SINGAPORE: Parliament on Monday debated proposed amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act aimed at strengthening Singapore’s ability to deal more effectively with new challenges, among them the growing number of young drug abusers and the worsening regional drug situation.
Sixteen MPs spoke on the move to give the courts more discretionary powers in meting out the death penalty.
Under the proposed changes, a drug trafficker may escape the gallows if two conditions are met: when a drug offender has been proven to be merely a courier and the person has been certified to have substantively assisted the authorities in disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore.
The courier can also be spared the death sentence in view of mental disability.
While the MPs welcomed the move to impose a sentence more fitting to the culpability of the wrongdoer, most of them cautioned against the perception that Singapore is moving away from its zero-tolerance on drugs.
Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, said: “Sir, I am also concerned that the alternative sentence of a life imprisonment instead of the death sentence may be wrongly perceived by the general public, especially among our young or unscrupulous drug traffickers, that they can be opportunistic when it comes to drug trafficking because of the amendments to this Act.
“The less informed may think that the drug trafficking offence has become less serious while the opportunists may think that they can get away with a less harsh sentence.
“Some may think that if they are being classified as a young person below the age of 21 or a vulnerable person when caught as a drug courier, they can claim to be simply a courier, cooperate with the Central Narcotics Bureau, and be given a life imprisonment instead of the death sentence, which they hope can be later reduced to several years’ imprisonment due to good behaviour.”
Dr Intan hoped that the general public, especially the young, will not have this false belief that the law is softening towards drug trafficking, and the seriousness of the drug trafficking offence must be emphasised time and again.
MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC Edwin Tong pointed out the number of drug abuse arrests has gone up in recent years. What is more troubling, he said, is the rate of increase has been faster.
He added that abusers have also become younger.
Mr Tong said regional and local statistics show that Singapore is at a five-year high in terms of drug seizures, supplies and drug abuser arrests.
Coupled with a worsening regional drug situation, he is concerned the amendments send out a message that Singapore has had a fundamental re-think on its strict anti-drug philosophy.
Mr Tong said: “There are already some international publications which report this move as a relaxation of our hitherto strict laws, which is fair enough. But there are other commentators who regard this as a step in the right direction – except that they regard the direction as being one where the death penalty should eventually be abolished altogether for all forms of offences. This latter comment is not sustainable – particularly in the context of the drug abuse and supply landscape as now see it. Strong deterrence, with the harshest punishments, must still remain a corner stone principle for our anti-drug laws.”
MPs from the opposition Workers’ Party all rose in support of the changes but pushed for a total abolition of the death penalty.
This was echoed by two other Nominated Members of Parliament – Laurence Lien and Faizah Jamal.
Mr Lien said: “I understand the strong support by many in Singapore for the death penalty, and that we Singaporeans are rightly proud that Singapore is a safe and secure home and relatively free from drugs and serious crime. These ought to be outcomes we need to work hard to maintain.
“But where it comes to the death penalty, it is not just about our criminal justice system, which we also want to be proportionate and restorative; it also about the type of society that we want to build – a society that values every person and every human life, and one that doesn’t give up on its people.”
One MP stoutly defended Singapore’s strict anti-drug laws as he related his experience dealing with families destroyed by drugs.
Mr Christopher De Souza, MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, said: “I find it odd that so much of the debate is centered on the compassion society should have on the drug trafficker. That to me is skewed. Let us not forget who the victim here is – it is not the trafficker; it is society, it is the many families broken by drug addiction. We should have compassion for this brokenness too. The way to do so is to maintain immensely strong and muscular measures to deter drug traffickers from targeting Singapore.
“What we are debating today is not child’s play. It is very serious business. We mis-step, open the flood gates, our war on drugs falters. We cannot afford to mis-step, we cannot afford to open the flood gates.”
Mr De Souza warned that the criterion of ‘mental disability’ must be interpreted strictly to prevent abuse.
“If loose interpretations of mental disability are allowed, a legal case may boil down to a fight between the psychiatrist for the prosecution against that for the defence, with the judge being forced to weigh one psychiatrist’s assessment over the other’s.
“We need to pause and realise that a distinction must be drawn between diminished responsibility in the context of murder as opposed to drug trafficking. Killing can be a spontaneous act (especially for non-premeditated cases). Drug trafficking is often rational and calculated. It is seldom spontaneous.”
MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC Alvin Yeo said the requirement to prove substantial cooperation with the authorities introduces an element of subjectivity.
Mr Yeo said: “What will happen if an accused person claims that he rendered his fullest cooperation but the CNB officer chose to not recognise it or not valued? What happens if the accused person insists he is a mere drug mule, and did not have any information on the ringleaders, although he was willing to cooperate fully? These sorts of accusations, if made enough times so as not to appear as isolated incidents, can undermine public confidence in the legal system we are seeking to uphold.”
Other changes to the Act include listing new psychoactive substances temporarily so they can be seized and circulation restricted; introducing hair analysis to enhance detection and deterrence; and making it an offence for anyone who plans a gathering where drug is consumed.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has said the mandatory death penalty will continue to apply to drug traffickers in most circumstances.
Mr Teo, who is also Home Affairs Minister, believes the measures strike the right balance, given the current operating environment.
Mr Teo said: “Today, Singaporeans enjoy a safe and secure environment because of our firm stance against drugs and crime. We have long taken a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach against the drug menace. The amendments proposed in this Bill will strengthen our ability to do so in our new operating environment and allow us to continue doing all we can to keep our streets safe and to protect our children from the scourge of drugs.”
The issues raised were varied. Some MPs wanted further clarification to some of the technicalities related to the new laws and how it may affect anti-drug operations on the ground.
There are others who raised concerns about the growing number of young Singaporeans who see drug-taking as fashionable, with no real harm done.
The debate on the amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Bill will continue on November 14.
2 Comments so far
Leave a comment