'This is a war': Shanmugam reiterates S'pore's drug control policy, unveils details of 'Drug Victims Remembrance Day'

The people who "deserve our sympathy" are the loved ones of drug users, not the drug traffickers, Shanmugam said.

Julia Yee | May 08, 2024, 02:35 PM



"Members have to understand this is nothing short of a war," Minister for Home Affairs & Law K Shanmugam beseeched the house during a parliament sitting on May 8, 2024.

He was delivering a ministerial statement on Singapore's national drug control policy at a parliamentary sitting on May 8, 2024.

In his speech, he revealed the government's upcoming plans for drug control, provided justifications for Singapore's stance on the death penalty, and condemned "misinformation" spread about the capital sentence.

"Do we want to become a narco-state, or an infamous brown town, or a hotbed for drugs and violence?" he asked.

"People may say no one is asking you to go soft. Impose very tough penalties. Just don't impose the death penalty.

My view, based on the evidence: you remove the death penalty, drug trafficking will go up significantly."

"Zero tolerance for those who destroy the lives of others"

"While we seek to help abusers, we take a tough approach against drug traffickers," Shanmugam said.

"We have zero tolerance for those who destroy the lives of others because they want to make money."

He cited a 2021 survey conducted in areas where most of Singapore’s arrested drug traffickers have come in recent years, which reported that the majority of participants believed the death penalty was a more effective deterrent against drug trafficking than life imprisonment.

"It is not easy for us as policymakers to decide to have capital punishment," Shanmugam admitted, "But the evidence shows that it is an effective way to protect our people, prevent the destruction of thousands of families, and the loss of thousands of lives."

Sympathising with traffickers

Shanmugam then moved on to efforts to "undermine" this approach.

He called out "activists"  who "seek to evoke sympathy by presenting an image of an unfair criminal justice system stacked against drug traffickers".

According to him, these people publish media "portraying the trafficker as a victim of unfortunate circumstances" while leaving out the "facts of the cases".

"They leave out the accounting of the harms caused to the victims of the traffickers. They glorify the trafficker. They do not give any voice to the victims or the number of lives lost or wrecked by drugs. And the reason the traffickers were trafficking the drugs in the first place — which is to make money."

"If you face financial difficulties – get a job. You don’t have to traffic in drugs to make money," he said.

"Blatant, false attack on the criminal justice system"

In May 2023, POFMA directions were issued against 10 social media posts and two online articles for containing false statements about a capital sentence.

"Five parties – The Transformative Justice Collective, The Online Citizen Asia, Andrew Loh, Kirsten Han, M Ravi continued to make false statements", Shanmugam said.

He said they alleged that the prisoner awaiting capital punishment was "denied an interpreter" during the recording of his statement despite the courts' "clear statement to the contrary".

"A blatant, false attack on the criminal justice system," Shanmugam said. "Some of these activists have helped to file unmeritorious legal applications on behalf of convicted drug traffickers.

Nevertheless, Shanmugam said that there is "strong public support" for the country's drug approach.

"The vast majority know and understand the facts and reality, and why the government says the death penalty is necessary."

Lucrative drug trade in Singapore

Shanmugam dedicated a substantial amount of his speech to looking at the "worrying" drug situation in other countries.

Aside from examples based in the Netherlands and Southeast Asia, he also brought in instances of cities and towns that were "seriously damaged" in the U.K. and the drug problem getting "out of control" in North America.

Coming back to the problem at home, he presented Singapore as " a big target" for the drug trade.

"Despite our stiff penalties some traffickers try their luck because of the profits they can earn. The street price for drugs is much higher in Singapore than many other parts of the region."

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) have uncovered drugs in fire extinguishers, furniture — "even fruits", added Shanmugam.

Going on to list more statistics, he said CNB seized about S$15 million worth of drugs and dismantled 25 drug syndicates in 2023, while the number of drug abusers caught increased by 10 per cent from 2022, and the number of cannabis abusers reached a 10-year high.

In addition, the survey by the Institute of Mental Health in 2022 showed that the mean onset age of illicit drug consumption in Singapore is 15.9, the age of a secondary four student.

Helping "pure abusers"

Shanmugam said Singapore's current drug policy focuses on helping persons who are pure abusers.

If they only abuse drugs and have not committed other offences, they are "channelled to receive treatment and do not get a criminal record," he said.

Low-risk, first-time adult offenders will generally undergo counselling and drug testing,

This "minimises disruption to their daily lives" while ensuring that their addiction issues are addressed.

He said that from 1993 to 2021, our two-year reoffending rate for those released from the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) decreased by more than two and a half times from 73 per cent to 27.7 per cent.

Drug Victims Remembrance Day

Singapore will also be observing a "Drug Victims Remembrance Day" from 2024 onwards.

This is to remind Singaporeans of "the harm, the hurt, and the trauma" that the families and loved ones of drug abusers "suffer and have suffered".

Starting from 2024, Singapore will be marking its calendar with a Drug Victims Remembrance Day.

Such victims, in particular, refer to the loved ones of drug users, clarified Shanmugam.

"The elderly mother and grandmother brutally murdered, the two-year old toddler who was senselessly assaulted to death by her guardian, and the countless family members whose lives have been upended by having a loved one going to drugs."

"These are the people who deserve our sympathy," he said.

An inaugural observance event will be held at the Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza on May 17  — featuring a candlelight display to remember said victims.

The event will be followed by roving exhibitions across eight different locations around Singapore from May to July.

Educating youths

Shanmugam reminded the house that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had formed the Inter-Ministry Committee (IMC) on Drug Prevention for Youths in 2023, which rolled out anti-drug programmes.

Such programmes involve covering drug-related topics in school, extending it to subjects like the General Paper.

In the Institute of Higher Learning, these messages will be "reinforced" during orientations and pre-departure briefings for overseas trips.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) schools and Institutes of Higher Learning will also organise lessons, exhibitions, and talks about Drug Victims Remembrance Day.

Top images via MCI, Goodsouls Kitchen and Unsplash