SINGAPORE – The Home Ministry (MHA) has refuted British billionaire Richard Branson’s blog post criticizing the use of the death penalty to deter drug trafficking and invited him to a live TV debate with Minister of Justice and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam.
Responding to the October 10 blog post, MHA said Mr Branson made false claims about Malaysian Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, who was hanged in April for drug trafficking. The department said Mr Branson also made false claims about alleged racial bias and the treatment of defense attorneys in the capital.
Referring to the proposed live TV debate, he said: “Mr Branson can use this platform to demonstrate to Singaporeans the error of our ways and why Singapore should scrap the laws that have protected our people from the global scourge of substance addiction.”
He added that his flight and accommodation in Singapore will be paid for.
In Mr Branson’s blog post, he said Nagaenthran had a “well-documented intellectual disability” and was hanged despite it.
The ministry said on Saturday: “We have repeatedly clarified that this is untrue. The Singapore courts ruled that Nagaenthran knew what he was doing and that he was not intellectually disabled.
“Mr. Branson also suggests that Singapore violated our international commitments to protect people with disabilities by carrying out the death penalty on Nagaenthran. This too is false, as Nagaenthran was not intellectually handicapped.
As Mr Branson questioned Singapore’s approach to drugs, including applying the death penalty to those who smuggled large quantities of drugs, the ministry said its priority was to protect Singapore and Singaporeans from the drug scourge.
“Capital punishment has had a clear deterrent effect on drug traffickers in Singapore. It also helped prevent major drug syndicates from establishing themselves here,” he said.
He said that after the introduction of mandatory capital punishment for opium trafficking in 1990, there had been a 66% reduction in the average net weight of opium trafficked in Singapore in four years.
In the blog post, Mr Branson said the 11 men executed in Singapore in 2022 were “petty traffickers, often of Malay origin or Malaysian nationality”, and that he suspected racial bias.
In response, the ministry said the claim was false. “Mr. Branson probably picked it up from some activists in Singapore with their own agendas. Our laws and procedures apply to everyone equally, regardless of background, nationality, race, level of education or financial status,” he said.
Mr Branson said the “continued harassment” of the capital’s defense lawyers and human rights defenders was “another worrying topic”, and that it had a “chilling effect on the will of lawyers in represent those sentenced to death”.
MHA said defense attorneys have never been penalized for representing and defending defendants.
“Every accused person facing capital punishment has a lawyer to defend them,” he said.
“However, this does not mean that lawyers can abuse the legal process by filing late and manifestly unfounded requests to hinder the execution of legally imposed sentences,” he added, citing the Nagaenthran case where the Court of Appeal rejected last-minute requests and described them as an abuse of the judicial process.
The ministry said: “Mr. Branson is entitled to his opinions. These views may be widely held in the UK (Great Britain), but we do not accept that Mr Branson or others in the West have the right to impose their values on other societies. Nor do we believe that a country that fought two wars in China in the 19th century to force the Chinese to accept opium imports has any moral right to lecture Asians about drugs.
Singapore’s drugs and death penalty policies stem from the country’s own experience, he added.
“Nothing we have seen in the UK or the West convinces us that adopting a permissive attitude towards drugs and a tolerant stance towards drug trafficking will increase human happiness. When it comes to drug addiction, things have steadily gotten worse in the UK, while things have steadily gotten better in Singapore,” he said.
Singapore has issued similar challenges to overseas critics in the past.
The late New York Times columnist William Safire was invited to a one-on-one debate with Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in Singapore in 1995, which he declined as he insisted on debating with founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in Switzerland instead.
The invitation came after Mr. Safire and another scholar at Williams College in Massachusetts objected to the college’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate on Mr. Goh. Mr Safire had also criticized Singapore’s trade with Myanmar, as well as attempts to control access to certain websites.
In 1990, Mr Lee challenged journalist and author Bernard Levin to a face-to-face interview on the BBC after the Briton wrote an article in The Times of London which the government said was a broad attack on Mr. Lee, his post as Prime Minister in Singapore and justice in Singapore.
Although the BBC was prepared to broadcast such a programme, the late Mr Levin declined the interview.
This article first appeared in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.