Singapore rebuts Richard Branson’s post on drug laws, death penalty, invites him to debate with Shanmugam

The Ministry of Home Affairs said Sir Richard Branson (above) made untrue statements about drug trafficker Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, who was hanged in April. PHOTO: RICHARD BRANSON/FACEBOOK

SINGAPORE - The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has rebutted British billionaire Richard Branson’s blog post criticising the use of the death penalty to deter drug trafficking, and invited him to a live televised debate with Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

Responding to the Oct 10 blog post, MHA said Mr Branson had made untrue statements about Malaysian Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, who was hanged in April for drug trafficking. The ministry said Mr Branson also made false assertions about alleged racial bias and the treatment of capital defence lawyers.

Referring to the proposed live televised debate, it said: “Mr Branson may use this platform to demonstrate to Singaporeans the error of our ways and why Singapore should do away with laws that have kept our population safe from the global scourge of drug abuse.”

It added that his flight to and accommodation in Singapore will be paid for.

In Mr Branson’s blog post, he said that Nagaenthran had a “well-documented intellectual disability” and was hanged despite that.

The ministry said on Saturday: “We have clarified on several occasions that this is untrue. The Singapore courts held that Nagaenthran knew what he was doing and that he was not intellectually disabled.

“Mr Branson also suggests that Singapore had breached our international commitments to protect people with disabilities by carrying out the capital punishment on Nagaenthran. This too is untrue, as Nagaenthran was not intellectually disabled.”

On Mr Branson questioning Singapore’s approach to drugs, including the use of the death penalty on those who traffic large amounts of drugs, the ministry said its priority is to protect Singapore and Singaporeans from the scourge of drugs.

“The capital sentence has had a clear deterrent effect on drug traffickers in Singapore. It has also helped prevent major drug syndicates from establishing themselves here,” it said.

It said that after the mandatory capital sentence was introduced for opium trafficking in 1990, there was a 66 per cent reduction in the average net weight of opium trafficked into Singapore within four years.

In the blog post, Mr Branson said all 11 men executed in Singapore in 2022 were “small-scale traffickers, often of Malay origin or Malaysian nationals”, and that he suspected racial bias.

In response, the ministry said the assertion was false. “Mr Branson probably picked it up from some activists in Singapore with their own agendas. Our laws and procedures apply equally to all, regardless of background, nationality, race, education level or financial status,” it said.

Mr Branson said the “continued harassment” of capital defence lawyers and human rights defenders was “another worrying matter”, and this has a “chilling effect on the willingness of lawyers to represent those on death row”.

MHA said defence lawyers have never been penalised for representing and defending accused persons.

“Every accused person who faces a capital sentence is provided with legal counsel to defend them,” it said.

“However, this does not mean that lawyers can abuse the court process by filing late and patently unmeritorious applications to frustrate the carrying out of lawfully imposed sentences,” it added, citing Nagaenthran’s case where the Court of Appeal dismissed last-minute applications and described them as an abuse of the court’s process.

The ministry said: “Mr Branson is entitled to his opinions. These opinions may be widely held in the UK (Britain), but we do not accept that Mr Branson or others in the West are entitled to impose their values on other societies. Nor do we believe that a country that prosecuted two wars in China in the 19th century to force the Chinese to accept opium imports has any moral right to lecture Asians on drugs.”

Singapore’s policies on drugs and the death penalty are derived from the country’s own experience, it added.

“Nothing we have seen in the UK or in the West persuades us that adopting a permissive attitude towards drugs and a tolerant position on drug trafficking will increase human happiness. Where drug addiction is concerned, things have steadily worsened in the UK, while things have steadily improved in Singapore,” it said.

Singapore has issued similar challenges to foreign critics in the past.

The late New York Times columnist William Safire was invited to a one-to-one debate with then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in Singapore in 1995, which he turned down as he insisted on debating with founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in Switzerland instead.

The invitation came after Mr Safire and another academic at Williams College in Massachusetts opposed the college’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate on Mr Goh. Mr Safire had also criticised Singapore’s trade with Myanmar, as well as attempts to control access to certain websites.

In 1990, Mr Lee challenged journalist and author Bernard Levin to a face-to-face interview on the BBC after the Briton wrote in The Times of London an article that the Government said was a broad attack on Mr Lee, his premiership in Singapore and the judiciary in Singapore.

Although the BBC was prepared to broadcast such a programme, the late Mr Levin declined the interview.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.