On 5 June 2010, Singapore’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Mr Michael Teo, defended Singapore’s policy on the death penalty. In an article for The Guardian, a British publication, titled, “Singapore’s policy keeps drugs at bay”, Mr Teo referred to an earlier article by Mr Patrick Gallahue and Mr Rick Lines of the International Harm Reduction Association.

We publish below Mr Teo’s article and the response by Mr Gallahue and Mr Lines.

Singapore’s policy keeps drugs at bay

Michael Teo

Many criticise using the death penalty against those in the drug trade, but our strategy has saved thousands from addiction

Changi prison, where Singapore’s death row prisoners are held. Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA

Drug abuse blights modern societies. That is why many governments are focused on tackling addiction, preventing drug-related crimes and ultimately protecting their populations.

Singapore’s tough stand and use of strict laws and stiff penalties against those involved in the drug trade, including capital punishment, have sometimes come under criticism. The comment by Patrick Gallahue and Rick Lines of the International Harm Reduction Association prompted by the trial of a drug trafficker, Yong Vui Kong, and the imposition of the death penalty on him, is a recent instance.

Singapore pursues a comprehensive national strategy to combat the scourge of drugs, comprising a high-profile public education campaign, treatment and rehabilitation of drug offenders, as well as strict laws and stiff penalties against those involved in the drug trade.

Public education against drug abuse starts in schools. For abusers, our approach is to try hard to wean them off drugs and deter them from relapsing. They are given two chances in a drug rehabilitation centre. If they go through counselling, kick their drug habit and return to society with useful skills, they will not have any criminal record. Those who are still addicted go to prison, where they are put on general rehabilitation programmes to help them reintegrate into the community.

Strong community support against drug abuse has been critical to our fight against drugs. Singapore society resolutely rejects drug abuse. Several voluntary welfare organisations run halfway houses to help recovering addicts adjust back into society. Many employers also come forward to offer reformed drug addicts employment opportunities.

Drug traffickers are a major part of the problem on the supply side. They make drugs available in our communities and profit from the human misery they help create. This is why tough laws and penalties are needed, including capital punishment for trafficking in significant amounts of the most harmful drugs. This sends a strong deterrent signal to would-be traffickers. But unfortunately, attracted by the lucrative payoffs, some still traffic in drugs knowing full well the penalty if they get caught.

With all these efforts, Singapore has one of the lowest prevalence of drug abuse worldwide, even though it has not been entirely eliminated. Over two decades, the number of drug abusers arrested each year has declined by two-thirds, from over 6,000 in the early 1990s to about 2,000 last year. Fewer than two in 10 abusers released from prison or drug rehabilitation centres relapse within two years. We do not have traffickers pushing drugs openly in the streets, nor do we need to run needle exchange centres. Because of our strict laws, Singapore does not have to contend with major drug syndicates linked to organised crime, unlike some other countries.

According to the 2008 World Drug Report by the United Nations office on drugs and crime 8.2% of the UK population are cannabis abusers; in Singapore it is 0.005%. For ecstasy, the figures are 1.8% for the UK and 0.003% for Singapore; and for opiates – such as heroin, opium and morphine – 0.9% for the UK and 0.005% for Singapore.

Singapore’s use of capital punishment has come under criticism. However, contrary to the assertions of anti-death penalty campaigners like Gallahue and Lines, Singapore laws that specify the death penalty for certain drug offences do not contravene international law. Notably, at the United Nations general assembly in 2008, 46 countries, including some of the world’s largest democracies, voted against a draft resolution proposing a moratorium on the death penalty. Another 34 countries abstained.

In the recent case of Yong Vui Kong, the court of appeal acknowledged that the mandatory death penalty is constitutional, and the high court expressly found that Yong Vui Kong knew he was carrying the drugs.

Every society strikes its own balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of society. Capital punishment is an integral part of our successful comprehensive anti-drug strategy. Our tough stance against drugs has saved tens of thousands of lives from the drug menace. It is therefore not surprising that the majority of Singaporeans continue to support the death penalty.


Singapore’s government attempts to defend its harsh drug laws

Patrick Gallahue / Rick Lines

Singapore’s high commissioner to the court of St. James’s and ambassador to Ireland replied to IHRA’s op-ed in the Guardian this weekend in his own article titled, ‘Singapore’s policy keeps drugs at bay’.

In the piece, Mr. Michael Teo attempts to justify Singapore’s radically harsh drug policies, which include some of the world’s most ferocious capital drug laws as well as corporal punishment.

He wrote: ‘Drug traffickers are a major part of the problem on the supply side. They make drugs available in our communities and profit from the human misery they help create. This is why tough laws and penalties are needed, including capital punishment for trafficking in significant amounts of the most harmful drugs. This sends a strong deterrent signal to would-be traffickers. But unfortunately, attracted by the lucrative payoffs, some still traffic in drugs knowing full well the penalty if they get caught.’

The entire piece can be read here.

Mr Teo made a number of claims in his piece that warrant a response – which we posted in the comments section and will now repost here.

In our response we wrote: Mr Teo states that ‘Singapore has one of the lowest prevalence of drug abuse worldwide’. Singapore often makes this claim to justify its harsh drug laws. However the government does not make available any reliable data on drug use in country, making this statement impossible to be independently tested.

Earlier this year, the Reference Group to the United Nations on HIV and Injecting Drug Use found Singapore to be one of the only countries in Asia that did not have reliable data on rates of drug injecting among its population. When our organisation, the International Harm Reduction Association, compiled the Global State of Harm Reduction report, we likewise were unable to find any reliable data on drug injecting in the country.

In place of independently verifiable data, Mr Teo cites information found in the World Drug Report 2008, published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). However, rather than being independently produced, the estimates he refers to were provided by the government of Singapore itself.

As described by UNODC, its ‘Report is based on data obtained primarily from the annual reports questionnaire (ARQ) sent by Governments to UNODC’. Therefore, when Mr Teo cites the World Drug Report, he is in fact only citing the official data provided by the government of Singapore itself, rather than data independently produced by the UN. Indeed, UNODC admits that the vast disparity in data quality and collection methods between countries makes comparisons between countries of little value.

If in fact the evidence supported Mr Teo’s claims, we would suspect that the government would publish it. Their failure to do so certainly creates reasonable doubts as to the veracity of such claims, and whether they represent anything more than political ‘spin’ to try and justify a controversial and likely ineffectual policy.

Furthermore, Mr. Teo argues that the death penalty for certain drug offences does not contravene international law. This statement is at odds with the vast majority of United Nations bodies tasked with interpreting international law – including the UN Human Rights Committee, the Special Rapporteurs on torture and extrajudicial executions, among others.

While he cites the 46 countries that voted against the Moratorium on the Death Penalty in the UN General Assembly, that resolution applied to all crimes, including premeditated murder and terrorist offences. It was not a referendum on the mandatory death penalty for drug offences. In any case, the Moratorium was passed not once but twice by the UN General Assembly despite the objections of these countries.

Of those states that retain the death penalty in law, only 32 do so for drugs and most of those do not actually carry out such penalties, much less make capital punishment mandatory. Only about five percent of the world’s countries make impose mandatory capital punishment for drugs in both law and practice. As stated in our original commentary, in this sense Singapore is clearly on the fringe of international death penalty policy.

Finally Mr Teo also raises the issue of deterrence as a justification. However, in the Yong Vui Kong decision the court admitted that it would not be able to assess its effectiveness in preventing drug crimes. The Court of Appeals wrote, ‘It is not within the purview of this court to determine the efficacy or otherwise of the [mandatory death penalty] as a deterrent vis-à-vis the offence of drug trafficking.’ The court cited precedent for this position. In Ong Ah Chuan decision the Privy Council said, ‘Their Lordships would emphasise that in their judicial capacity they are in no way concerned with arguments for or against capital punishment or its efficacy as a deterrent to so evil and profitable a crime as trafficking in addictive drugs.’

Thus deterrence as a legal justification for the mandatory death penalty rings somewhat hollow.

In any case, the government of Singapore fails to publish detailed crime data, and data on executions it carries out, makes Mr Teo’s claims about the effectiveness of its policies impossible to test independently. In fact, drug offences of any kind are conspicuously absent from Singapore’s official crime data. Given that Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau regularly reports on major trafficking arrests on its website, this seems an odd omission.

As a result, the offence for which Yong Vui Kong has been sentenced to death does not appear as a crime in Singapore’s crime statistics for the year of his arrest (or if it does it is hidden elsewhere, and not recorded as a drug offence.

This isn’t the first time that Singapore has tried to justify its extreme drug policies. Last year, the island-state lashed out at UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, for releasing a report on human rights and drug enforcement to the UN Human Rights Council. The Singapore government wrote that it ‘categorically rejects this or any attempt to impose a policy on sovereign States on how to deal with offenders under their criminal justice system’. It further defended its sovereign right to beat and kill drug offenders.

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