SINGAPORE: Singapore's ambassador to the United States Ashok Kumar Mirpuri has rebutted freelance journalist Kirsten Han's portrayal of Singapore in a New York Times (NYT) opinion piece, saying that he "cannot recognise the country" she had described.
Ms Han's article, "What Trump is Learning from Singapore – and Vice Versa", was published in the NYT on Mar 28.
The piece was directed at US president Donald Trump's toughening stance on drug dealers. Speaking at a rally in Pennsylvania on Mar 10, he had highlighted Singapore's zero tolerance policy and remarked that "they have much less of a drug problem than we do".
In her article, Ms Han questioned the veracity of Singapore's claims that the death penalty has been an effective deterrent. The civil rights activist argued that there is a lack of reliable data to back this up.
"The rate of drug use in any society is a complex issue with many variables; without more robust data and independent research, claims of the death penalty’s effectiveness in Singapore are unverifiable."
She also took aim at the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods' recent public hearings to explore measures for tackling "fake news".
"The committee is meant to examine a range of options, but there are strong hints that new restrictions on the media are on the way, not least because the law minister, who is also a member of the committee, has already said that legislation is a 'no brainer'," she wrote.
"Both Mr Trump and the Singapore government have little time for human rights, civil liberties or even openness and accountability when there’s something they want to achieve.
"For Mr Trump, the death penalty fits his favoured straight-talking, tough-guy image. For Singapore, spinning 'fake news' into a national security issue is a great opportunity to expand state control of the online space, where political discourse is freer than anywhere else in the country."
In his response which was published in NYT, Mr Mirpuri said that Ms Han's article "paints Singapore as an authoritarian paradise, where critics of the government are squelched and drug traffickers are hanged".
He pointed out that more than 60 international media organisations are accredited in Singapore, and said "we debate issues vigorously, online and off".
"The New York Times, including Ms Han’s article, is available in print and online, as are all other online sites, except a few pornographic, jihadist and gambling ones."
Mr Mirpuri also defended Singapore's use of the death penalty, saying that it is imposed on criminals who traffic specific drugs above a prescribed amount, but not on drug abusers.
"Singapore is a major port and financial centre, in a region where heroin is produced and drug abuse a major problem. Without strict laws and enforcement, we would long have become a magnet for international drug traffickers."
He said that Singapore, like many other countries, is trying to deal with the spread of falsehoods online, which "can undermine democracy and social cohesion". "As a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, we cannot give bigotry free rein," he wrote.
"The World Economic Forum describes Singapore’s public institutions as transparent and efficient. The United States government’s own 'World Factbook' characterises Singapore as remarkably open and corruption free.
"I cannot recognise the country Ms Han describes."