Despite Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s claim that drug traffickers are aware of the mandatory death penalty sentence in Singapore, there has been a spike in the number of attempts related to drug trafficking into the Republic, he told Reuters on Wed (31 Jul).

While Mr Shanmugam told the second Asia-Pacific Forum Against Drugs in Oct last year that the death penalty for drug traffickers cannot serve as a panacea for all drug-related issues plaguing Singapore society, the Minister maintained that the government, albeit reluctantly, must retain the death penalty “for the greater good of society”, as it “saves more lives”, referring to those who will be spared from falling into drug addiction.

Stating that drug traffickers are fully aware of the risks of being arrested, prosecuted, and — in most cases — sentenced to death, Mr Shanmugam said that the prospect of facing the gallows “has a very powerful influence on those who seek to traffic drugs into Singapore”, as “the stakes are made very clear upfront”.

“You have to focus on reducing supply, and the death penalty comes within the context of trying to reduce the supply by making it clear to traffickers that if they get caught, they will face the death penalty,” he said at the opening of the forum.

Mr Shanmugam told Reuters on Wed that Singapore is adamant on keeping the death penalty because crime rates have “gone up” in countries where marijuana has been legalised, adding that “medical costs and hospitalization costs” in such places “have gone up significantly, much more than the tax dollars that the state had hoped to receive”.

Additionally, he said that Singaporeans have continued to demonstrate “very strong support for the government’s current position” on the war against drug-related crimes in spite of neighbouring countries’ move to slightly relax their drug laws.

13 executions took place in Singapore last year, 11 of which were for drug-related offences. Mr Shanmugam said that the Singapore government’s decision to pause judicial executions for several years was behind the high number of such executions last year, adding that the break in executions was in line with the government’s review of the death penalty.

The Law Minister has frequently reiterated the government’s stance on the use of recreational drugs, and has criticised the way certain States and human rights groups have framed the discourse on such drugs only from the perspective of public health and personal freedoms.

“Human rights is ‘my individual freedom to consume drugs’ — that is how it was put forward. What about the impact on society? If you take that argument, then you would have the human right to do almost anything you like,” Shanmugam was quoted by TODAY as saying in late May this year.

He added that the financial backing of lobbyists has compelled legislators to amend or revamp anti-drug laws in certain countries, in addition to influencing the media and advertising industries in “pushing” cannabis “as healthy and safe” in such countries, which is, in his view, a “misleading and unscientific” message to convey to the public.

Neighbouring countries relax drug laws for medical purposes, more “scientific” rehabilitative processes

Meanwhile, the first batch of cannabis oil is set to be distributed across hospitals in Thailand for medical purposes after the government had passed a law legalising the use of medical marijuana, according to a government official on Thu (1 Aug), while Malaysia moves to remove the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking and to decriminalise drug addiction.

Malaysian Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad, in an official statement in late Jun, quoted former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s stance on governments’ approach in the war against drugs, in which he said: “Drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrongheaded governmental policies have destroyed many more. I think it’s obvious that after 40 years of war on drugs, it has not worked. There should be decriminalization of drugs.”

Calling the move “significant” and a “game-changer”, Dzulkefly recognises that “drug use and addiction is admittedly a complex chronic relapsing medical condition”, and that there are multiple factors that may contribute to substance abuse and addiction, ranging from genetic predisposition to external factors such as poor living conditions and peer pressure.

“If someone continues to take drugs, biological changes start happening in their brain. Therefore it is not so easy to reverse that biological change.

“Certainly putting them in prison is not going to change that. It is not just a matter of someone having a weak willpower,” added the Health Minister.

“Drug decriminalisation will indeed be a critical next step towards achieving a rational drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration. An addict shall be treated as a patient (not as a criminal), whose addiction is a disease we will like to cure,” Dzulkefly proposed.

He added that research has shown that decriminalisation does not exacerbate drug abuse and drug-related crimes, and in fact it reduces the costs borne by the criminal justice system as a result of incarcerating and punishing those who use drugs.

“Decades of evidence has clearly demonstrated that decriminalisation is a sensible path forward that would reap vast human and fiscal benefits, while protecting families and communities,” said Dzulkefly.

Malaysian Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin revealed that around 70,000 prisoners in Malaysia’s jails were drug addicts, and that the decriminalisation of drug addiction will give them more opportunities for rehabilitation and treatment, particularly when supported by their family members and the community.

Drug trafficking, however, remains a crime punishable by death, as Dzulkefly stressed that the removal of criminal penalties will only apply to the possession and use of “a small quantity of drugs”.