Why It Matters

Keeping to own drug-free model

Last week, the United Nations General Assembly held a special session to discuss the issue of drugs for the first time since 1998, amid growing calls for reforms to the global war on drugs.

Back in 1998, the UN had set the goal of making the world drug-free by 2008. Now that this goal has clearly failed, some countries are pushing to decriminalise or legalise drug use.

Some others advocate an approach called harm reduction, where policies minimise the ill effects of drugs such as by providing clean needles for drug abusers or safe, supervised injection sites.

But harm reduction is said to be irrelevant here as Singapore is relatively drug-free - arrested drug abusers comprise less than 0.1 per cent of its population. Instead, Singapore has reiterated that it is aiming to prevent, rather than reduce, harm.

Last Wednesday, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam declared at the UN that Singapore will not soften its zero-tolerance policy. "Show us a model that works better, that delivers a better outcome for citizens, and we will consider changing. If that cannot be done, then don't ask us to change."

Last month, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Lee also rejected calls at a UN meeting to prepare for the special session that the drug problem be framed purely as a "public health issue". He said there were also public security concerns if drug abuse takes root.

When it comes to calls to legalise cannabis, which is said to be less addictive, Singapore has also stood its ground and rejected such calls.

Mr Shanmugam cited a literature review by the Institute of Mental Health which found that one in two daily cannabis users could become dependent on it. It is harmful, and could cause irreversible damage to the brain and to cognitive ability, he noted.

But Singapore's firm stance on drugs does not mean there is no compassion for offenders. Along with tough anti-drug laws, it has programmes to rehabilitate drug abusers.

The global drug problem is a complex one that defies an easy solution. But Singapore has found a model that works for it and is sticking to it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'Keeping to own drug-free model '. Print Edition | Subscribe