It is not often one sees so many upstanding, clever politicians argue so earnestly and so passionately for the need for state-sanctioned murder. But that’s what’s been happening in Singapore over the past few days. They seem to be driven by fear, these good people. Fear and an intense need to prove that we are Very Serious about combating crime.
What triggered this collective hand wringing were some tiny changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act. Until this week, anyone caught with more than a certain amount of drugs was automatically believed to be trafficking in the substance, and unless he could convince a court otherwise, would be given the Mandatory Death Penalty (MDP).
The old law was problematic in a number of ways. It took discretion away from judges. It operated ass-backwards – placing the burden on an accused person to prove his innocence, rather than on the prosecution to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It has resulted in some truly grotesque outcomes.
The changes give judges a tiny bit of wiggle room. Now, instead of handing down the MDP, they have the option of sentencing a trafficker to life imprisonment, if certain conditions are met. First, the accused has to be a lowly courier. Second, he must have cooperated with authorities by providing them with “substantive” information. A person deemed mentally deficient might also escape the gallows.
These little tweaks to the law do not alter the fact that the Attorney General’s Chambers have far more discretion than our judges. Prosecutors are the ones who get to decide if a courier has rendered “substantive” help to anti-narcotics police or not.
What the word “substantive” means in this context remains unclear. How substantive is substantive enough? Must information given by a mule lead to a major arrest? The busting of a drug ring? And what if police fail to follow up on a substantive lead? What if a courier is so low down in the food chain, he has no useful information to offer?
What’s clear though is that the changes have nothing to do with compassion, or arguable, even justice. Ordering that a mentally disabled person be put away for life is only marginally less outrageous than sentencing him to death. Under the new laws, it still wouldn’t matter if a mule wasn’t wholly culpable, if he was tricked, coerced, naïve or desperate. If he can’t rebut the presumption of guilt, the only way he can save his skin is by helping drug enforcement authorities do their jobs. And even then, a willingness to cooperate does not guarantee anything.
The changes also have nothing to do with a desire to keep up with the rest of the civilized world, and to hear Law Minister K Shanmugam himself speak, they most certainly have nothing to do with efforts by activists to highlight the dangers of tying our judges’ hands. Oh no. When it comes to the MDP, the government is clear about its stand – it will listen to no one but itself.
The ruling party believes in the Death Penalty and isn’t afraid to say so. In fact, it’s been falling all over itself to make sure Singaporeans and the world know just how much it values capital punishment. A string of PAP politicians have issued stark warnings and voiced deep concern about the consequences that might result if we were to go further than the recent amendments. One would be hard pressed to find a more spirited or coordinated defense of state-sanctioned killings. Some of the arguments make no sense.
In Parliament on Monday, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar expressed concern that more couriers might want to try their luck entering Singapore:
“The less informed may think that the drug trafficking offence has become less serious while the opportunists may think that they can get away with a less harsh sentence.”
The truth is that, the less informed might not know about the changes to our law, or that Singapore hangs drug mules. Case in point: Yong Vui Kong. He was 19. Illiterate. Desperate. Couldn’t read or write. A prime target for drug masterminds who quite frankly, don’t care if their mules get hanged or languish behind bars for the rest of their lives.
And even if the less informed were a bit more, well, well informed, it’s hard to see how anyone would consider the prospect of decades in prison and physical injury as being that much more attractive than death. Given the stakes, one would still have to be truly desperate, or naïve, or ignorant before agreeing to be a courier.
Edwin Tong fretted that some people might harbour the mistaken belief that the death penalty would eventually be abolished for all offences. This was clearly unacceptable to him:
“Strong deterrence, with the harshest punishments, must still remain a cornerstone principle for our anti-drug laws.”
Tong also pointed out that statistics show that Singapore is at a five-year high in terms of drug seizures.
Perhaps the good MP doesn’t see the contradiction. How is the MDP a deterrent if seizures are at a five-year high?
And then there was this stark warning from Christopher de Souza:
“What we are debating today is not child’s play. It is very serious business. We mis-step, open the floodgates, our war on drugs falters. We cannot afford to mis-step, we cannot afford to open the floodgates.”
And to drive home his point:
“Drugs orphan. Drugs destroy families.”
The two lines were swiftly picked up and repeated in a Facebook posting by acting Minister for Manpower, Tan Chuan-jin. Ever the savvy communicator, Tan’s note is a little bit more nuanced than his colleagues’ speeches. He played less on our fears, appealed to our sense of fairness:
“We often shed tears for the trafficker. And debate passionately the humanity of our laws. We often do not shed tears for those who lose their lives to drugs. We often forget the families destroyed by drugs.”
And to end it all he issued this reminder:
“The crime is trafficking. Let us not forget who the victims are.”
It doesn’t get any more visual than this. Floodgates. A city faltering under the weight of drugs. Children orphaned as a result. Families ripped apart. Nightmare scenarios that tell us we have no choice but to do the right thing – steady our nerves, allow the state to kill a few mules so we can have peace of mind, so we can preserve our way of life, so there can be justice for the real victims, the ones who have fallen prey to addiction. The ones whose families are living in despair.
It’s a seductive argument that’s also highly illogical. The decision to sniff, inject or inhale lies with the would-be addict. We do not blame beer companies for encouraging alcoholism, tobacco firms for causing lung cancer. But we insist on killing drug couriers because smart people like Edwin Tong insist it’s the right thing to do.
Why is it accepted wisdom in Singapore that the death penalty is the best deterrent against crime?
Hong Kong abolished capital punishment in 1993. Quite clearly, the city, which is about the same size as Singapore, didn’t fall apart. It is in fact, a thriving financial centre with a vibrant arts scene and a gorgeous skyline. More importantly, the crime rate there remains low. Hong Kong’s streets are some of the safest I know. James and I visit regularly, often hanging out late at night in poor neighbourhoods. We have never once been harassed.
In his speech to parliament, the Law Minister queries if we are prepared for the risks that come with abolishing the death penalty for drug crimes. “What is the nature of the beast?” He asks.
Great question – what exactly are we battling?
Shanmugam cites the global drug war. He mentions crime in Central America, the opium trade in Afghanistan, cocaine in West and Central Africa. He speaks about an anticipated spike in addiction rates in Malaysia, about the fact that more than a million 10 to 19-year-olds have experimented with drugs in Indonesia.
Scary stuff. We do not want to be like Afghanistan. Neither do we want a city controlled by drug cartels and riddled by gang warfare. But the problems in these places did not arise because governments forgot to impose the MDP on drug crimes. Armed conflict. Abject poverty. Corruption. Poor governance. These are all factors that contribute to the dismal state of affairs. Drugs are a symptom of far larger, much more complex issues.
Singapore is not a war-torn nation. We do not have widespread poverty, and I am sure, the Law Minister would agree, corruption is not a major issue here.
As for Malaysia and Indonesia, both have the death penalty for drug-related offenses. Look at where that’s gotten them.
Drug abuse in Singapore, according to the Law Minister, has fallen since 1994. That’s a good thing – a sign that perhaps, we are doing something right. He credits, among other things, education, early intervention, strict border controls and a tough regime for first and second-time abusers. Laudable measures. One would argue that these are areas to which more attention should be paid.
But apparently, we need to be able to kill a few traffickers in order to make the system run smoothly. In fact, Singapore is so adamant that this must be so, the Minister says it would be unworkable to give judges a bit more discretion:
“You go down this route – you, in effect have de facto abolition of the death penalty.”
“Quite understandable – judges are reluctant to impose the ultimate sentence. And you also have the drug lords sending you the couriers who fit the criteria for not imposing the death penalty. What is the result? De facto abolition.”
Why would judges choose not to kill when it is so evidently the right thing to do? No attempt is made to explore this question. The Law Minister is more interested instead, in finding out if we are prepared to accept the risks that come with dropping completely, the MDP as a component of Singapore’s anti-drug strategy.
The assumption once again, is that capital punishment is a useful deterrent against crime. But where are the studies? If the state wants its people to endorse murder as a solution to any problem, then surely it has to show that the solution is effective, and that there are absolutely no alternatives. How does killing a kid like Yong Vui Kong or a courier like Cheong Chun Yin make Singapore safer?
It is disingenuous to suggest that drug lords care enough to screen their mules for qualities that would allow them to receive a life sentence, rather than the death penalty if they are caught. Why would they bother? Syndicates recruit whoever they can. Once a trafficker is busted, the shipment is lost. It doesn’t matter to the mastermind what happens next.
Still, the government wants are to believe there are “risks” we simply cannot accept. Too much is at stake. Singapore is too vulnerable. We must not go soft on crime.
This is the hypocrisy I cannot wrap my head around. If we were truly committed to combating the drug scourge, we wouldn’t allow known drug lords to set up businesses here. We would not name orchids after Burmese generals. If we were as hardline and as unwavering as PAP politicians claim we are, we would have treated Julia Bohl the same way we treated Vignesh Mourthi. If we truly believed in stamping out addictions that ruin lives and destroy families, we would have said no to the casinos. But the mega corporations that run Resorts World and Marina Bay Sands are feted and praised for the revenue they bring to our country.
Somewhere in his speech, the Law Minister said something that jolted me:
“We are a rich country. People can pay for drugs.”
We’re rich. People can pay. Price is no object. They fork out the cash, someone will provide the goods. Someone stupid, desperate or ignorant will take the risk. This person might die. But the rich Singaporean, the one whose demand the mule is satisfying? He’s the victim.