. If the doctors assess that the treatments are necessary for the recovery, or for the patient, then we allow it. They can apply, and we will consider and approve it. But I'll be careful when pharma companies are the ones who are pushing it, or NGOs which are financed by pharma companies. The opioid crisis in the US to a large extent has been unleashed by pharma companies after a quick buck.

So, if you look at the situation in Thailand, which you mentioned, when cannabis was decriminalised on 9th June, it started appearing everywhere – toothpaste, cookies, popsicles, drinks. So, the government got a bit concerned, the public was also concerned. The government made a U-turn. The Governor of Bangkok then issued an order for all government schools in Bangkok to be cannabis-free. And smoking cannabis in public was banned, sale to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers was banned, and so on. So, they rushed to protect the minors and vulnerable part of the population, but I think maybe it was not so easy, because cannabis appeared everywhere in cookies, as I said, in toothpaste and everything, in drinks. Wherever you go, every side you turn, it is there. How do vendors say oh, you are a breastfeeding mother, or you are a pregnant lady? It is not so easy to enforce these rules. And we assess Singaporeans, we do surveys, Singaporeans really do not want to be in that situation in Singapore.

Question: So, it is accurate to say that Singapore is not going down that path? It is more towards, as you said, based on science, and medical proof? 

Minister: We base ourselves on science. 

Question: And at this present time, it is not something which Singaporeans would like to go down that path? 

Minister: I would put it in three aspects. You look at science and research, it is quite clear that the effect is harmful, very damaging. And how does the Singapore government, if we want to be responsible to our people, how do we then recommend that it be available? Government policy must be to persuade our population that this is not good. Second, if you look at the population and the surveys, a large majority support the Government's position. 

Question: Another interesting development is that the Singaporean Police and the Malaysian Police, including the Thai Police, have been working very closely with regards to online scams. I think there was some recent success where both the Malaysian Police and the Singapore Police managed to cripple two large syndicates which were actually operating on both sides of the fence, and duping both Singaporeans and Malaysians at the same time. Do you see now, with cyber crimes increasing and being more rampant, do you see Singaporeans and Malaysians working towards combatting this issue, same as what we are doing with drugs? 

Minister: Cybercrimes is a fairly recent phenomenon. But Singapore and Malaysia, on the law enforcement side, across the different law enforcement agencies, work very closely together. They have worked very closely together ever since Singapore's independence. Because of the Causeway and the easy movement of people, you know, the law enforcement agencies have been very responsible and rational. People who do crimes in Malaysia will try and run to Singapore and then fly out of Singapore. People who commit crimes in Singapore will try and run across the Causeway and then try and hide in Malaysia, or go across the border to Thailand, or take the plane out of KL. So, this is a common modus operandi, and for a very long time, I will say the cooperation between Malaysia and Singapore law enforcement agencies has been excellent, and it continues in the cybercrime field.

Question: There was a recent success case, where they arrested a couple trying to get across into Malaysia. 

Minister: They had crossed into Malaysia, and they were hiding in Malaysia. 

Question: Besides war on drugs, can we move towards racial harmony? Singapore just celebrated its Independence Day. We are celebrating ours tomorrow on 31 Aug. Being a multi-racial society, how is Singapore dealing with interracial unity and relations between the various races? 

Minister: Singapore became independent in August 1965, 57 years ago. We became independent, we were moved out of the Federation of Malaysia, as it were, because we had a different view from Malaysia on how the races should relate to each other. 

On the very first day of our existence as an independent state, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said this, and these words, I think all Singaporeans know. He said: “This is not a Malay nation, this is not a Chinese nation and this is not an Indian nation. This is a nation for all Singaporeans.”

On the day of independence, a group of senior Chinese businesspersons went to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and said: “The Chinese population is 75% and Mandarin should be the official language of Singapore, now that we are out of Malaysia.” And, if you look at it logically, if you go to France, the majority speak French. If you go to Germany, majority speak German. If you go to the UK or the US, the language of the majority, English, is then the official language and the business language. In Malaysia, the situation is similar even though people speak different languages. 

But in Singapore, we made a conscious choice, which is a different choice. As an independent state, we were determined to be multiracial and multi-religious. We have four official languages. But we decided that the language of business and public service, government, should be English because it is common. Whether you are Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian or any race – English is a common language. Unless of course you are an Englishman, but you look at the majority of races in Singapore. Our pledge is in English, our national anthem is in Malay. 

We also put in safeguards. One of the first Constitutional Amendments we made as an independent country was to have a Presidential Council for Minority Rights, which will look at all legislation. And if it feels that any particular Bill is discriminatory against any racial or religious community, it can send the Bill back to Parliament. The Chief Justice heads it, the Attorney-General is there. 

So, we took a different path from Malaysia. The Chinese who formed 75% of the population in Singapore accepted and agreed to and supported that path. It is a very high ideal, but we have come far. Let me share a simple statistic. 80% of Singapore residents stay in HDB flats. That is close to 3.5 million people, staying in high density housing, right next to each other. And because of our policies, all of the major ethnic communities stay in certain proportions in every estate. In 2020, we had 60 police reports of people who said they were racially abused. That is less than two reports per 100,000 people. And if you look at the police reports, in many other places, most people won’t even consider that kind of subject matter, usually verbal abuse, as a matter to be reported. To me that is remarkable – two per 100,000 people. Of course, there will be others which are not reported but the point I am making to you is that this statistic tells you something. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t mean there is no racism. There is racism in Singapore, as there is in every country with different races, particularly where there is a majority and minority, both casual racism as well as racism in other settings. It is a continuous work in progress, you’ve got to keep trying to work at it to reduce it. And once in a while, there will also be high profile incidents. In 2019, a Chinese man was caught vandalising MRT stations, he was putting up graffiti saying “Malay Mati”. We charged him, and he went to jail. More recently, Police investigated a Chinese polytechnic lecturer who lashed out at an interracial couple – the woman was Thai-Chinese and her partner was Indian-Filipino. The lecturer said that Indians should not be preying on Chinese girls. This man was charged in Court. If you go around the world, I am not sure that in many other countries, such a matter would be charged.  

When these things happen, we deal with them, but understand that multiracialism is always a work in progress. 

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was sworn in as Prime Minister, there was a famous photo. The Chief Justice and the President were present for the swearing in of the Prime Minister, they oversee it. So, you have a Chinese Prime Minister, an Indian Chief Justice, and a Malay President. Now, the photo conveys many messages, more than intended, but it conveys. I think that is quite different from how it works in many countries. In Singapore, we have all races working together, at all levels, and we will keep working at it. 

Question: Do you find it very challenging or do you feel that it is a very daunting task to keep racial harmony intact in Singapore? 

Minister: I would say you have to work very hard, and a lot of the work is not seen. I’ll describe it this way. First, you need the legal framework to tell people what cannot be done, meaning you cannot go around abusing others on the basis of race or religion, what you can’t do. But having laws which say you can’t do this, and you can’t do that, and you can’t be nasty – I am paraphrasing – is not enough, because that does not mean there will be harmony. You will need to do a lot of work to make sure there is harmony.

So in the housing estates, we have policies, we call it the Ethnic Integration Policy. You have Malays, Indians, Chinese, all required to live in housing estates in certain proportions, so that you do not have an estate that becomes completely Chinese, or completely Malay or completely Indian. Everyone has got to learn to live with each other. So, you have that – housing policies.

In schools, our races are integrated. National Service – where males serve two years of National Service, it is integrated, people next to each other, learning how to defend the country. And we bring it across in all sectors. Also, community events. We have what is called Resident’s Committees in all housing estates, based on constituencies. We have community leaders, and they organise gatherings. We celebrate all the different festivals – Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Deepavali, Christmas, and then of course the non-religious holidays like New Year. Everything is celebrated, all the races come together. We celebrate each other’s festivals, and there is a group community bonding. I am not saying therefore it is 100 per cent, but we try, and we try to bring it across in every way possible, so a lot of effort is required. It doesn’t happen by chance.

Question: Would you say it has been quite successful for Singapore? 

Minister: Well, it is one of the racially most diverse places in the world, and I think we rank quite high when it comes to racial harmony, if you look at indices which measure this. 

Question: The Singaporean Prime Minister, in his National Day Address, said that Singapore has to remain united because he sees some challenges coming in both due to the regional and global situation and I would say even climate change. How is your Ministry coping with this and translating this into actual reality? 

Minister: Well, it is a whole-of-government effort. If you say climate change, it is under a separate ministry, but all of us have a part to play in how conscious we are of wastage, what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. It is a requirement in every ministry. But across Singapore, that will be another ministry, couple of other ministries, which take charge of that.

Remaining united, my ministry has a big role in trying to work on racial harmony, again, together with other ministries. We think long-term about it. We look at what is happening on the ground, and we work with other ministries on what policies there ought to be and what executive actions there ought to be to both avoid disharmony and promote harmony.

Question: In terms of regional cooperation with ASEAN members? 

Minister: We work closely. If you look at my ministry, we work closely with Malaysia, of course, our closest partner when it comes to law enforcement. But we work with the other countries, both regionally and internationally. Don’t forget, we have one of the global headquarters of Interpol in Singapore, where police officers from different countries, including the region, come and station here, and that allows for closer and easier coordination. 

Question: Maybe we can take one final question before we end this interview. It is back to capital punishment cases again. We have this group here called Lawyers for Liberty, and they are seeking a declaration that the Singapore government cannot enforce extra-territorial laws especially with regard to these NGO groups. They are speaking up against capital punishment in Singapore. Will you appear if you are called to the Malaysian courts?

Minister: We need to be clear about the issue here. What happens in Malaysia is for Malaysia. They are seeking various declaration in the Malaysian Courts – that is for Malaysia’s Courts to decide. What LFL says, this NGO, is that there is a law in Singapore that they disagree with, so they went to the Malaysian Courts to say that the law is not enforceable. I just need to be clear that we are not seeking to enforce it anywhere outside of Singapore. Certainly, we are not seeking to enforce it in Malaysia. 

And there will be many groups in Singapore which disagree with the many laws in Malaysia. And, you know, I think as long as Malaysia is not seeking to enforce Malaysian laws in Singapore, this is a matter of international comity. Countries’ laws are enforced within their own countries, and you don’t seek to enforce your laws outside of your own countries. So, our view and our position is that the law applies in Singapore. It’s for the Malaysian court to decide on what LFL is saying, but we certainly don't seek to enforce our laws outside of Singapore. And I really shouldn’t comment too much, because the matter is before the Malaysian courts. But I want to be clear – Singapore has never, in this context, sought to enforce our laws outside of Singapore and to any other country. 

Question: Minister, do you still have anything else to maybe tell us, or give advice to Malaysians with regards to law enforcement, particularly with regards to the war on drugs, cybercrimes, which are getting rampant? 

Minister: I would be very careful about trying to give advice to others. Our situations are different. Singapore is an urban city, much smaller; Malaysia has different land space, geography, and also cities but also rural centres, rural areas. I think we need to be careful about giving advice to each other. We work in the interest of Singaporeans, and it has been good speaking with you, to explain Singapore’s position in the context because various things have been said about Malaysians facing capital punishment when they traffic drugs into Singapore. And so, it was good to speak with you and explain why our drug laws are tough and why they’re equally applied.

Perhaps I can go back to the question or comment that you made about local and international pressure and whether that would affect the way we see capital punishment. First if you look locally, nearly seven in 10, or 70% of our population say that the mandatory death penalty is appropriate for drug trafficking. When you talk about murder, about eight in 10, or 80% of our population, say that there should be the mandatory death penalty. Of course, that means that 20% to 30% disagree on whether there should be the mandatory death penalty. But the overwhelming majority agree.

Second, there is a small group of people and some of them work closely with foreign embassies and so on, and foreign media. They push their anti-death penalty views. Now, don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t sum up the totality of people who have anti-death penalty views. There are lots of genuine people, sincere, who take the view that the death penalty is not the right penalty to be applied. They are part of that 20% to 30% that I spoke about. But there are also some who exploit the death penalty issue for other reasons, and they work closely with foreign embassies and foreign media. So, you have different types of people. Now, it is their right to speak out, but we ought to be careful. They are not reflective of the majority views.

And you refer to international pressure. I assume you're referring to international media – Washington Post, BBC and one or two others, Reuters, and so on. Frankly, the reporting by them on Singapore and the death penalty is filtered through their own ideological lens. They're not looking at the facts. So, they will go and interview two people, three people, and then quote, the very same people. In fact, many different articles will quote the very same people who oppose the death penalty. It’s like you structure a story, you want a start and end, you know who is going to oppose the death penalty, you go and get two quotes from them, and then you write up a story as if all Singaporeans oppose the death penalty. You won’t, by reading these articles, you won’t get the impression that 70% of Singaporeans support the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking. So, I say – what pressure? Because these people don’t bother with the facts. It reflects more on them than on the local situation. This sort of reporting on Singapore, we are used to. For more than 50 years, we have been given advice that we should be more like their systems, and the Western media have been critical of Singapore. In their eyes, we do many things wrong, and what strikes them particularly hard is that we are successful despite not listening to them. And you know, my approach is – look, we have ignored them, and we have prospered. Our streets are clean; our education, housing and healthcare are world class; our crime rate is low. I'm happy for Singapore to be compared to other cities, and Singaporeans know the difference.

And even if some Western media correspondents – and I don’t say all Western media takes this approach – some, you know, even if some of them have difficulties accepting the facts. I told the BBC in a recent interview – in the six months from November 2021 to May 2022, they ran four articles on one drug trafficker, Nagaenthran, who was facing the death penalty in Singapore. Four articles. One of the articles was a headline, placed even above the Ukraine war. So, in their view, that merited a premium position, above the Ukraine war. So, I told them – one death or one capital punishment imposed on a drug trafficker is a tragedy; millions dying from the impact of drugs, drug abuse, is just a statistic. They don’t report on the UNODC, they don’t report on how many people die. And a staggeringly bad drug situation in this region – no reports.

So, you know for Singapore, you talk about pressure. We let the reality of our international standing speak for itself. We are seen as one of the safest cities in the world, and there has been a flight to quality in recent years. People look for countries that are well run, safe, and that they are comfortable to work and invest in. Last year, Singapore attracted nearly $12 billion of assets in foreign direct investments. If you look at the total stock of foreign direct investments to us – more than $2 trillion in 2020, of which half was made up by the US and EU. 4,000 American companies and more than 10,000 European companies have set up in Singapore. Businesses and high net worth individuals want to relocate to Singapore. The number of family offices setting up in Singapore has grown and our Permanent Resident (PR) and Singapore Citizen (SC) facilities are tremendously oversubscribed, people wanting to become PRs and SCs.

When we talk about international pressure, I think we should remember some history. Who was the greatest drug pusher in history? It was the British Raj. They pushed two wars in China over opium. They brought untold misery back then. 27% of China's male population – it's 13.5 million people in total, out of a total population of 400 million – were opium addicts. A big reason why they established a port in Singapore was to establish the opium trade. So, opium was produced in India, and shipped through Singapore to the rest of the world. Globalisation, under the British Raj. As a result, in Singapore, we also had more than 100,000 opium addicts at one point in time. So, the methods and people involved may have changed, but the impact of drugs is possibly even worse today. And we are determined to protect ourselves from the damage that drugs do.

Question: True, especially now with new opioids coming out, chemical drugs and modern synthetic drugs, it’s destroying some societies. Okay, thank you so much, Minister, for your time.

Minister: Thank you, Martin.