Tough stance, but greater calibration — Teo Chee Hean
JULY 10 — To restrict supply, Singapore has adopted a highly deterrent posture against drug trafficking.
In 1975, we introduced the death penalty as a punishment for drug trafficking. Under our laws, anyone who traffics drugs is liable for the death penalty, from syndicate leaders to distributors, to couriers who transport drugs and pushers who sell drugs, as long as the quantity of drugs involved is above the stipulated thresholds.
The weight element is often misunderstood by the public and the media. For example, the mandatory death penalty threshold for heroin is 15g of pure diamorphine, which is often portrayed as the weight of a few 50-cent coins. In fact, in street form in Singapore, at a typical purity level of 2.3 per cent, 15g of pure diamorphine is equivalent to some 2,200 straws of heroin worth S$66,000 (RM165,000), based on each straw having a gross weight of about 0.3g and street price of about S$30.
This quantity is enough to feed the addiction of more than 300 abusers for a week. In such cases, the death penalty is imposed, given the harm caused by these drug traffickers and the numbers of lives they destroy.
Rigorous and effective enforcement coupled with severe penalties have allowed us to stay on top of the situation. Within Singapore, our strategy of vigorous and swift enforcement efforts against local syndicates operating inland has suppressed them.
Traffickers consciously traffic amounts below the capital thresholds, which means the syndicates need to make more frequent runs using more couriers.
This has inhibited drug supply and pushed up the street price of illicit drugs in Singapore, deterring drug abuse. This is a significant achievement given our close proximity to source countries. Singapore has also avoided being used as a drug transhipment point despite our excellent transport connectivity to the region and the large number of people, about 500,000 travellers, who enter or pass through Singapore daily.
SYNDICATES CHANGE TACTICS
However, we have to adapt our strategy and approach as syndicates change the way they operate.
In recent years, by making use of improvements in communications technology, syndicates supplying drugs to Singapore have responded to the increased risks of apprehension by moving offshore, with their leaders controlling their operations remotely.
The higher-ups in the syndicates try to avoid direct contact with the drugs. They employ others to transport the drugs into and within Singapore to minimise the risks to themselves. They will consciously target and exploit vulnerable groups to do the high-risk work for them, while remaining behind the scenes. Our enforcement agencies, prosecutors and our courts have had to deal increasingly with this new situation.
The Attorney-General’s Chambers has also used its constitutional discretion prudently when deciding on the charges to be framed; and a body of case law has also been built up through cases that have come before the courts. We need to be cognisant of all these developments and make the necessary adjustments both to our enforcement strategies and to our legal framework.
We will put more resources into border checks and enforcement to stop illicit drugs from entering Singapore. As recommended by the Taskforce on Drugs, we will increase penalties for repeat traffickers and introduce new offences for those who sell to vulnerable groups and organise drug parties.
We will step up enforcement efforts against cross-border syndicates, investing more resources in technology and intelligence. We will also strengthen partnerships with regional counterparts. In this regard, I signed an MOU with the Malaysian Minister of Home Affairs Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein on June 26 to increase intelligence sharing and operational co-ordination to intensify our co-operation in the fight against cross-border drug crimes …
Our approach has been effective in reducing the drug problem in Singapore, at a time when other Southeast Asian countries have seen their drug problems worsen significantly. Today, while our drug situation has improved, it still remains a serious threat. Looking ahead, we therefore need to maintain severe penalties for trafficking, including the death penalty.
However, our society’s norms and expectations are changing. While there is a broad acceptance that we should be tough on drugs and crime, there is also increased expectation that, where appropriate, more sentencing discretion should be vested in the courts.
Therefore, we will maintain the mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers, in most circumstances. In particular, the mandatory death penalty will continue to apply to all those who manufacture or traffic in drugs — the kingpins, producers, distributors, retailers — and also those who fund, organise or abet these activities. By their actions in the drug trade, these offenders destroy many lives. They know they are dealing with drugs and the consequences of their actions if they are caught and convicted.
However, when two specific, tightly-defined conditions are both met, we propose to make the death penalty for trafficking no longer mandatory, but to be imposed at the discretion of the courts.
First, the trafficker must have only played the role of courier and must not have been involved in any other activity related to the supply or distribution of drugs. Second, discretion will only apply if having satisfied this first requirement, either the trafficker has co-operated with the Central Narcotics Bureau in a substantive way, or he has a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of the act.
We propose to change the law such that when these conditions are met, the courts will have the discretion either to sentence the trafficker to death, or, alternatively, to pass a sentence of life imprisonment with caning. The reasons for making the changes are as follows:
As I have earlier stated, the drug menace is growing internationally. We need to find more ways of targeting those who are higher up in the drug syndicates, compared with the couriers. If the couriers give us substantive co-operation leading to concrete outcomes, such as the dismantling of syndicates or the arrest or prosecution of syndicate members, that will help us in our broader enforcement effort.
(b) Mental Disability
We also propose to give the courts the discretion to spare a drug courier from the death penalty if he has a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of the act and, instead, sentence him to life imprisonment with caning.
Currently, the AGC exercises prosecutorial discretion in considering, amongst other things, the extent of mental disability of persons, before deciding on the charges to be brought. The AGC will still have prosecutorial discretion even after the law is changed.
However, the courts will now be legislatively vested with the discretion to consider, if they find the accused guilty of trafficking, whether the accused has a mental disability which is sufficient for the courts to impose the lesser punishment of life imprisonment with caning, instead of the death penalty.
Taken together, these provisions retain the strong deterrent posture of our capital punishment regime, while providing for a more calibrated sentencing framework when specific conditions are met.
At the same time, we are providing a framework for accused persons to assist our agencies to target those who play more significant roles in drug syndicates. We will discuss with stakeholders how the legal provisions can best be defined in order to meet the objectives that I have laid out.
We will monitor how these changes impact and influence the behaviour of the criminal organisations. If the situation worsens, we will consider tightening the provisions, or making other changes. — Today
* Teo Chee Hean is the deputy prime minister of Singapore.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.