Singapore’s emerging drug debate

Blink and you’ll miss it, but Singapore’s famously strict drug policy looks like it could be the next area of contestation between social liberals and conservatives. But as in most debates here, this one is marked by tone-deaf responses that don’t really engage each other; it will take time before a taboo topic like drugs is discussed with candour, particularly when all drugs are regarded as so thoroughly and unquestionably a social bad.

On the liberal side, Kirsten Han wrote on Yahoo Singapore two Mondays ago in response to the first two hangings in Singapore since 2011. She argued that it was time to reconsider the death penalty for drug offenses in Singapore: it restricts the discretion of the judges; it hits drug “mules” or couriers rather than the “kingpin” leaders of drug smuggling operations; and it increases the power of state prosecutors. She also pointed out that the war on drugs is failing—unfortunately for her, she didn’t make it clear that she was talking about the regional war on drugs rather than Singapore’s drug policy—and that decriminalisation has worked in other places.

But partly because of that omission, she was excoriated in the comments section. Some argued that making our drug policy more lenient would flood Singapore with drugs (the classic slippery slope), and that those who carry drugs into Singapore should be “prepared to pay the price” (which sidesteps the question of how the price should be set—even though litter is a problem, we don’t execute people who litter). The more sophisticated responses argued that her case doesn’t seem to add up: she claims that Singapore’s drug policy is not working, but also points out that the drug trade in our region has expanded, which (given our presumably low levels of drug use) seems to suggest that our tough laws have helped to prevent the more active regional drug trade from spilling over into Singapore.

A week later, the Straits Times reported that the National Council against Drug Abuse (NCADA) would be running an “anti-drug conference” among Asian cities next year. All its quotes save one are from Mr Victor Lye, its chairman, making it effectively an opinion piece.[1] He argues that “commercial interests” and political lobbyists have successfully fought to decriminalise drugs in some countries, and that these countries are now pushing the same agenda globally. If other countries liberalise their drug policies and drugs become more widely available elsewhere, the argument goes, Singapore’s may become ineffective. The timing of the Straits Times’ article suggests that it might have been a response of sorts—if not directly to Ms Han’s piece, then to the minor international outcry sparked by the hangings. Singapore has taken some flak for the executions on the 18th, and organising an “anti-drug” coalition helps supporters of a tough drugs policy build international legitimacy. And it comes as Southeast Asian countries are drawing criticism for their war on drugs, and drug liberalisation is gaining support in the West.

The fact that Kirsten Han and Victor Lye both bring up the regional context is telling. Their two policy suggestions are actually responses to the same problem: Singapore’s tough drug laws won’t survive if neighbouring countries become more lenient on drugs. Mr Lye is right when he points out that harsh drug laws are pointless if people can cross borders to where drugs are decriminalised.[2] The conservative response is to double down on harsh drug laws, and build a coalition in support of those laws; the liberal response seems to be to loosen the screws, or at least to prepare for those screws to be loosened.

And I think one of the two main shortcomings of Ms Han’s article is that she did not emphasise this regional context. As the comments section pointed out, drug use is almost unheard of in Singapore, which should be judged a success—so what’s the fuss? But Singapore is a small city-state, surrounded by far bigger neighbours—a city-state whose death row contains a fair number of their citizens. This is not ideal. On principle, it is rarely good policy to be executing your neighbours’ citizens. But given the number of drug offenders Singapore executes, if public opinion in the rest of ASEAN sours on the war on drugs, Singapore will lose its standing in the region.

I recognise that this argument turns on the idea that ASEAN public opinion might shift—and of course Mr Lye is working to prevent that. Nevertheless, we have to recognise that the criticisms of the ASEAN-wide war on drugs raised by reform advocates are valid. For instance, in Thailand, thousands were killed without going through normal channels of justice in its no-tolerance war on drugs; yet the drug trade proceeds apace.[3] Drug use is spreading HIV through needle sharing (see the note on drug use in Thailand on page 2), and little progress is being made on controlling drug use because users are being driven underground by the fear of legal consequences. And it seems likely that the impact of the war on drugs falls disproportionately on the poor.[4] If neighbouring governments wake up to this reality, and move towards treating drugs as a health rather than a criminal matter, Singapore’s draconian drug policy will become an anomaly in the region. It will be difficult to go on executing Indonesian and Vietnamese citizens when they don’t face comparable punishments in their own countries. In short, the criticisms of the war on drugs are valid when we look at the whole of ASEAN. It’s easy for a small island like Singapore to control its borders, but this may be untenable in future if our neighbours decriminalise drugs.

The second shortcoming in her article was a conflation of two issues: decriminalising drugs, and abolishing the death penalty for drug trafficking. Careful readers who stop to think about it will realise that these are two very different things. Decriminalisation (which Portugal has implemented with some success), sits on a spectrum of drug sanctions of varying severity. One of the end points of that spectrum is the death penalty, and the other is complete legalisation. In between are depenalisation and decriminalisation, both of which still prohibit drugs (Greenwald, 2). According to this scheme, depenalisation means no jail time; fines, criminal record, and rehab remain available. Decriminalisation implies no criminal record; non-criminal sanctions such as fines and rehab remain on the table. And there are also varying degrees of involvement in drug activity, ranging from consumption and possession to distribution and manufacture. It seems plausible that as you move along the spectrum from death penalty to no penalty or from using to making drugs, the liberal case gets harder and harder to make (vice versa for the conservatives). In other words, when I argue that the death penalty should be abolished for drug offences, I don’t have to also argue that all drugs should be legalised.

The main arguments that Ms Han alluded to (paragraph 4 in her piece) are to do with the death penalty. On the other hand, Mr Lye’s conservative response deals only with the drug decriminalisation happening in some Western countries. In short, the two camps are talking past each other. (To be fair, I’m bringing them together only for the purposes of this piece. But no recent defence of our drug policy in the mass media has addressed Ms Han’s points, and they have so far engaged only the Western decriminalisation debate.) In my view, the easiest way for a liberal to gain ground would be to focus the debate on the death penalty, rather than drug liberalisation in general.

What could these arguments be? First, we can rarely be so certain of guilt as to take someone’s life away. We can compensate people for fines or even time spent in jail. But death is irrevocable, and the system can make mistakes even if evidence is held to the highest standards. Second Chances, a group that advocates the abolition of the death penalty, compiled several examples of people who might have been innocent. Even careful prosecutors must occasionally wonder (even involuntarily) if they’ve got the right person, or the lab correctly measured the weight of the drugs they carried.

And even assuming we are sure, many drug mules are forced into the trade by circumstances—often, poverty or mental disability. In 2010 Minister Shanmugam (who is otherwise not soft on drugs or the death penalty) portrayed them as “young and vulnerable,” pawns in the struggle against “drug barons” (quoted in Yong Vui Kong v AG [2011] SGCA 9 at [5]). (See also footnote 4.) Yet he did not mention the obvious: drug barons are not going to stop trying to smuggle drugs through if we are executing their underlings—since they are facing no danger themselves, it is hardly likely to change their calculations.

Third, the death penalty relies on lines in the sand like the 15g line for heroin, above which one is liable for the death penalty. But what is so materially different between 14.99g and 15g that would justify a life sentence in one and death in another? In an interview with Yahoo! Singapore, Minister Shanmugam acknowledged that 14.99g is arbitrary, and that prosecutors sometimes decide to charge people with possession of 14.99g even though they were found with more than 15g of the substance. It could be argued that this violates the principle of treating like situations alike. Moreover, this arbitrary cut-off takes the life-and-death decision away from judges (where other sentencing decisions lie) and puts it in the hands of the prosecutors. This reduces transparency in the legal process. It also seems to relegate judges to the role of verifying the findings of the prosecution, and transfers power from the judiciary to the executive—worrying, because the executive has a declared interest in reducing the availability of drugs and therefore in obtaining harsher sentences for more people. It is true that many laws rely on arbitrary lines drawn in the sand. But none makes quite as much of a difference as that line that decides whether one lives or dies.

In short, if I were interested in reforming drug policy in Singapore, the argument I would make at this point is: (1a) drugs are bad, but some drugs are not so bad that our laws have to be as strict as they are; (1b) drug use is a fact of life, and lightening criminal sanctions (or removing the presumption that possession equals trafficking) would help encourage people to seek help for their addiction; (2) the death penalty is harsh and irrevocable, while other punishments are similarly punitive; and (3) we should consider abolishing the death penalty. And I would be careful to support point (3) with arguments related to the death penalty, not to the dangers of drugs in general, or to the decriminalisation of drugs.


[1] This does not do the Straits Times’ readers the favour of presenting alternative views—views which, when all is said and done, are held by governments of many countries in Europe and the Americas. They can’t be completely nuts. Therefore, there must be some reasonable argument for decriminalisation of some drugs.

[2] Though he conveniently neglects to mention that they are already fairly readily available in neighbouring countries, and even among some of our high society parties, expat circles, and international schools.

[3] It’s interesting that Thailand, a country that’s quite pragmatic when it comes to sex, is intolerant in a counterproductive way on the drug issue.

[4] In Singapore, in the decade from 1993-2003, the vast majority of executions (110 out of 138) were for drug offences. 20% of those executed had no education, 44% had primary education, 34% had gone to secondary school, and only 2% had any form of vocational or tertiary education (see Annex A [doc] of this MHA press release). 51% were either unskilled workers or unemployed before their conviction.

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