Standing firm against pressure to soften stance on drugs

Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam set out how Singapore is strengthening its fight against drugs during a debate in Parliament on Tuesday. Below is an excerpt of his speech.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that in 2014, there were nearly 250 million drug abusers in the world and 200,000 died from drug-related causes.

The global conversation is about a softer stance on drugs. Seductive arguments, using pseudo-science and glamourising drugs. They do create a challenging environment for us to keep Singapore drug-free. But if you look at evidence, if you look at the US, for opioid abuse, the prescriptions went up threefold since 1999, fuelled by people relying on and accepting questionable evidence that these are benign pain remedies. And because of diversions and misuse, thousands get hooked onto it and then guess what happens? They move on to heroin. Now you get - as The New York Times published - 33,000 deaths per year, 90 a day.

For those with bleeding hearts who talk about the inmates on death row, I think they should think about these 33,000 deaths. What percentage do you want in Singapore? What about their families, their children? Why not spend some time with them, rather than just crying with the people on the death row?

The same arguments that were used to try and get opioids allowed are now being used for cannabis legislation. The arguments if you look at them - evocative but little clinical evidence.

I said at the United Nations, I do not want human rights groups preaching to me about the medical value of cannabis. If a respectable medical association is prepared to tell me that this ought to be prescribed as medicine, we will look at it. But what did the American Medical Association say? That there is inconclusive evidence for this.

Now, science is always evolving, and if science evolves to a different stage, we are practical people and we rely on facts. But today, this is the science.

Even when we go to these international conferences, the NGOs which support legalisation come out with brochures which are glitzy, which are very attractive, evocative. They are all financed by the pharmaceutical companies. Those who oppose legalisation, those who take a stand similar to Singapore's, if you look at the material you would not want to look at them again because no one is financing them. There is a huge commercial motive for legalisation and that is driving this in many countries. There are other factors. Many countries have lost the fight. They cannot control domestic drug abuse and so after having lost tens of thousands of lives, they move to focusing on public health issues - HIV.

Traffic Police and anti-narcotics officers in Lentor Avenue where a suspected drug trafficker and a woman were arrested after a car chase in February. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people are arrested a year for drug offences. PHOTO: LIANHE WANBAO

So you gather an alliance with commercial interests and countries saying we cannot handle this anymore. They are now saying, let us create a new international norm. Well, I do not have a problem if they change their rules. But I do have a problem if they want to change international norms and say every country should follow that. We will not be pressured. That is the international situation.


What is the local situation? We have some challenges. The first challenge is increased supply. We are near the Golden Triangle, which is the second-largest opium source in the world. And Afghanistan has become a major producer. In order to get its stock to the West, sometimes, or quite often, they seem to want to take the route through South-east Asia.

Our region is the fastest growing methamphetamine market. We are a major transport hub. Two hundred million people go through our shores - airports, shores, land checkpoints. Because of the wealth factor, our people can pay. Therefore, it is an attractive destination, both as a transhipment and as a destination source. That is one major challenge.

The second major challenge is drug peddling sales online. You can have anonymous transactions. You can have parcels coming in from any part of the world. That creates a challenge.

We also face a challenge from new drugs - new psychoactive substances where people take drugs and mix them with contaminants to lower the cost. There are rogue chemists who modify pharmaceuticals. Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), for example, in the past two years, has seized more than 3.5kg and 4,000 tablets of New Psychoactive Substances, which have been falsely marketed as both being legal and safe.

Another separate challenge is the new attitudes of our young people. There is a certain perception, glamourised through media, and outside of this country, that drugs are cool and cannabis is non-addictive. If we are not careful, they can become our next generation of abusers.

And there is a changing profile of abusers. Last year, 40 per cent of those who were arrested for abuse were less than 30 years old. They are mixed - they are students, professionals, people who are well-educated, good jobs, new groups of Singaporeans trying drugs. Parents may think it is not their children. But in the past three years, we have picked up more than 350 students. All levels - from primary schools to tertiary - and all backgrounds, with as well as without, a background of substance abuse in the family. Working professionals - last year, more than 70 in professional jobs, managers, including accountants and engineers.

Drug abusers committed 12 per cent of other crimes. That is another worrying statistic. Eighty-three per cent of those in our prison are in there for either substance abuse, or they have a history of substance abuse even though the particular crime they committed was not related to drugs. So you can see how much drugs can impact our lives. It destroys you. These are all statistics, facts.

Let me give you an example of what it does. They call him "Edy" - a young boy, six years old. Both parents jailed for drugs. He happened to be in the care of another person called Johan. Johan was also a drug abuser. It forms an ecosystem, a separate subculture. Johan slapped Edy around, stomped on him repeatedly, a six-year-old boy, and killed him. He dumped his body by the Kallang River.

You know there are thousands of such cases, not in Singapore, but around the world. Most of you might have heard of "Noinoi". She had a stepfather - Johari - abusing cannabis, cough syrups. He brought her home as a shield to hide his own abuse. He thought that having her there with him would prevent detection. She was only two years old. She was crying and he could not take it. He dumped her in a pail and killed her.

Those who think we should go soft on drugs, on punishment, what is your solution to the thousands of "Edys" and "Noinois" around the world, who are neglected, abused and suffering?


We will maintain a tough stance, and we will step up. We will review our strategy for the new challenges. It will be targeted, it will differentiate between those who supply and cause harm, versus those who are abusers. Where possible, we will employ a data-based and science-based approach.

1st defence: Preventive drug education

Our first line of defence has got to be education - preventive drug education. So we work, and we have worked for decades, with the Ministry of Education (MOE) - school talks, lesson plans, so that our young people understand.

Our people are going over to Iceland to look at how they send the messages across.

We have to work with parents because the parents are key influencers. The National Council Against Drug Abuse survey shows that if a parent interacts with children about drugs, they talk to their children, the risk that the child will take drugs is much lower. We have produced a parents' toolkit for that.

Young people are also heavily influenced by peer influence and environmental influence. We need to grow a pool of anti-drug advocates amongst their peers, amongst young people's peers. We need volunteers, we need more individuals, we need more organisations, societies, interest groups, businesses.

CNB will launch a United Against Drugs Coalition later this month, and also review the way it puts across messages. We need to mobilise the ground. First, education. Second, effective enforcement and tough laws are part of it.

Last year, CNB crippled 23 syndicates. We have to increase our partnerships with overseas counterparts and we have to tackle the new online supply menace. Keeping our laws effective for deterrence and enforcement is a top priority.

The current survey that I referred to also shows the very strong support for our tough laws. And people want us to be tougher on those who harm society and those who bring drugs in, and those who provided to others, especially young people, those who encourage others. And we will have to study how we deal with these New Psychoactive Substances, how we amend the schedules and what we need to do.

Members spoke about the amendments in 2012 to the mandatory death penalty scheme in the context of drug trafficking. We gave the courts more discretion where the courier is certified to have provided substantial assistance. It has been helpful, the information provided has contributed to the arrests of almost 90 drug traffickers.

What role does the death penalty play in this? It is an important part of our comprehensive anti-drug regime. And as I said, part of the overall approach which would not work on its own, but is a part of an overall set of measures. Good judicial process, rule of law, enforcement, tough laws, education, rehabilitation, and also DRC (Drug Rehabilitation Centre) and LT (Long-Term Imprisonment regime).

Remember, this fight is never won. We are in a difficult situation, being close to drug producing countries and we have maintained the death penalty as deterrence against trafficking. The quantity of drugs that you need to have in your possession before the death penalty kicks in, before the presumption clause kicks in, is enough heroin to supply 180 people for seven days. That is a large amount of drugs, that is a large amount of people whose lives you are willing to destroy, and you multiply that by their family members.

And what is the regional situation? In Malaysia, registered drug abusers numbered 280,000, as reported by The New Straits Times. In Indonesia, 5.9 million drug abusers.

What is the nature of the drug trade today? The financing comes from one country, could be manufactured somewhere in some terrace house somewhere nearby Singapore, and couriers are easily available because they want to make some money.

Do you believe the death penalty has some deterrent value? If you are somewhere outside Singapore, maybe Malaysia or Indonesia, and if you knew that the likelihood of being caught is pretty high and that if you are caught with that amount of drugs, you are most likely to face the death penalty, does that or does that not amount to deterrence? It is a matter of common sense. Why do you think the drug kingpins are not in Singapore?

Just remember that trafficking is a cold, calculated offence. It is a transaction. The person decides to take a risk with his life when he comes to Singapore for the sake of money. So do not tell me that they are poor, impecunious and desperate. They make a calculation. They do not mind impacting the lives of 180 people each time.

2nd defence: Effective enforcement, tough laws

In the early 1990s, we were arresting between 6,000 and 7,000 people per year. Today, we are arresting between 2,000 and 3,000 per year. Even if you take the lower end of the figures, 3,000 now and 6,000 then. That is 3,000 less per year over a 20-year period and assuming it came down, you are talking about tens of thousands - maybe forty, fifty thousand lives saved because our enforcement ability has not gone down. We are arresting less people. That means our demand for drugs has gone down. Every person not arrested, who has not become an abuser, is a life saved. So we have saved maybe forty, maybe fifty thousand lives, maybe more.

If all things were equal between the 1990s and today, we were arresting six to seven thousand then, the number should be higher now, right, since we are wealthier now and the drug production has increased and it has become more of a multinational enterprise. So perhaps it should have doubled, we should be arresting about 18,000. But we are actually arresting less people. We have saved lives.

In public policymaking, you need a soft heart. You need compassion and that is what defines a civilised human being. But you can never have a soft head. If the heart alone rules policy, you are done for. As Minister for Home Affairs, I don't have the right to give effect to any suggestion which I believe will harm thousands of people and ruin our society. In fact, it is my duty to do the reverse.

Support for our penalties amongst our population, as you know, as Members know, is very high. Reach did a poll last year. Eighty per cent supported retaining the death penalty. Ten per cent wanted to abolish it. Ten per cent had no position or refused to answer. Eighty-two per cent agreed that it was an important deterrent to keep Singapore safe from serious crimes. National University of Singapore (NUS) conducted a survey on public opinion in 2016. Again, even in their survey, public support for the death penalty was very high. Seventy per cent of the respondents were in favour.

But asked specifically what the penalty should be for intentional murder, trafficking illegal drugs, and discharging a firearm, the proportion in favour of the death penalty was even higher, ranging from 86 per cent to 92 per cent. But the NUS survey also presented a nuanced picture of public support for the death penalty. The support dropped when this question was asked - that if it can be shown that the death penalty was no more effective as a deterrent to others like life imprisonment, or a very long prison sentence, that means it is not effective, you can substitute it with something else - if you ask people that question, the support then drops. When it suggested that innocent people could have been executed, then the support drops.

If a certain framework is put into the question, and you get a number and you come to the Government and say change your policy, we have to look at the questions you asked. But in any event, this is one of those areas where the Government has the duty to assess the facts carefully, the data carefully, and come to the best judgment that it can.

As I have said in public, no government glorifies in having the death penalty or imposing it on anyone. How can anyone be happy about it? If they do it, they do it with a heavy heart. But you do it because of a greater public good. And you do it based on your best judgment and assessment, not on the basis of advice given by people who argue from an ideological point of view. We are not dogmatic about this. We will listen to arguments. We will listen to people. We will listen to anyone with a good point of view, and we will make up our mind.

3rd defence: Rehabilitation

Abusers must be committed to kicking the habit. The incarceration periods are looked at regularly, whether it is for DRC, or whether it is for LT1, LT2. There is a certain reason why we structured it as DRC and then LT1 and LT2. There is some methodology behind it, and we continuously review the methodology. But in the end it has to first serve as a deterrence and second, keep society from being harmed by individuals.

Every abuser has different risk levels and different motivational factors. Our prisons system tailors rehabilitation accordingly. So other programmes include family programmes, skills training, and religious services. For lower risk inmates, they have a day release programme, they go for work or study during the day, minimises disruption. They are placed on community-based programmes to reconnect to the community, to help them transition to normal life. Some are at halfway houses, some go home and community support is instrumental, we recognise that. And since 1995, 15,000 DRC inmates have gone through the community-based programme with an 85 per cent completion rate.

4th defence: Family and community support

There are structured family programmes in prisons, skills to strengthen the bonds, joint sessions with the family. Now I am not saying by all means, any means, that it is perfect and that it cannot be improved or that we are where we want to be. But we have thought about these things, we have introduced these and it continues to be refined, changed, worked on.

Families will also need help. Singapore Prison Service has set up a Family Resource Centre, it's got a Yellow Ribbon community project to encourage families to visit abusers in DRCs. Family relationships are complex, different families, different types of relationships. It requires long-term effort, even after release. So we have volunteers who continue to follow up via Yellow Ribbon community project. We have talked to the Association of Muslim Professionals and they have said they will come in to provide family casework in their new family rehabilitation programme. Let me share a story.

He started abusing drugs in his teens, 20 years. He abused heroin, ice, alcohol. At one point he lost his family support. He couldn't even face himself. Then he went to Pertapis halfway house. Things changed. He was moved and struck by the unwavering support from the staff of Pertapis. He has now been clean for more than two years. And he is paying it forward. He is now the chairman of the family support group for Pertapis. And he strongly believes in not giving up on abusers even when their families have given up on them. He himself has experienced how community support has changed lives.

For young drug abusers, the emphasis has to be on rehabilitation, so that they can have a drug-free life ahead of them. So we have a variety of programmes. If they are below the age of 21, they undergo counselling and casework management for a period of six months, and that's non-residential. If they are of moderate risk, they are then sent to the Community Rehabilitation Centre (CRC). They started operations in 2014 and that allows them to continue with their education and employment in the day with minimal disruption. Higher risk young people who require more intensive rehabilitation, they will be in the DRC. Even in there, we have split it into low risk, moderate risk and high risk and different types of treatment for the three categories.

We also started the Anti-Drug Counselling and Engagement or ACE programme which was started last year for young drug abusers who have confessed to drug abuse but for one reason or another they have tested negative in the urine test. This is a three-month programme and includes counselling and we equip them with skills to cope with their addictions. We keep their parents involved. But two hands need to clap - oftentimes we find that the parents are not willing to come forward. So I've asked my people to consider whether legislatively we can do something, that the parents also have a duty.

On the international front, we don't want to be isolated. Within Asean, members have their domestic situation and they may take different approaches. But they sign up to a stand refusing to accept the legalisation of drugs. They continue to support criminalisation and there's an Asean coalition supporting it and there are a few other countries which adopt the same approach. We cooperate together in the international arena. We have to have a sensible dialogue with others of a different persuasion and perhaps agree that they have their own viewpoint and we have our own viewpoint. Different countries should be allowed to have different viewpoints.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2017, with the headline 'Standing firm against pressure to soften stance on drugs'. Print Edition | Subscribe