SINGAPORE - Portugal's decision to decriminalise drugs in 2001 was suited for its serious public health problem then - but this will not be Singapore's approach, said Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.
The European country's soft approach on drugs has attracted attention globally after this led to a fall in HIV and hepatitis infections, with a student group in Singapore citing Portugal's experience to support its calls for a softer stance on drugs.
But during the debate on his ministry's budget on Friday (March 2), Mr Shanmugam stressed that such an approach is not for Singapore.
He reiterated Singapore's harsh stance on drug abuse, such as the use of the death penalty for convicted drug traffickers.
"Our approach has been effective and works very well for us. We are one of the few countries where the drug situation has been under control, perhaps the country that has been most effective in dealing with the problem," he said.
He noted that currently, the number of opiate abusers in Singapore is fewer than 30 per 100,000 people, compared with 600 in the US and some 500 in Portugal.
During the debate, various MPs, including Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) and Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC), mentioned a 2016 National Council Against Drug Abuse survey which showed that young people are adopting slightly more open attitudes towards drugs, compared with a similar survey in 2013, especially towards cannabis.
Mr Shanmugam noted that many young people are influenced by social media into thinking that it is safe to take cannabis when this is not the case.
"We have to stay firm in the fight against drugs," he said.
Last year, a group here called Students For Liberty cited Portugal as an example of a place where a softer approach on drugs had worked. It said it disagreed that heavy-handed drug prohibition and the death penalty are the best approach to handling the problem.
But Mr Shanmugam said on Friday that it is not all rosy in Portugal.
For example, the lifetime prevalence of drug use in the country has increased since decriminalisation. Surveys also showed that Portuguese students are also trying drugs, and the number of drug-related deaths has also gone up since 2011, Mr Shanmugam said.
In his speech, Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Law Minister, also raised examples of how children here have been subjected to abuse by addicts who were their caregivers.
On Monday, police and Central Narcotics Bureau officers rescued a one-year-old who had been left to two suspected drug traffickers by his caregiver, who is also an addict.
Children, even babies, here had been shoved against walls or dangled out of windows because their caregivers gave in to their addictions, Mr Shanmugam noted.
"Our penalties are severe because we want to deter such offences, not because we take any joy in enforcing them," he said.
Another reason for tough laws is that the regional drug situation remains challenging.
"Our region is home to the Golden Triangle, the largest methamphetamine market," said Mr Shanmugam, adding that the trafficking of heroin and meth in this region is estimated to generate more than US$32 billion (S$42 billion) a year.
"Being a major transport and commercial hub makes us susceptible both as a transit point and import market," he said. "It's beyond our ability to change factors outside of Singapore, what we can do is try and deter criminals from attempting to bring drugs into Singapore."