The Singaporean government has invited British billionaire and outspoken death penalty opponent Richard Branson to a live televised debate over the city-state’s controversial use of capital punishment against drug traffickers.
In the press statement issuing the invitation, released yesterday, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said Branson “may use this platform to demonstrate to Singaporeans the error of our ways and why Singapore should do away with laws that have kept our population safe from the global scourge of drug abuse”.
The MHA statement also includes a point-for-point response to a blog post by the UK billionaire, published on Oct 10, titled “World Day Against the Death Penalty: What’s the matter with Singapore?”
In that post, Branson argues that the rising number of executions that have taken place in Singapore this year (at least 11, but possibly more) and the circumstances surrounding many of them “have been dark stains on the country’s reputation in the world”.
Read our feature: The details about the death penalty Singapore doesn’t want to talk about
Branson goes on to summarize the case of Nagaenthran (Nagen) Dharmalingam, a 33-year-old Malaysian man who was executed in Singapore in April. Branson and death penalty opponents from around the world, as well as a panel of UN experts and EU countries, had called on the Singaporean government to halt Nagen’s hanging due to his “well-documented intellectual disability”, arguing that his hanging would contravene Singapore’s international commitments to protect the rights of the disabled.
Here’s our timeline detailing the controversy over Nagaenthran Dharmalingam’s case:
In their response, MHA repeated the government’s position that the Singapore Courts had found Nagen to not be intellectually disabled and was aware of his crime.
Branson’s post goes on to argue: “The truth is that Singapore’s government seems bent on executing scores of low-level drug traffickers, mostly members of poor, disadvantaged minorities, whilst failing to provide clear evidence that it has any tangible impact on drug use, crime, or public safety. It’s a disproportionate, brutal response.”
In response, MHA says Singapore takes “a comprehensive harm prevention approach, which includes the use of the death penalty for traffickers who traffic large amounts of drugs and seek to profit from destroying other people’s lives and livelihoods.”
The ministry also cites government data showing that many drug traffickers have reported decreasing the amount of drugs they attempted to traffick into the country to stay below the threshold under which the mandatory death sentence would be imposed.
Branson acknowledges Singapore’s relatively low rates of reported drug abuse but argues that “there are many reasons for that, including the nation’s wealth and strong economic growth, low unemployment, social cohesion, a general disposition against drug use, investments in public health, and so on.”
Branson’s blog also notes that “All eleven men executed in Singapore this year were small-scale traffickers, often of Malay origin or Malaysian nationals.”
“Leaving aside the plausible suspicion of racial bias against a population that is disproportionately represented on Singapore’s death row, all of those executed in recent memory were on the low end of the drug supply chain, small-scale drug traffickers who were victims of the drug trade themselves, threatened, coerced, and bullied by large-scale dealers who prey on their economic vulnerabilities.” he wrote.
Mr Branson is entitled to his opinions. These opinions may be widely held in the UK, but we do not accept that Mr Branson or others in the West are entitled to impose their values on other societies. Nor do we believe that a country that prosecuted two wars in China in the 19th century to force the Chinese to accept opium imports has any moral right to lecture Asians on drugs.Ministry of Home Affairs’ Response to Sir Richard Branson’s Blog Post on 10 October 2022
Regarding the allegation of racial bias, MHA’s press release responds: “This assertion is false. Mr Branson probably picked it up from some activists in Singapore with their own agendas.”
In August of last year, 17 inmates sentenced to capital punishment filed a suit arguing that the Singaporean government had discriminated against them based on their Malay ethnicity given their disproportionate numbers on death row. In December, the high court dismissed the suit, calling it “logically flawed”.
Branson also raises concerns about “the continued harassment of capital defence lawyers and human rights defenders,” noting that lawyers who take on death penalty cases “are frequently punished with cost orders after filing late-stage applications to save their clients”.
That issue was also raised last month by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), with the NGO arguing: “The imposition of punitive cost orders has obstructed death-row inmates’ access to justice and effective remedies, their right to legal counsel — with several having had to represent themselves in court — and, in turn, their right to a fair trial and, ultimately, their right to life.”
In response, MHA’s press release states: “Defence lawyers have never been penalised for representing and defending accused persons. Every accused person who faces a capital sentence is provided with legal counsel to defend them. However, this does not mean that lawyers can abuse the court process by filing late and patently unmeritorious applications to frustrate the carrying out of lawfully imposed sentences.”
“Mr Branson is entitled to his opinions,” MHA writes. “These opinions may be widely held in the UK, but we do not accept that Mr Branson or others in the West are entitled to impose their values on other societies. Nor do we believe that a country that prosecuted two wars in China in the 19th century to force the Chinese to accept opium imports has any moral right to lecture Asians on drugs.”
The government press release ends with the invitation for Branson to come to Singapore for a live televised debate with Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, K Shanmugam, who has been the most vocal and visible defender of Singapore’s death penalty policy.
Along with the invitation, the government says the Virgin Group’s “flight to and accommodation in Singapore will be paid for.”
Branson has not yet issued a response to the invitation.
Watch our documentary on the fight against the death penalty in Singapore:
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