Portugal's soft approach on drugs not suited for S'pore: Shanmugam

Tough stance effective, he says, amid MPs' concerns of more open attitudes of youth here

A country better known for wine and footballer Cristiano Ronaldo came in for discussion in Parliament yesterday, when Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam reiterated Singapore's tough stance on drugs.

Portugal's softer approach on drugs - it decriminalised drugs in 2001 - has attracted attention globally after this led to a fall in HIV and hepatitis infections.

But Mr Shanmugam stressed that such an approach is not for Singapore, which adopts a harsh stance on drugs, including 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 during the debate on his ministry's budget.

He noted that currently, the number of opiate abusers in Singapore is fewer than 30 per 100,000 people, compared with 600 in the United States and some 500 in Portugal.

Various MPs, including Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) and Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC), had raised concerns about how young people in Singapore are adopting slightly more open attitudes towards drugs, especially cannabis.

Last year, a group in Singapore 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 were the best approach to handling the problem.

WORRYING TRENDS

In April and May last year, news articles investigating attitudes towards drugs among Singaporeans and among South-east Asian students in Australian universities captured a picture of prevalent drug abuse and more open-minded attitude towards drugs. As overseas education has risen steadily over the past few years across all countries, this part of the mindshare is something we might want to watch closely. Even though there may be shifting attitudes towards drugs, we must not cave in to the defeatist narrative of the West, which promotes legalisation of 'recreational' drugs. There is nothing 'recreational' about seeing whole families suffer physical, economic and mental harm across generations.

HOLLAND-BUKIT TIMAH GRC MP CHRISTOPHER DE SOUZA, on worrying trends in Singapore's anti-drug fight.

But Mr Shanmugam noted that Portugal was having a serious public health problem on its hands, with many heroin abusers sharing contaminated needles and spreading diseases, when it decided to decriminalise drugs.

Singapore was fortunately not in such a situation, he said.

In any case, it is not all rosy in Portugal, said Mr Shanmugam.

For example, the lifetime prevalence of drug use in the country has increased since decriminalisation. Surveys also showed that more Portuguese students are trying drugs, and the number of drug-related deaths has gone up since 2011.

Mr Shanmugam, who is also Law Minister, said activists campaigning for a softer drug policy "light candles for traffickers" but forget about the victims of drugs.

He cited as examples children who have been abused by caregivers who are drug addicts.

Children, even babies, here have 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 the regional drug situation, he said.

"Our region is home to the Golden Triangle, the largest methamphetamine market," said Mr Shanmugam, noting 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2018, with the headline 'Portugal's soft approach on drugs not suited for S'pore: Shanmugam'. Print Edition | Subscribe