77 per cent Singaporeans favour death penalty for drug trafficking: Shanmugam

In a statement at the Singapore Parliament on the nation’s approach to narcotics, K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, said on Wednesday that Singapore’s policy “is necessary, it is effective, [and] it is well supported by Singaporeans”.

Law Minister K Shanmugam made the speech on Wednesday when he said 77 per cent Singaporeans favour death penalty for drug trafficking.
Law Minister K Shanmugam made the speech on Wednesday. Photo courtesy: Screengrab from YouTube

The Indian-origin minister said at the outset of the parliamentary speech that Singapore’s approach “has been criticised by some, who are helping inmates to abuse the legal process”. He added, “They try and frustrate the legal process and prevent the penalties from being carried out.”

Singapore metes out the death penalty for drug trafficking in some cases, and the amount of narcotics that attracts the death penalty is very specific. There have been calls to end the death penalty and sentence those convicted of drug trafficking to life imprisonment instead.

However, Shanmugam informed the parliament that there was “strong public support for our drug control approach”.

Citing various surveys, the Singapore home minister said, “There is broad support from our population because we have been upfront and open about the rationale, circumstances, and safeguards on the use of the death penalty.”

He added, “Surveys conducted by [the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs] show that support for the death penalty has, in fact, gone up in the last 2 years.”

Shanmugam said, “In a 2021 MHA survey, 74 per cent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the death penalty should be used for the most serious crimes, including drug trafficking.

“We redid that survey last year in 2023; it now shows that 77 per cent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed. This is a statistically significant increase of about 3 percentage points.

“The 2021 survey also found that about 66 per cent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the mandatory death penalty is an appropriate punishment for trafficking a significant amount of drugs.

“In the 2023 survey, 69 per cent of the respondents, almost 7 in 10, agreed or strongly agreed, again a statistically significant increase. MHA will be publishing the full report later this year.”

Referring to criticism of the Singapore approach to dealing with narcotics, the minister said at the outset of his speech that “these criticisms are without merit”.

After giving details of the rising public support numbers for the death penalty in narcotics trafficking cases, he said, “This is quite remarkable because members [of parliament] might sometimes come across activists saying: the death penalty is controversial, support for it is weakening, and so on.

“In fact, to the contrary, we are seeing the reverse. Support for the death penalty has, in fact, increased, [and] in a statistically significant way. It shows that Singaporeans understand the need for the death penalty, to deal with the most serious crimes.”

Citing “yet another survey”, Shanmugam said, “In 2023, the National Council Against Drug Abuse conducted a survey. Almost 91 per cent expressed support for Singapore’s drug-free approach, and 87 per cent agreed that our drug laws are effective in keeping us relatively drug-free. We have these high levels of support because Singaporeans trust the government to do the right thing, and to do right by Singapore.”

Informing fellow MPs of the quantity of narcotics that attracted the death penalty, Shanmugam said, “The death penalty is imposed on persons who traffic specified amounts. For example, a person who traffics 15 grams of pure heroin — which is enough to feed the addiction of about 180 abusers for a week — will face capital punishment.”

Data showed that the Singapore drug control policy was “an effective deterrent”, said the minister.

He presented a cause-and-effect scenario: “The evidence shows clearly that the death penalty has been an effective deterrent. In 1990, we introduced the death penalty for trafficking more than 1.2 kg of opium. In the four years that followed, there was a 66 per cent reduction in the average net weight of opium trafficked.”

Damage done by narcotics around the world

In his ministerial statement, Shanmugam discussed the global and regional drug situation; the threat from the drug trade, and Singapore’s approach to that threat; attempts to spread misinformation and undermine aspects of Singapore’s drug policies; and the Singapore government’s plans to further strengthen drug control policies.

Shanmugam presented some slides to illustrate his statement. Telling the MPs about the fallout of drug trafficking, he said, “…In the [European Union], half of all homicides and more than a quarter of illegal firearms seizures were linked to drug trafficking. So, members can consider just how many lives have been lost.”

He said, “In the port city of Rotterdam [in the Netherlands], children — some as young as 14 years old — are being recruited as ‘cocaine collectors’, to get the drugs from shipping containers.

CNB officers seized cash during an operation conducted on November 20, 2023. Photo courtesy: CNB
Central Narcotics Bureau officers seized cash during an operation conducted on November 20, 2023. Photo courtesy: CNB

“In January of this year, the Mayor of Amsterdam, and you see her referred to in the quote, Femka Halsema, said that [the] Netherlands risks becoming a ‘narco-state’. The illegal drug trade has grown ‘more lucrative, professional, and ruthlessly violent’. Think of a mayor of a major European city saying that and what the implications are.”

Giving the example of another European country, the Singapore home minister said, “Sweden, considered one of the safest places in the world, has also been seriously affected by drug- and gang-related violence. Since 2013, the number of fatal shootings has more than doubled. In 2022, there were 391 shootings, 90 explosions, 101 attempted attacks with explosives. These were linked to fights between criminal gangs over drugs and arms.”

Going over some data on drug use and its ill-effects in the Americas, the minister came to the region of which Singapore is a part. He said, “Closer to home, in South-East Asia, the Golden Triangle — where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos meet — is a major drug-producing region.

“The [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] reported in 2022 that East and Southeast Asia are ‘literally swimming’ in Meth. In 2022 alone, 151 tonnes of Meth was seized in the region.”

Singapore is a big target for drugs flooding SE Asia

Covering the narcotics situation in South-East Asia in some detail, Shanmugam then said, “With that, let me now turn to the situation in Singapore, and the threat we face here from the drug trade. We are a big target for the drugs that this region is being flooded with.”

As to why Singapore was such a big target for drug peddlers in spite of its zero-tolerance policy, he said, “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 in this region. Our purchasing power is much higher, our GDP is much higher, our wealth is much higher — so, it is obvious.”

Drug traffickers, said the minister, were quite “innovative”. Law enforcement agencies in Singapore had found narcotics concealed in “fire extinguishers, furniture, and even fruits”, he added.

To drive home how grave the problem was, Shanmugam said, “Last year, [the Central Narcotics Bureau of Singapore] seized about SGD 15 million worth of drugs, and dismantled 25 drug syndicates.

Contraband seized during a CNB operation near MacPherson Lane and Jalan Chengkek on April 17, 2024. Photo courtesy: CNB
Contraband seized during a CNB operation near MacPherson Lane and Jalan Chengkek on April 17, 2024. Photo courtesy: CNB

“The number of drug abusers arrested increased by 10 per cent from the previous year, while the number of cannabis abusers reached a 10-year high.

“The Health and Lifestyle Survey conducted by IMH in 2022 showed that the mean onset age of illicit drug consumption in Singapore is 15.9 years old — this is the age of a Secondary Four student.

“Members can see that we are not exempt from the problems that other countries face.”

Shanmugam informed the House that the government took “an evidence-based approach towards drug control”.

He said, “In 2019, we changed our policy to focus on helping persons who are pure drug 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.

“The interventions are based on the risk profile of the abuser. For example, low-risk, first-time adult drug abusers will generally undergo counselling in the community, together with regular urine or hair testing.

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

“Beyond the mandated supervision period, the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) continues to work with Yellow Ribbon Singapore (YRSG) and its community partners, to help the drug abusers. For example, YRSG assists ex-inmates with career coaching and job placement.

“And these efforts have produced some results. From 1993 to 2021, our two-year recidivism rate for those released from DRC decreased by more than two-and-a-half times from 73 per cent to 27.7 per cent.

“There are many examples of ex-drug abusers who have kicked the habit, leading new lives.”

Authorities take tough approach against drug traffickers

On the government policy on drug traffickers, Shanmugam said, “While we seek to help abusers, we take a tough approach against drug traffickers. We have zero tolerance for those who destroy the lives of others, for money.”

The problem of demand-and-supply when it came to drugs had to be dealt with both through education and awareness (for the buyers) and deterrence (for the sellers), he said.

In the context of using death penalty as deterrence, Shanmugam spoke of a 2021 study conducted in parts of SE Asia: “We are evidence-based, so I told my ministry, let’s do a survey from the regions where many of our drug traffickers come [from], to see what the populations in those areas think of our penalties, and if our penalties are a sufficient deterrent…. So, we did a statistically, scientifically-valid study in the parts [of SE Asia] which many of our drug traffickers come from.”

CNB officers arrested a suspected drug offender in an islandwide drug operation. Photo courtesy: CNB
CNB officers arrested a suspected drug offender in an islandwide drug operation. Photo courtesy: CNB

He said, “[The regional survey] showed that 87 per cent of those surveyed — this is nine out of 10 — believed that the death penalty deters people from trafficking substantial amounts of drugs into Singapore; 83 per cent, 8 out of 10, believed that the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment in deterring drug trafficking; and 86 per cent believed that the death penalty deters serious crimes in Singapore.

“The implications are that when the drug barons go around trying to recruit people to come into Singapore, people would be very careful. Many would say ‘no’, and if they do get tempted, they might say, ‘well, I might only traffic drugs below a certain threshold amount’. So, that makes it much more difficult to traffic substantial amounts into Singapore.”

The minister said, “So those who suggest that the death penalty can be replaced by life imprisonment should look at these figures. The deterrent effects of the two penalties are very different.”

Death penalty for drug traffickers, he said, “is necessary to protect our people, prevent the destruction of thousands of families, and prevent the loss of thousands of lives. That is why we maintain the death penalty.”

Without mincing words, Shanmugam said, “[MPs] have to understand — this is nothing short of a war. I say that we are fighting a war, and using that analogy, because that is the scale in terms of victims and lost lives.”

Misinformation portrays drug traffickers as victims

Discussing the misinformation campaigns against Singapore’s drug control policy, the minister said, “The evidence for our approach is compelling. People can see what is happening around the world, which is why I took some time to explain the situation, country by country. Despite that, in recent years, there has been a small group of people who attempt to mislead the public with misinformation on drug traffickers and the death penalty.

“They seek to evoke sympathy by presenting an image of an unfair criminal justice system stacked against drug traffickers.

“They publish videos, pictures, stories from the trafficker’s childhood, sharing interviews with family members — ‘He’s got a mother’; ‘He’s got a sister’; ‘He’s had a child’; ‘He had a childhood’; ‘Poor guy’ — portraying the trafficker as a victim of unfortunate circumstances. ‘He didn’t have money and, therefore, he trafficked drugs.’

“But they leave 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, 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.”

Weapons seized from a house near Pasir Ris Street 11 during a drug operation conducted on November 19, 2023. Photo courtesy: CNB
Weapons seized from a house near Pasir Ris Street 11 during a drug operation conducted on November 19, 2023. Photo courtesy: CNB

In a scathing response to activist campaigns trying to elicit public sympathy for drug dealers’ families, the home minister said, “The victims [of the dealers] also have wives, sisters, children, parents. All of these people will also suffer.

“If you face financial difficulties, if you need money, get a job. You don’t have to traffic in drugs to make money.”

Shanmugam recounted one of the “shocking stories in Singapore” related to drug peddling: “Early last year, a man was convicted of committing incest with his 17-year-old daughter after sharing Meth with her. She became reliant on him for sustaining her addiction and did not come forward with the truth for months.”

Many other chilling facts related to drug trafficking were presented by the minister to his fellow MPs. “But,” he said, “these facts and images are usually missing from the speeches [and] posts of those who campaign against the death penalty. Instead, there are baseless allegations, one-sided claims, and half-truths.”

Ministry’s future plans to address the drug problem

In the last part of his speech, Shanmugam spoke of the Home Ministry’s plans to address the drug problem.

“We formed the Inter-Ministry Committee (IMC) on Drug Prevention for Youths last year,” he said. “Members of the IMC have started running anti-drug programmes to enhance awareness on the harms of drugs and mobilise key community leaders to amplify our anti-drug messages.

“Let me share some examples: SportSG has begun to incorporate preventive drug education into its programmes and curricula for our young athletes, and to reinforce positive life values to remind our youths about pursuing excellence while keeping their minds and bodies healthy.

“Our schools will cover drug-related topics in their school curricula, by extending it to other subjects, such as the General Paper.

“In the Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), these messages will be reinforced at various junctures, such as orientation sessions and pre-departure briefings before students go on overseas trips.

“Starting this year, we will introduce a ‘Drug Victims Remembrance Day’ for our communities to rally together to remind ourselves of the harm, the hurt, and the trauma, which the families and loved ones of drug abusers suffer and have suffered.

“In partnership with CNB, MOE schools and IHLs will be organising various activities, such as lessons, exhibitions, and talks on the Remembrance Day. There will also be an essay competition for youths in post-secondary educational institutions to encourage conversations and reflections on the impact of drug abuse.”

Remembrance Day activities would include “a candlelight display to remember the victims of drug abuse, not only from Singapore but from all around the world”.

In conclusion, Shanmugam said, “We have to respond robustly to [narcotics] challenges, so that we do not have a generation caught up with drug addiction, so that our children can inherit a country that is safe and free of drugs, and have the same environment that we enjoy today.”