SINGAPORE: Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam rejected the notion that Singapore is softening its stance on drugs as Parliament passed amendments on Tuesday (Jan 15) to the Misuse of Drugs Act, some of which will bolster the country's drug rehabilitation regime.
One of the changes to the Act would allow recalcitrant drug abusers - who have been caught three times or more, but do not face other criminal charges - to be sent for rehabilitation instead of being put in jail.
Under the previous long-term imprisonment regime, these offenders faced at least five years in jail and three strokes of the cane.
"There is a risk of these changes being characterised as we are going soft ... we will point out that the approach we are taking is based on evidence. It's not about going hard or going soft," Mr Shanmugam said during his closing speech in Parliament.
"The knowledge and experience built up over the last 20 years enables us to take a risk-based approach which, as far as possible, takes into consideration an individual's risk and protective factors so that the intervention is most effective and appropriate."
During the debate, several Members of Parliament raised concerns that the move could be perceived as a softening of Singapore's stance on drugs.
"I am concerned that this approach may be perceived to be soft, a slap on the wrist, and may send the wrong signal to those tempted to experiment with drugs," MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC Chia Shi-Lu said.
MP for Tampines GRC Desmond Choo asked if “removing the threat" of long-term imprisonment would send "conflicting signals" on Singapore's zero-tolerance approach to drugs, as he urged authorities to consider a cap on rehabilitation stints before a jail term is imposed.
Mr Shanmugam said authorities will distinguish between offenders who consume drugs and those who also face charges for other offences.
Noting that the drug situation has improved - almost 5,800 abusers were arrested in 1996 as compared to slightly more than 3,000 in 2017 - Mr Shanmugam said authorities can afford to focus more on rehabilitation for abusers.
"Long periods of detention can affect abusers' employability after they are released," he stated, adding that reintegration is also a challenge they face.
Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Sun Xueling said the Government is "keeping abreast with new research and developments" to better achieve its aim of reducing overall drug abuse.
"I also want to emphasise that we are not becoming more permissive about drugs," she added. "Drugs come at a high cost to society and suffering behind every abuser is a family. We have no reason to go soft and we must not."
RESOURCES A CHALLENGE?
Beyond matters of principle, the changes to the Act also mean that more drug abusers will enter the Drug Rehabilitation Centre. One out of every two abusers who may have been jailed will now qualify for rehabilitation, Mr Shanmugam said.
The maximum period of detention in the centre will also be raised from three to four years.
Several MPs raised concerns about the resources needed to fulfil these initiatives, noting that counsellors already face challenges - like mental health stressors - in their jobs.
"While the amendments do not foresee any increase in public expenditure, how much more support will be given to counsellors and halfway house employees and volunteers to help keep recidivism numbers low?" Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh asked.
"The reality when we speak of rehabilitation and the new calibrated approach is that someone, somewhere will be on the delivery end of the outcome sought."
READ: Prisons exploring use of digital platforms to help ex-offenders better reintegrate into society: Shanmugam
Ms Sun acknowledged that the initiatives could be resource-intensive, but said the use of digital technology will help where possible.
For instance, she pointed to the Singapore Prison Service’s plans to hold counselling sessions via video-conferencing and an app containing self-help resources and a job database for former offenders as examples.
“The app and video conferencing initiatives will go a long way to benefiting inmates, including drug offenders,” she added.
The MPs, however, welcomed changes that would make it mandatory for parents and guardians of youth drug abusers who are under supervision orders to attend drug counselling.
If the parents or guardians refuse to be involved in the counselling without a reasonable excuse, the Court can fine them or order them to attend the sessions.
In addition, the changes criminalise various acts that expose children to drugs. For example, it is now an offence for an adult to recklessly leave drugs or drug utensils within easy access of a child.
Mr Shanmugam said this serves to "protect children, young persons from the reckless acts of older people".
“We have to give the next generation the best chance of living a drug-free life,” he added. “Young people who have already started on drugs, we must provide them with the support to get out of that cycle as quickly as possible.”