SINGAPORE: Singapore will maintain a tough stance and step up efforts in its fight against drugs, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam, capping off a marathon session of Parliament that ended close to 10pm on Tuesday (Apr 3).
It will also review its strategy for new challenges and make it targeted, he stated in a speech that lasted over an hour. “We will differentiate between those who supply and cause harm versus those who are abusers and, where possible, we will employ data based, science-based approach."
In responding to a Private Member’s Motion filed by MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Christopher de Souza, Mr Shanmugam said the motion is a “timely call” for Singapore to remain vigilant in the fight against drugs, step up its efforts and make it a “national priority”.
NEW LOCAL CHALLENGES AND TRENDS
Mr Shanmugam pointed out new local challenges and new trends that have emerged.
One major challenge, he said, is the increased supply of drugs. Mr Shanmugam noted that Singapore is near the Golden Triangle, which is the second-largest opium source in the world. Singapore is also a major transport hub, and vulnerable to drug syndicates, he said.
Another major challenge Mr Shanmugam highlighted is the peddling of drugs online. “You can have anonymous transactions, you can have parcels coming in from any part in the world ... that creates a challenge,” he said. “We also face a challenge from new drugs ... new psychoactive substances, where people take drugs and mix them with contaminants to lower the cost.”
Quoting figures from the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), he said more than 3.5 kg and 4,000 tablets of new psychoactive substances have been seized in the past two years. These have been falsely marketed as legal and safe, he added.
Some youths also think that drugs are "cool", he noted. “There is a certain perception glamourised through media outside this country, that drugs are cool and cannabis is non-addictive. And if we are not careful, they can become our next generation of abusers,” the minister said.
He also observed that a new group of Singaporeans are trying drugs, where last year, 40 per cent of those arrested for abuse in Singapore were less than 30 years old. “They are students, professionals, people who are well-educated, with good jobs,” he said.
“Parents may think it is not their children, but in the past three years, we have picked up more than 350 students, from all levels, from primary school to tertiary, and from all backgrounds ... with as well as without a substance abuse in the family.
He also highlighted another “worrying statistic” - that 83 per cent of those in Singapore’s prisons are in there either for substance abuse, or have a history of substance abuse. This is even though the particular crime they committed is not related to drugs.
“You can see how much drugs can impact on lives,” he said. “It destroys you. These are all statistics, facts.”
MORE REHABILITATION; INCREASED EDUCATION NEEDED: MPS
In moving the motion, Mr de Souza suggested a regular review of the Misuse of Drug Act to ensure that it contains the “legal muscle” to deter the demand and supply elements of drug offences.
He cited a rise in young drug abusers and a “significant” rise in the supply of cannabis. For instance, the number of abusers arrested under the age of 30 years has increased by about 20 per cent since 2014 according to CNB statistics, he said. The supply of cannabis is also on the rise, based on increasing amounts seized by CNB, he added.
In order to prevent youths from getting involved with drugs, he said that its ills should be included in the Ministry of Education's primary school curriculum and be an examinable topic.
MP who also spoke on the issue stressed the importance of rehabilitation. Mr de Souza asked that lower-risk inmates be given increased access to effective rehabilitation. “We should make full use of the window of opportunity while an addict is low-risk. Lower-risk inmates have a higher chance of recovery,” he said.
MP for MacPherson SMC Tin Pei Ling said strong community support is needed to help former drug offenders battle the demons of addiction. She added that individuals should be encouraged to step forward to speak of their personal experiences in taking drugs, and become role models or mentors to struggling drug users who need help.
Mr de Souza also highlighted a need to ensure that the overall national attitude, or the cultural perception towards drugs remains strongly anti-drugs. MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC Intan Azura Mokhtar concurred, underscoring the point by sharing a personal anecdote.
She spoke of how her 18-year-old son studying at a local polytechnic has two friends who smoke marijuana and do not think it is a “big deal”. She said that her son was also offered the drug, which he declined.
MPs also noted the ease of getting drugs online. The number of people arrested for buying drugs and drug-related paraphernalia online increased significantly from 30 in 2015 to 201 in 2016, a 570 per cent increase over a year.
Ms Tin said it has been reported that these websites even offer free samples to bait curious youths into experimenting, knowing full well that the return on investment from giving a free sample is a very high chance of addiction and subsequent demand for drugs. With perceived anonymity online, youths may be less fearful of obtaining illicit drugs, she added.
“With all interactions made virtually, without physical interactions with the drug traffickers and usage of sophisticated cashless transactions, like bitcoin, youths may feel more at ease to obtain drugs,” she said.
Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun also spoke, making a case against capital punishment and the death penalty. “I agree that it is important to have tough laws, but I do not believe that capital punishment, as a demonstration of the tough laws and resolution to fight against drug problems is something I can support,” he said.
SUGGESTIONS IN LINE WITH WHERE SINGAPORE WANTS TO GO: SHANMUGAM
Mr Shanmugam thanked the MPs for their views, noting that most suggestions “are in line with where we want to go.”
“Today’s motion and the speeches of the members, even Mr Kok’s speech, give me considerable comfort because I think we are on the same page, that this has to be taken seriously, and you reflect the perspectives and the will of the people in many ways.”
He said Singapore’s first line of defence has to be preventive education, which includes school talks and lesson plans. He added that Singapore is also looking at Iceland’s methods of anti-drug messaging.
“This is a generation that you tell them ... 'Don’t do this', they might go and do it,” he said. “So you need different approaches, and Iceland does seem to have an approach that seems to work.”
He also stressed the need to grow a pool of anti-drug advocates amongst young people’s peers. “We need volunteers, more individuals, more organisations, civil society groups, businesses,” he said. “CNB will launch a United Against Drugs coalition later this month, and also review the way it puts across messages. So we need to mobilise the ground.”
A second defence Mr Shanmugam pointed to is effective enforcement and tough laws, noting that Singapore will have to increase its partnerships with overseas counterparts and tackle the new “online supply menace”.
The Government will also study how to deal with the issue of new psychoactive substances, he added.
Mr Shanmugam also reiterated the Government’s stand on the death penalty as a deterrent against trafficking. “The death penalty is an important part in our comprehensive anti-drug regime and part of our overall approach which will not work on its own, but it’s part of an overall set of measures,” he said.
He also noted the importance of rehabilitation as the third line of defence, explaining that every abuser has different risk levels and motivational factors, and the Singapore Prison Service tailors rehabilitation accordingly. Other programmes, he added, include family support, skills training and religious services.
Mr Shanmugam stressed the importance of family and community support as a fourth line of defence, agreeing with MPs that it is “crucial” to help families stay strong. He said the Singapore Prison Service has a Family Resource Centre and a Yellow Ribbon Community Project to encourage families to visit abusers in the Drug Rehabilitation Centre.
“I am not saying that by any means that it is perfect, that it can be improved, or that we are where we want to be," he said of the measures on this front. "But we have thought about these things, we’ve introduced these and it continues to be refined, changed and worked on.”