British billionaire declines invitation for live debate; says brave thing for K Shanmugam to do is to engage Singaporean stakeholders

British billionaire declines invitation for live debate; says brave thing for K Shanmugam to do is to engage Singaporean stakeholders

SINGAPORE — Sir Richard Branson has declined the open invitation by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to participate in a live televised debate on Singapore’s approach towards drugs and the death penalty, with Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam.

Just last Saturday (22 Oct), MHA issued a press release to invite the British billionaire and owner of Virgin Airlines for the exchange with the Minister and also offered to pay for Mr Branson’s flight to and accommodation in Singapore.

Mr Branson in an open letter via his blog on Monday (31 Oct), wrote to the Minister about his decision to decline the invitation and said that “a television debate – limited in time and scope, always at risk of prioritising personalities over issues – cannot do the complexity of the death penalty any service.”

“I can’t imagine that is what you are looking for. What Singapore really needs is a constructive, lasting dialogue involving multiple stakeholders, and a true commitment to transparency and evidence.” said Mr Branson.

The invitation from MHA was sparked from Mr Branson’s support for the anti-death penalty campaign, and in particular, a blog post on 10 Oct – World Day against Death Penalty – about his participation in a campaign to stop the execution of a Singapore death row inmate, Nagaenthran A/L K Dharmalingam who had a “well-documented intellectual disability”.

Mr Branson said in the open letter that due to the respect he has for Singapore, he feels compelled to speak out when he sees things go as horribly wrong as Singapore’s use of the death penalty.

He also shares a personal story behind his belief.

When I was young man, my father told me about my grandfather, who was a barrister and then a High Court Judge in the UK over a century ago. According to my father, my grandfather’s greatest regret in life was donning the black cap and sentencing people to death. Nearing the end of his life, he said if there was one thing he could undo, it would have been this. And he told my father he not only disagreed with the principle of the state killing people. He was also genuinely concerned that in the process, innocent people had been and would be executed. History has proven him right, time and again.

Sadly, my grandfather didn’t live to see the day the death penalty was abolished in the UK in 1969. If he had, he would have been overjoyed and pleased to know that abolition had no impact on crime rates in the UK one way or the other. In fact, there is no evidence that the death penalty reduces crime anywhere, not even in Singapore.

Mr Branson noted that the abolition of the death penalty in the United Kingdom was followed by the abolition of the death penalty in nearly all European countries and increasingly around the world.

“Singapore remains among a very small group of countries, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, China, and parts of the US,  which continue to apply the death penalty at scale, and an even smaller group that imposes the death penalty for drug offences – against the expressed position of the UN. it’s a disproportionate and ineffective response to the world’s drug problems.” said Mr Branson.

Mr Branson who is part of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, said that they have studied the failed war on drugs for the last 15 years, and had urged governments to treat drug use as a health issue and to stop the needless and ineffective criminalisation of people.

Mr Branson also said that the brave thing for the Minister to do is to actively engage the “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.”

Asking him to “treat them as equals who are just as interested in Singapore’s progress” as the Minister is. “They deserve to be listened to, not ignored, or worse yet, harassed.” said Mr Branson.

Over the past couple of months, human rights lawyer M Ravi has been subjected to a series of disciplinary tribunals, contempt of court proceedings and cost orders in relation to legal actions taken on behalf of death-row prisoners and anti-death penalty activists, such as Ms Kirsten Han have been subjected to police investigations over the vigils held for those executed.

MHA in its press release on 22 Oct, had argued against Mr Branson’s opinion on the death penalty in Singapore.

“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.” added MHA and went on to state, “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.”

In his open letter, Mr Branson addresses the claim of western concept being imposed on the rest of the world, noting: “This is about universal human rights and humanity’s shared aspiration to advance equality, justice, dignity, and freedom everywhere, for everyone.”

“If Singapore abolishes the death penalty, I’d be absolutely delighted and will celebrate with you. I hope you, like my grandfather, will eventually realise that it’s an inhumane, brutal practice that does not save lives – and casts a dark shadow on Singapore’s reputation in the world. There is no evidence to support its continued existence. Just ask those in Singapore who know.”

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