Richard Branson rejects invite to TV debate with Shanmugam on death penalty

"What Singapore really needs is a constructive, lasting dialogue involving multiple stakeholders, and a true commitment to transparency and evidence."

Ilyda Chua | October 31, 2022, 11:50 AM

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British billionaire and business magnate Richard Branson has rejected an invitation to a live televised debate with law and home affairs minister K Shanmugam on Singapore's approach towards drugs and the death penalty.

Branson instead called for dialogue involving "local voices", explaining that a televised debate "cannot do the complexity of the death penalty any service".

Turned down invitation

In his blog post on Oct. 31, Branson first expressed his "enormous respect" for Singapore, its citizens, and its accomplishments.

"It is because of this respect that I feel compelled to speak out when I see things go as horribly wrong as Singapore’s use of the death penalty," he wrote.

Branson added that he is "not a lone voice raising this", citing many others in Singapore who have raised similar concerns, such as lawyers, human rights defenders, civil society organisations and others.

He also shared a personal anecdote involving his late grandfather, who used to be a barrister and a High Court Judge in the UK.

According to Branson's father, his grandfather's "greatest regret in life was donning the black cap and sentencing people to death".

Not only did his grandfather disagree with the principle of the state killing people, he was concerned that innocent people had and would be executed.

The UK abolished the death penalty in 1969, after Branson's grandfather passed away, and since then, nearly all European countries have followed suit.

Branson noted that Singapore remains one of a small group of countries that still uses the death penalty.

Even fewer apply the death penalty for drug offences, which Branson pointed out is against the expressed position of the United Nations.

He highlighted that removing the death penalty in the UK had no impact on its crime rates, and that "there is no evidence that the death penalty reduces crime anywhere, not even in Singapore".

Branson also wrote that he is part of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group advocating for reform, and claimed that they have studied the war on drugs for the last 15 years, and is urging governments to treat drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal one.

Needs local voices

Branson then delved into the reasons why he had turned down the invitation by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), starting off by stating that a televised debate will be "limited in time and scope".

Thus, he believes that there is the risk it prioritises "personalities over issues".

"It reduces nuanced discourse to soundbites, turns serious debate into spectacle," he explained. "I can’t imagine that is what you are looking for."

Instead, Branson called for "constructive, lasting dialogue involving multiple stakeholders, and a true commitment to transparency and evidence".

He also opined that a conversation such as this would require local voices, and urged for Singapore to engage local stakeholders such as M Ravi, the lawyer for Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, the Malaysian man who was executed in Singapore earlier this year for drug trafficking.

Branson wrote:

"The brave thing for you would be to actively engage those Singaporean stakeholders, from Transformative Justice Collective to Mr M Ravi, Nagaenthran Dharmalingam’s courageous lawyer, and regional voices, such as the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network, and treat them as equals who are just as interested in Singapore’s progress as I’m sure you are. They deserve to be listened to, not ignored, or worse yet, harassed."

He added that abolition is not a Western concept, as some might argue, but about "universal human rights and humanity’s shared aspiration to advance equality, justice, dignity, and freedom everywhere, for everyone".

Branson ended his response by sharing that he would be "absolutely delighted" if Singapore abolishes the death penalty, something he believes "casts a dark shadow on Singapore's reputation in the world".

He concluded:

"There is no evidence to support its continued existence. Just ask those in Singapore who know."

Mothership has reached out to MHA for comment.


Branson, founder of Virgin Group, has been outspoken about Singapore's use of the death penalty as a punishment for drug trafficking.

He has written several blog posts about the case involving Nagaenthran, both before and after the execution.

"The truth is that Singapore’s government seems bent on executing scores of low-level drug traffickers, mostly members of poor, disadvantaged minorities, whilst failing to provide clear evidence that it has any tangible impact on drug use, crime, or public safety," he wrote in a post on Oct. 10 for World Day Against the Death Penalty.

MHA's invitation

In response, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued a press release on Oct. 22 defending Singapore's policies.

"Our policies on drugs and the death penalty derive from our own experience," MHA said.

"We are satisfied — as are the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans – that they work for us. 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."

The ministry added that capital punishment has had a clear deterrent effect on drug traffickers in Singapore.

It has prevented major drug syndicates from establishing themselves in the city-state, MHA said.

It cited the reduction in quantity of opium and cannabis trafficked into Singapore since the mandatory capital sentence was introduced for such drugs.

Within four years of the sentence being introduced in 1990, there was a 66 per cent drop in the average net weight of opium trafficked into Singapore, MHA said.

The press release concluded with an invitation to a live televised debate with Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam.

"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."

MHA's offer included covering some of Branson's travel expenses such as his flight to and accommodation in Singapore.

Shanmugam also shared the statement on his Facebook page on Oct. 22.

Top image from K Shanmugam/Facebook and Richard Branson/Instagram.