SINGAPORE: Parliament has passed sweeping reforms to the Misuse of Drugs Act aimed at tackling new challenges to the drug scourge.
Among the changes is the doing away with the mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers under very specific conditions.
Authorities, though, stress that this does not mean Singapore is going soft on drugs.
In no way do the changes dilute Singapore’s tough laws on drugs, said Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean.
"Let me state categorically that we are maintaining our ’zero tolerance’ stance against drugs. Taken in totality, these amendments will make our regime tougher against repeat offenders, introduce new offences especially against those who target the young and vulnerable, and enhance the effectiveness of the death penalty regime. We will also give CNB (Central Narcotics Bureau) officers more power to deal with emerging threats and improve their monitoring capabilities," he said.
Under the new law, the death penalty will no longer be mandatory for drug trafficking under two specific conditions.
First, the trafficker must have only played the role of courier and must not have been involved in any other activity related to the supply or distribution of drugs.
Second, the trafficker has cooperated with authorities in a substantive way, leading to, for example, the crackdown of a syndicate or if the trafficker has a mental disability which impairs his judgement.
Mr Teo explained that the policy intent behind "substantive cooperation" by couriers — that may allow them to escape the gallows — is not so much about helping them escape punishment but to make it harder for drug syndicates to operate.
He said: "What we are proposing is that where the Public Prosecutor has certified that substantive cooperation has been provided, judges will have the discretion to sentence them (drug traffickers) to life imprisonment with caning.
"We cannot be sure how exactly couriers or the syndicates will respond to this new provision. But we have weighed the matter carefully, and are prepared to make this limited exception if it provides an additional avenue for our enforcement agencies to reach further into the networks and save lives from being destroyed by drugs and make our society safer."
Some MPs have spoken strongly against the death penalty, calling for a total abolition.
But Law Minister K Shanmugam defended Singapore’s tough anti—drug policy, pointing out that drugs affect more than just those on death row.
"Consider the impact on offenders, families, victims, society. Not many people in public shed tears for them," he said.
Mr Shanmugam also related the story of 2—year—old Noinoi who was murdered in 2006 by her step—father, a known drug abuser.
"How many Noinoi do we want? Each trafficker potentially destroys several Noinois," he said.
"It’s not difficult to get people in this region to become couriers. Lots of people who need money and lots of drug abusers who can be persuaded to become couriers. Not difficult," added Mr Shanmugam.
"Our stance on death penalty is extremely well known. In Singapore, traffickers face capital punishment. That sends a message and reduces the number of couriers available. You remove that fear, you remove that penalty, are we willing to take the risk of many more people becoming willing to be couriers?
"You’ve seen the data, not just from our neighbouring countries but the broader region. We have millions in the region who have the potential to be persuaded to take drugs into Singapore."
Mr Shanmugam noted that it is because of Singapore’s tough laws that the country is in a relatively good position even as the global and regional situation is worsening.
"Drug abusers have gone down since 1994. Drug kingpins avoid Singapore. Couriers think twice before trying their luck; they try to keep below capital threshold. We are not a transhipment hub, despite our connectivity. Drug prices are comparatively high; purity levels comparatively low," he said.
Mr Shanmugam reframed the debate, asking the House if it is prepared for the consequences should Singapore abolish the death penalty.
He said: "None of us, really, are there cheering for the mandatory death penalty. It has to be a careful calibration of the risks society faces and the punishment that can be imposed. And if we go on a particular route, let’s do it without hiding the truth from ourselves or by assuming that nothing else will change when we change certain penalties.
"Accept that when we change certain penalties, there will be consequences. Ask yourselves whether we are prepared for the consequences. And if we are honestly prepared for the consequences then we change. I would suggest, ask (ourselves) whether the changes we make are going to help the victims or are they going to hurt the victims? And firmness, clarity of purpose and compassion — to both offenders as well as the victims."
Mr Shanmugam also sought to clear some "misconceptions" on drug couriers. Some MPs have expressed concerns that there may be couriers who are innocent or are so low down the ranks that they would have little information of use to authorities.
Mr Shanmugam said couriers traffick drugs for money and that every arrested courier is potentially a lead back to the syndicate.
On calls to give the courts more discretionary powers in meting put the death penalty, both ministers said that should be the responsibility of Parliament.
Mr Teo said: "We must also as Parliament carry the responsibility of putting in place an overall system that minimizes the number of those who will take the chance and end up becoming wrong—doers in the first place, by sending an unequivocal deterrent signal that this is a serious crime and the consequences are severe.
"As Members of Parliament, we have to reconcile the two — attend to the concerns of those of our constituents caught on the wrong side of the law and do our best to help them within the constraints of our law. But we also bear the responsibility of putting in place a legal and policy framework that minimizes the temptations for people to commit crime and cause damage to others, thinking they can get away with it lightly," said Mr Teo.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, if discretion is applied across the whole spectrum of drug trafficking, added Mr Shanmugam.
"Can we conceive of a discretionary sentencing approach which maintains the deterrent value of the death penalty across the whole spectrum of drug trafficking activities? With the best will in the world, I suggest it will be difficult if not impossible. That is a view we came to after discussing this extensively with the agencies, the Attorney—General, the courts," said Mr Shanmugam.
"Consider what factors you would set out for exercise of discretion. Age: Would you say youth? Would you say young mothers? Would you say impecuniosity? Would you say the trafficker was baited with love? Would you look at other family circumstances? Set out the criteria, and I promise you the drug lords will design the couriers in accordance with the criteria you have set out and they will send you as many couriers as you wish a fitting that criteria.
"That’s because you are looking at background factors and the manner in which the crime is committed becomes less important. Trafficking is the crime! So while it is attractive in broad terms to talk about giving discretion, look at it in detail and see whether it is workable."
Both ministers Teo and Shanmugam stress that capital punishment is just one tool in an arsenal of measures to deal with Singapore’s drug situation. It is something that has worked for Singapore.
The changes will affect the 28 who are currently on death row for drug trafficking. Authorities will re—look their cases and it is possible that some may escape the gallows.
speech by DPM Teo
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