MHA accuses British billionaire of publicly peddling falsehoods about Singapore, after invitation for live debate with minister was rejected

Full response from Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs on 5 November 2022 to Sir Richard Branson’s rejection of its invitation to a live debate with Minister of Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam.

Sir Richard Branson (“Mr Branson”) has, for some time now, been making untrue statements about the penalties imposed on drug traffickers in Singapore.

On 22 October 2022, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) responded to Mr Branson, pointing out his errors. He was also invited to a live televised debate, where he could argue his case, and seek to convince Singaporeans of these views. Regrettably, Mr Branson has declined.

Mr Branson’s reasons for declining do not hold water:

(a)   He says that a televised debate would be limited in time and scope, “always at risk of prioritising personalities over issues”, and cannot do the complexity of the death penalty any service. He adds that it would reduce “nuanced discourse into soundbites”.

This is surprising. The Government offered the debate precisely to give Mr Branson every opportunity to explain himself fully. He would have been able to put forward his views (nuanced or otherwise), and explain fully whatever he wants to explain. There was no suggestion that he should only engage in soundbites.

We can only surmise that Mr Branson realises he will be shown up, because what he has been saying about Singapore is not true.

Mr Branson’s sudden scrupulous desire not to engage in soundbites is at odds with the soundbites and broad unsubstantiated allegations, which he has been making, in his blog posts.

(b)   Mr Branson suggests the Government engages Singaporeans instead of him on the Death Penalty (“DP”). He may not be aware that the Government has engaged Singaporeans extensively on the DP:

(i)   This year alone, the Government has engaged in discussions on the DP with thousands of Singaporeans.

(ii)   In Singapore, important matters are discussed in Parliament by MPs, as elected representatives of the people. The discussions reflect not just the Government’s view, but the different perspectives of Singaporeans. The DP has been discussed in Parliament several times in recent years.

(iii)   The Leader of the Opposition has agreed that in Singapore, the imposition of the DP is necessary.

(iv)   Singaporeans overwhelmingly support the imposition of the DP. One study showed 74% supported the DP for the most serious crimes. Another study found more than 80% agreed that it deters crimes like drug trafficking, firearms offences, and murder, and 66% agreed that the mandatory death penalty is appropriate for those convicted of trafficking a significant quantity of drugs.

The Government’s offer to debate Mr Branson was in addition to its ongoing engagements with Singaporeans. He has been publicly peddling falsehoods about Singapore, using his celebrity status to campaign to change Singapore’s position. If his facts are wrong, it is important this be publicly exposed. If Mr Branson is convinced he is correct, he should take up our offer of a debate, and not offer lame excuses to opt out.

It is not for Mr Branson to tell the Singapore Government who in Singapore it should talk to. He names several persons and organisations he says the Government should engage. Some of them are quite clearly among those who have been feeding him misinformation and untruths. Interestingly, a few of the persons indirectly referenced by Mr Branson travelled to Malaysia in 2018 to congratulate Dr Mahathir on being elected Prime Minister, and to ask Dr Mahathir to bring democracy to Southeast Asia (including Singapore). These are persons who turn to foreigners like Dr Mahathir and Mr Branson to pressure Singapore, because they do not get much support from Singaporeans.

Mr Branson suggests that we study lessons from other countries. We do. We look at what is happening in the UK, US, Europe, and other parts of the world. We see the high rates of drug abuse and drug related crime, and the countless lives lost and families destroyed. Singapore is not completely free from the drug menace either, but our drug situation is under much better control.

We adapt what works to our own situation, and avoid practices that have failed. Our children largely grow up free from drugs, people live in our city state without fear of violence or crime, and Singaporeans and foreigners alike enjoy the genuine freedoms in a vibrant, global city with a very low crime rate.

We ask only for our right to choose our own path, to continue keeping Singapore and Singaporeans safe. The elected Government of Singapore is fully capable of taking our own decisions, explaining them to Singaporeans, and getting support for them, including at the polls.

Mr Branson’s disregard for facts, his condescension in declining a debate, and his failure to recognise that we have considered these matters carefully, all point to one of two possible conclusions:

He either believes that he should be listened to without question, simply because of who he is; OR

He knows that what he has said cannot be defended. And to avoid being exposed, he has offered an elaborate set of non-explanations.

We do not accuse Mr Branson of hypocrisy as some British media have done. We do not question (as others have), his prioritisation of profit over the human rights principles which he so loudly professes. Nor do we judge him for taking drugs together with his son (as he has publicly admitted to doing). But Mr Branson should act with some honour. If he takes a public position on a matter which can impact thousands of lives in another country, then he should be prepared to explain himself.

Pontificating from a distant mountaintop, and then avoiding a serious discussion when challenged, does not suggest any respect either for principle, nor for the people whose well being he claims to champion

Rejection Of Invitation By MHA To Debate With Minister

Posting in his blog on 15 October, Mr Branson declined the open invitation by MHA to participate in a live televised debate on Singapore’s approach towards drugs and the death penalty, with Mr K Shanmugam.

MHA had issued a press release on 22 October 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 31 October, 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.

Apart from voicing why he supports the abolition of the death penalty, 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.

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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