'A single hanging of a drug trafficker is a tragedy; a million deaths from drug abuse is a statistic'

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam responded to criticism of Singapore's tough policy against drug trafficking in an interview with BBC journalist Stephen Sackur which was aired on his Hardtalk programme on Wednesday (June 29). Here are excerpts from the interview.

Drugs found by ICA officers in May in a car arriving from Malaysia at the Woodlands Checkpoint. PHOTO: CENTRAL NARCOTICS BUREAU

Stephen Sackur: You are 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 (World Health Organisation) report 2021: 500,000 people died, linked to drug abuse, in just one year. More than 70 per cent of that was linked to opioid abuse. United States: 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 I, due in 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 second, 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 was caught with the equivalent of three tablespoonfuls of heroin as he entered Singapore. He had 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 workings 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 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: 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.

Minister: 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. Thirty 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 (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) said that this place is swimming in meth and a record haul of one billion meth tablets were seized in South-east Asia. We are in that situation.

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 convicted of drug 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 Singapore's international reputation 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 (on this case) 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 said about the severe situation in South-east Asia. And what about the thousands of lives that are at stake from drug trafficking? You know, we're not even talking about Mexico.

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: 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 the 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 in 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 that LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning) 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 is 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 the LGBTQ+ community, as well as others. And you know, in a system of Cabinet responsibility, what we are going to do can be announced only 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 multiracial. 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. Ninety-three per cent 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 for 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, a Malay or an Indian starts with, if I remember my numbers right, about a 20 per cent 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 election 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: 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, (there will be) 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 the US and 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 world view, 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, 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... you know, these labels are sometimes used 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. My answer is that we will not choose sides. We will go with what we think is right.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.