A single hanging of a drug trafficker is a tragedy; a million deaths from drug abuse is a statistic & other Sackur punches by Shanmugam


Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam resolutely defended Singapore’s stance on drug trafficking on HardTalk – a BBC programme on June 29, 2022.

“I don’t have any doubts. Capital punishment is one aspect of a whole series of measures that we have, to deal with the drug abuse problem. It’s imposed on drug traffickers, and it’s imposed because there’s clear evidence that it is a serious deterrent for would-be drug traffickers,” he told host Mr Stephen Sackur, who was questioning the minister whether the death penalty for drug traffickers is the right policy.

“The key thing is the lives of Singaporeans and protecting Singaporeans,” Minister Shanmugam added.

The whirlwind 23-minute interview also covered several topics such as Section 377a and US/China tensions. Here are some highlights.

1. Questioning the question of “political and social control”

Starting with a bang, Mr Sackur touched on Singapore’s model of “political control and social control”.

To which Minister Shanmugam reminded him that Singaporeans do vote.

“Well, I will disagree with the assumptions in your question about political control and economic control. The last elections, we had 61 per cent, the opposition had 40 per cent of the votes. Voting is free and fair.

The reason why the PAP has managed a substantial dominance is because in 1965 when we had independence thrust upon us, GDP per capita was about $500. Today, it’s $55,000.

On any index that you look at, education, health care, housing, law and order, we are in the top three, four in the world. The people understand that, but at the same time, there’s a very vibrant set of discussions going on and I would say that, I wouldn’t quite put it as political control and social control.”

2. Calling out hypocrisy

Mr Sackur then asked about the hanging of Mr Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, questioning whether it is “compassionate” to hang someone with an IQ of 69.

Minister Shanmugam explained that the psychiatrist called by the defence confirmed that he was not intellectually disabled and that the Courts found that he had the working of a criminal mind, and he made a deliberate, purposeful, calibrated, calculated decision to make money, to bring the drugs in.

“You know, people focus on, and the BBC focuses on, this one person (Nagaenthran Dharmalingam). You ran four articles from October of last year to March of this year. One of them was the headline overtaking the Ukraine war. But you haven’t run any article on what the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) talked about the severe situation in Southeast Asia. And what about the thousands of lives that are at stake from drug trafficking? You know, we’re not even talking about Mexico… I think the media reporting and all the things that you’ve quoted, make this point –

that a single hanging of a drug trafficker, to misquote a well-known quote, a single hanging of a drug trafficker is a tragedy; a million deaths from drug abuse is a statistic.

I think that’s what this shows.”

3. Using the concept of democracy to explain Section 377A

Minister Shanmugam explained that people engaging in gay sex in Singapore will not be prosecuted but kept Section 377A “because a significant proportion of our population, the middle ground as it were, don’t want that law repealed”. He added that attitudes are shifting somewhat but the Government cannot ignore the views.

And when pressed by Mr Sackur, Minister Shanmugam responded with this:

“As I said, you know, this is a compromise that we have arrived at, because of where our society is.

And if you believe in a democracy, you’ve got to take into account where your main ground is.

And let’s face it, it’s not as if others have solved the issue. A Supreme Court judge from the United States suggested a few days ago, that court decisions on legality of gay sex and same sex marriage may have to be reconsidered. But our approach, to deal with these issues in Parliament, and I’ve said earlier this year that we are relooking our laws, and our laws have to change and keep pace with the times. And in a Singaporean way, we are engaging in a wide set of consultations to try and arrive at some sort of landing.”

4. On race and the top job

Mr Sackur then moved the conversation toward racism and asked whether Minister Shanmugam, being Indian, is never going to be the Prime Minister.

“Leaving me aside, I don’t think it is accurate to say an Indian cannot be a Prime Minister, or a Malay cannot be a Prime Minister.

How many non-white Prime Ministers have there been in the United Kingdom? So, let’s get real.

Race does matter in politics. Survey after survey shows that each race – whether it’s the Chinese, or the Malays, or the Indians – there is a substantial preference for a person of their own race to be the Prime Minister. So, if a Malay or an Indian, starts with, if I remember my numbers right, about a 20% gap. But it’s not unbridgeable. A good candidate, in my view, a Malay or Indian candidate, can bridge it as long as the MPs have the confidence that he can lead them into the General Elections and win the elections. I think it’s entirely possible, so I would not rule it out. And I don’t refer to myself.”

5. Calling out Reporters Without Borders

Next up, the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA).

Mr Sackur asked about FICA, highlighting the criticisms levelled by Reporters Without Borders. Without missing a beat, Minister Shanmugam responded with a stinger.

“Well, you might want to look at the legislation. Reporters Without Borders – it’s an interesting organisation. They rank us, you know, in the annual rankings. Last year, they ranked us 160 out of 180, below Gambia, Guinea, Afghanistan, Philippines, South Sudan, Myanmar. South Sudan has been described as having one of the most serious refugee crises. Myanmar had a coup. I don’t see journalists queuing up to go to South Sudan, Philippines and Myanmar as opposed to Singapore.

Take a young female BBC journalist – do you think she will feel safer or freer to report from any of these countries compared to Singapore?

I dismiss Reporters Without Borders. Completely nonsensical. We invited them in for a select committee hearing, and in the true heritage of free speech, they chickened out.”

6. Picking sides

On the final topic of US/China tensions, Mr Sackur asked which side will Singapore pick.

“No, we will not pick sides. I think, you know, for us, it’s important that we deal and navigate in the environment. But picking sides is not the right way to go. I mean, the US and China, everyone can see the tensions are deep.

On the side of the US, there is a bipartisan thinking, consensus, that China poses a direct threat. It’s always an us-versus-them mentality. In China, there’s a growing perception that the East is rising, the West is declining, and that the US is seeking to contain China, constrain China’s growth. So, if the tense relations continue this way, more bifurcation of technology and supply chains, you know, or worse. But Singapore, like many other countries in this region, will want to maintain good relations with both Washington and Beijing.”

You can listen to the interview here.

Cover photo credit: Wikipedia and BBC.