SINGAPORE — When it comes to its stance on drugs and the death penalty, Singapore takes on a “soft heart, hard head” approach by looking objectively but with compassion at data on the impact of illicit drugs.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Wednesday (Sept 21): “For public policy making… you need a hard head to analyse, understand facts. You need a soft heart because you need to have compassion.”
He was speaking during a dialogue conducted by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and National Youth Council.
Addressing about 80 young people aged between 15 and 35, Mr Shanmugam explained the rationale for Singapore’s stance on drugs and the death penalty.
On the “soft heart, hard head” approach, he said that this approach is through the Government’s policy that looks at hard facts, yet has compassion towards the victims of drugs.
Showing a video by American broadcaster NBC News of infants suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms and children found in drug dens as examples of these victims, he asked: “Who cries for these children?”
He also noted that Singapore has changed its stance on drug abusers, investing in rehabilitation programmes and not treating them as criminals for their drug consumption should they not have committed other crimes.
Singapore’s continuing tough stance on cannabis in particular has come to the fore in recent times with significant developments overseas. In Thailand, for example, cannabis has been made completely legal and is widely available.
In Europe, many pharmacies sell pharmaceutical products over the counter containing some ingredients of the cannabis plant with medicinal value. These countries include France and Spain.
The youth at the dialogue were polled about whether they felt the death penalty is an effective deterrent in safeguarding Singapore against serious crimes such as drug trafficking.
The results were: Nearly two-thirds, or 64.4 per cent, said “yes”, 22.4 per cent were neutral while the rest said “no”.
As the dialogue came to a close, the moderator asked for a show of hands of those who had changed their views on the death penalty.
About 20 people raised their hands though it was not clear whether they had shifted from anti-death penalty to support or the reverse.
Two attendees told TODAY that they were originally neutral towards the death penalty’s effectiveness, but they now feel that the death penalty is somewhat of an effective deterrent.
SINGAPORE A TARGET FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS
Mr Shanmugam said that Singapore was a target for drug traffickers due to its busy port and high average income.
Showing examples of how drugs have had an impact on other countries that take on soft stances towards it — such as increased crime and deaths — Mr Shanmugam said that Singapore must avoid this.
This is not to say that the Government does not review its stance regularly, he added, pointing to changes made in 2019 such that drug abusers who do not commit other crimes no longer face long-term imprisonment or have a criminal record.
He also took aim at international media outlets and activists who have framed the death penalty as inhumane given that drug traffickers are executed by the state, as they “do not talk about lives we saved”.
On why the death penalty is used, Mr Shanmugam said that the number of kidnappings, firearm offences and amount of drugs trafficked had dropped after the death penalty was introduced. The death penalty applies to these offences.
He also said that based on an MHA 2021 study from people in the region, 87 per cent believed that the death penalty deterred people from trafficking substantial amounts of drugs into Singapore.
Adding that two-thirds of Singaporeans felt that the mandatory death penalty was appropriate for drug trafficking based on the 2021 study, he said it is a sign that Singaporeans believed the penalty plays a strong role.
Supposing that public opinion turned against the death penalty, Mr Shanmugam said that it is on public policymakers to persuade the public — not deceive it — that the penalty works.
Singaporeans could also vote out the government of the day, or they could bring pressure to bear to try to persuade the Government to change its policy.
QUESTIONS ABOUT MORALITY, CLEMENCY
The youth at the dialogue asked Mr Shanmugam about the death penalty, including whether the studies he cited as evidence is accurate on the impact of illicit drug use on one’s mental health.
One youth, who cannot be named because “Chatham House rules” applied, said that the studies used showed an association between cannabis usage and mental health, but not a correlation.
Under Chatham House rules, participants may disclose information that emerges during a discussion, but not the identity of the person disclosing the information.
Mr Shanmugam responded that the studies came from reputable sources such as the National Institutes of Health, which is the medical research agency of the United States.
One youth asked about the moral and ethical implications of capital punishment, to which Mr Shanmugam said that thousands of lives are saved when Singapore executes a few people.
“You say, ‘You shouldn’t execute’. I respect that position. I’m not saying it’s wrong,” he replied.
“But it’s a position based on ideology… I come from a slightly different value, which is a state’s obligation to ensure safety and security within Singapore and to save lives.”
Mr Shanmugam repeated this message of needing to balance compassion and hard facts in response to one youth’s question about when the Cabinet recommends clemency.
“(It has to be in) very exceptional circumstances. Something has happened after the penalty is imposed, in some circumstances where their physical health is deteriorating substantially,” he said, adding that this is a matter of ‘soft heart, hard head’.
If Singapore were to give clemency for unexceptional reasons, drug kingpins may find people with a similar profile to act as drug mules as they would be spared death should they be found guilty of drug trafficking, thereby increasing drug trafficking here, he said.
Speaking to TODAY after the event, 22-year-old student Rodney Lim from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University said that it was interesting to see the viewpoints of other young people who agreed and disagreed with the death penalty.
As for 17-year-old Republic Polytechnic student Putra Aqid, gaining deeper insights into how the death penalty can save lives was something he took away from the dialogue.
However, he was interested in one youth’s suggestion during the dialogue that policymakers should speak to people on death row, so they could gain an understanding of how the policy affects people directly.