‘Soft heart, hard head’: Singapore’s approach to drug trafficking as a needed deterrent

Two in three Singaporeans are in support of the death penalty, according to a MHA study.

Amanda Tan

Skills include buying the same jeans in different colours.

Published: 13 October 2023, 1:38 PM

Singapore takes a “soft heart, hard head” approach towards drug traffickers, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Sep 20 at a dialogue session by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the National Youth Council.

The engagement, held at the Asian Civilisations Museum, was attended by 80 youths. It sought to address the concerns regarding the death penalty faced by drug traffickers – a strict enforcement introduced in 1961 by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. 

Currently, 32 other offences warrant the capital punishment, including murder, terrorism and kidnapping.

A pre-session survey asked participants whether they believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent in safeguarding Singapore against serious forms of crime, to which 64.4 per cent responded yes.


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The dialogue was held to share Singapore’s approach and to address concerns, if any. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL YOUTH COUNCIL


Here are some key takeaways from the session:

1. Prioritising “thousands of innocent lives” over lives of drug traffickers

Mr Shanmugam kicked off the session by presenting a compilation of videos and statistics from local and international news. Of the many was a short clip by American broadcaster NBC News of a baby convulsing as a result of drug withdrawal. “Who cries for these children?”, asked Mr Shanmugam, adding that being born with drug dependency is “one of the worst sentences you can impose on young people”.

“Is it moral to let children be born with drug dependency and prioritise the lives of drug traffickers?”

Some participants opined that there are a handful of perpetrators who are victims themselves. 

People bringing drugs in may no longer be doing it out of profit but rather out of compassion for a loved one. For instance, they may do it in order to earn money to support their family. However, Mr Shanmugam remained firm. “You don’t have to destroy Singaporean lives in order to feed your children,” he said.

“If we give leniency to that, what will happen to Singapore? How many people are you prepared to see dying in Singapore?…either (the) policy will be changed or you will be changed. That’s democracy.”

He reinforced the message, noting that drug traffickers calculate the chances of getting caught and ultimately decide to take the chance. As for individuals who need the drugs for medical purposes, they should let a medical professional prescribe the drugs.


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Singapore’s approach to drugs include rehabilitation and aftercare, as well as preventive drug education. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL YOUTH COUNCIL


One participant, 35-year-old Hilmi Abu Bakar, agrees with the Government’s tough stance. The educator said: “I have always felt strongly against such claims because while yes, you may look at saving the lives of one, two drug traffickers, but in doing so, you’re negating the possible negative effects that it could have to tens and thousands of lives with the widespread use of drugs within our community.”

He also shared on the importance of being cognisant of “certain biassed narratives” that others may be lobbying for, in an attempt to propagate what they believe in. He feels that with social media algorithms, there’s also a heightened risk of youths being “kept in an echo chamber loop” where they’re bombarded by narratives that befuddle their understanding of the matter in totality.

2. Death penalty is backed by hard evidence

Upon the implementation of the death penalty, Singapore saw a drastic reduction in serious crime rate – MHA shared that within four years, the average net weight of opium trafficked reduced by 66 per cent. In the 1990s, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) arrested about 6,000 drug abusers per year. Now, the number has dwindled to about 3,000.

Overseas, when thousands die from drug abuse, there is no news. Yet, in Singapore, one death makes the headlines, said Mr Shanmugam. “Countries that have legalised drugs have come out to acknowledge that it was a grave mistake…but it’s too late.” 

His comment was in reference to international cases like Oregon, USA where drug possession was decriminalised in November 2020. The Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, or Measure 110, led to a significant increase in the number of drug overdose deaths. It was reported that residents had changed their views, some acknowledging their regret not repealing Measure 110, and Oregon is now moving ahead with plans to re-criminalise drug possession. 

In 2021, MHA did a survey on the death penalty in Singapore. The results showed that more than 80 per cent agreed the death penalty has deterred the commission of hard crimes like drug trafficking in Singapore.

In the same year, MHA also conducted a study on persons from the region where most arrested drug traffickers originated from in recent years. From the regional population, 83 per cent believed the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment in discouraging people from trafficking more drugs into Singapore.  



Higher awareness of penalties for drug trafficking will lead to lower propensity to traffic drugs, according to MHA. IMAGE CREDIT: MINISTRY OF HOME AFFAIRS


A participant asked why there is a minimum quantity of drugs trafficked in order to warrant the death penalty and how the minimum quantity was derived. In response, Mr Shanmugam said that the number is based on research.

The capital sentence threshold amounts are 15g of pure heroin, capable of sustaining the addiction of 180 drug abusers for a week according to MHA; 250g of methamphetamine, enough for 185 abusers for a week; and 1,000g of cannabis, sufficient to feed the addiction of about 143 abusers for a week.

Mr Shanmugam also clarified that offenders are convicted through the proper judicial process. They are not sentenced the moment they are arrested, as it’s necessary to prove that they had drugs on hand.

3. Singapore is “soft” on drug abusers

Under the Misuse of Drugs (MDA) Act 2019 Amendments, pure abusers – including repeat abusers – can undergo shorter detentions focused on rehabilitation and start reintegrating into the community earlier while under the supervision of the Singapore Prison Service, then CNB. 

“We put a lot of state funding to rehabilitate them,” said Mr Shanmugam, adding that it takes a huge amount of taxpayers’ money and resources to do so. Nonetheless, the state does not “treat (drug abusers) as criminals”, but rather as people who need help.

Participant Lim Zi Jie Rodney, 22, was heartened to know such changes have been made, and drug abusers are receiving the support they need not just from the legal system but from social service sectors as well. “I feel that it is quite good that we are doing it that way,” he shared.


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Mr Shanmugam and participants of the NYC ‘Kopi Session’ on Drugs & Death Penalty. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL YOUTH COUNCIL


With regards to individuals who are mentally unsound at the time of crime, Mr Shanmugam highlighted that they will not be made to stand in trial and will not face the death penalty. This was in response to a question by a participant who brought up the case of Nagaenthran A/L K Dharmalingam, a Malaysian drug trafficker who was convicted of trafficking 42.72g of heroin in April 2009.

Mr Shanmugam made clear that Nagaenthran was not intellectually disabled. While Nagaenthran had a low Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of 69, he “knew what he was doing”, said the minister. For instance, Nagaenthran was noted to be “continuously altering his account of his education qualifications…, to reflect lower educational qualifications each time he was interviewed”, according to the Courts. A psychiatrist called by the Defence on Nagaenthran’s behalf, agreed in Court that Nagaenthran was not intellectually disabled.

Around the same time, the United States had also executed two men, Willie B. Smith III and Ernest Lee Johnson, who had IQ ranges of 64 to 72 and 63 to 95 respectively, similar to Nagaenthran. The US Courts dismissed arguments relating to their alleged intellectual disability.

Driving his point home, Mr Shanmugam said: “My duty is to do the right thing…if it is wrong, I will change the policy.”

Keen to find out more about NYC’s Kopi Sessions or even participate in it? Check out our Converse page here

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