MHA invites British tycoon Richard Branson to S'pore to debate death penalty & anti-drug policies with Shanmugam

Branson has been vocal about his views against Singapore's use of the death penalty for drug trafficking.

Syahindah Ishak | October 22, 2022, 09:10 PM

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The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has invited British billionaire and founder of Virgin Group Richard Branson to Singapore for a live televised debate with minister K Shanmugam on Singapore's approach towards drugs and the death penalty.

MHA's offer includes covering some of Branson's travel expenses.

The ministry said in a press release on Oct. 22:

"Mr Branson's flight to and accommodation in Singapore will be paid for. 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 press release was in response to Branson's Oct. 10 blog post, in which he expressed his views on Singapore's use of the death penalty as punishment for drug trafficking.

On Nagaenthran's case

In his Oct. 10 blog post, Branson wrote about the case involving Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, the Malaysian man who was executed in Singapore earlier this year for drug trafficking.

Branson wrote that Nagaenthran had a "well-documented intellectual disability" and that he was executed in spite of that.

In response to this, MHA referred to its previous statements on the matter, saying that Branson's statement was "untrue".

MHA added:

"The Singapore Courts held that Nagaenthran knew what he was doing and that he was not intellectually disabled. The psychiatrist called by the Defence themselves agreed, in court, that Nagaenthran 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 Singapore's anti-drugs policies and the death penalty

On the issue of Singapore's approach on drugs and its use of the death penalty, MHA said that drugs "exact a significant toll on lives and society" and that countries, including Singapore, incur significant monetary costs because of drug abuse.

The ministry explained that its priority is to "protect Singapore and Singaporeans from the scourge of drugs".

"We take a comprehensive harm prevention approach, which includes the use of the death penalty for traffickers who traffic large amounts of drugs and seek to profit from destroying other people’s lives and livelihoods," it added.

MHA also said that the capital sentence has had a "clear deterrent effect on drug traffickers in Singapore" and has "helped prevent major drug syndicates from establishing themselves here".

According to MHA, convicted drug traffickers have provided first-hand accounts that they deliberately trafficked below the capital threshold amount, which meant that they were willing to risk imprisonment, but not the capital sentence.

MHA also cited statistics relating to opium and cannabis trafficking:

"After the mandatory capital sentence was introduced for opium trafficking, there was a significant reduction – 66 per cent – in the average net weight of opium trafficked into Singapore within four years.

Similarly, in the four-years after the mandatory capital sentence was introduced for trafficking more than 500 grammes of cannabis, there was a 15 to 19 percentage point reduction in the probability that traffickers would choose to traffic above the capital sentence threshold."

MHA said Singapore's strict laws and their clear enforcement have "significantly reduced" the amount of drugs entering Singapore over time.

"Many Singaporean lives and families have been saved from the harms of drugs. The number of drug abusers has also steadily decreased.

In the 1990s, we arrested over 6,000 abusers each year. We now arrest about 3,000 abusers per year, even though our population has grown from about 3 million people in 1990 to about 5.5 million in 2022."

On alleged racial bias in Singapore

MHA then addressed a point from Branson's blog post, where he alluded to the suspicion of alleged racial bias in Singapore, and said those executed in recent times were "small-scale drug traffickers".

"This assertion is false," MHA said, adding that Branson "probably picked it up from some activists in Singapore with their own agendas".

It added:

"Our laws and procedures apply equally to all, regardless of background, nationality, race, education level or financial status. Every person who faces a capital offence is accorded full due process under the law. Their trials are transparent and open to the public and media."

MHA also recapped an application made against the Attorney-General (AG) from August 2021, by 17 prisoners awaiting capital punishment.

The prisoners sought a declaration that the AG "had acted arbitrarily and discriminated against them on ethnic grounds, among others."

This application was dismissed by the High Court, MHA pointed out.

MHA also brought up the fact that Branson's counsel, M Ravi, had faced censure in the form of being ordered to pay costs for abuse of court process .

"The High Court said MR’s affidavit contained sweeping generalisations unsubstantiataned by any specific evidence. Now Mr Branson peddles the same allegations."

On Singapore allegedly targeting defence lawyers and human rights defenders

In his blog post, Branson had also called attention to what he called the "continued harassment" of certain lawyers who take on death penalty cases, and said it was causing a "chilling effect" on the willingness of lawyers to represent persons facing a capital sentence.

This is another falsehood, MHA said, before going on to explain:

"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.

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."

In Nagaenthran’s case, MHA explained that the Court of Appeal dismissed the last-minute applications, and described them as an abuse of the Court’s process.

The judgment emphasised that Nagaenthran had been "accorded full due process in accordance with the law" and had exhausted his rights of appeal and "almost every other recourse under the law"  since he was sentenced.

MHA added in its press release:

"Mr Branson is entitled to his opinions. These opinions may be widely held in the UK, 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.

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

Shanmugam shared the MHA statement on Facebook on Oct. 22, along with links to media coverage of the statement.

The minister added that he hopes Branson agrees to the debate "if he believes in free speech and in the truth of what he says."

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Top images via Richard Branson/Instagram & K Shanmugam/Facebook.