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Richard Branson's reasons for turning down TV debate with Shanmugam 'do not hold water': MHA

Richard Branson has rejected MHA's invitation to participate in a live debate about the death penalty. 

Richard Branson's reasons for turning down TV debate with Shanmugam 'do not hold water': MHA

A photo of Sir Richard Branson speaking at an event at Spaceport America, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico on Jul 11, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Patrick T Fallon)

SINGAPORE: Richard Branson's reasons for turning down a TV debate with Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Singapore’s approach towards drugs and the death penalty "do not hold water" and are "lame excuses", said the Ministry of Home Affairs on Saturday (Nov 5).

In response to the British billionaire's blog post on Monday, the ministry said that Mr Branson was "pontificating from a distant mountaintop", only to avoid a serious discussion when challenged.

Two weeks ago, MHA said it invited Mr Branson to Singapore for a live televised debate with Mr Shanmugam to argue his case.

Mr Branson has been vocal in his views against Singapore's death penalty for crimes such as drug trafficking. Earlier this year, he also spoke out against the execution of convicted drug trafficker Nagaenthran Dharmalingam.

But on Monday, Mr Branson said no to the debate, saying that the conversation “needs local voices”.

In its response on Saturday, MHA said: "He says that a televised debate would be limited in time and scope, 'always at risk of prioritising personalities over issues', and cannot do the complexity of the death penalty any service.

"He adds that it would reduce 'nuanced discourse into soundbites'. This is surprising. The Government offered the debate precisely to give Mr Branson every opportunity to explain himself fully.

"He would have been able to put forward his views (nuanced or otherwise), and explain fully whatever he wants to explain. There was no suggestion that he should only engage in soundbites.

"We can only surmise that Mr Branson realises he will be shown up, because what he has been saying about Singapore is not true."

It added that Mr Branson’s sudden "scrupulous" desire not to engage in soundbites is at odds with the soundbites and broad unsubstantiated allegations which he has been making in his blog posts.

MHA also pointed out that the Government has engaged Singaporeans extensively on the death penalty, engaging in discussions with thousands of them this year alone.

"Important matters are discussed in Parliament by MPs, as elected representatives of the people. The discussions reflect not just the Government’s view, but the different perspectives of Singaporeans," said MHA. 

"The death penalty has been discussed in Parliament several times in recent years. The Leader of the Opposition has agreed that in Singapore, the imposition of the death penalty is necessary."

Reiterating that Singaporeans overwhelmingly support the imposition of the death penalty, MHA highlighted a study that showed 74 per cent supporting the death penalty for the most serious crimes.

Another study found more than 80 per cent agreed that it deters crimes like drug trafficking, firearms offences, and murder, and 66 per cent agreed that the mandatory death penalty is appropriate for those convicted of trafficking a significant quantity of drugs.

The Government’s offer to debate Mr Branson, therefore, was in addition to its ongoing engagements with Singaporeans, said MHA. 

In its statement, the ministry described Mr Branson as someone who has been "publicly peddling falsehoods about Singapore" and who uses his celebrity status to campaign to change Singapore’s position.

"If his facts are wrong, it is important this be publicly exposed. If Mr Branson is convinced he is correct, he should take up our offer of a debate, and not offer lame excuses to opt out," said MHA.

On Mr Branson's suggestions on the people and organisations Singapore should be engaging, it said it is not for him to tell the Singapore Government who in the country it should talk to.

It pointed out that some of them "are quite clearly among those who have been feeding him misinformation and untruths".

MHA added: "Interestingly, a few of the persons indirectly referenced by Mr Branson travelled to Malaysia in 2018 to congratulate Dr Mahathir on being elected Prime Minister, and to ask Dr Mahathir to bring democracy to Southeast Asia (including Singapore).

"These are persons who turn to foreigners like Dr Mahathir and Mr Branson to pressure Singapore, because they do not get much support from Singaporeans."

Referring to another suggestion that Singapore studies lessons from other countries, MHA said the Government already looks at what is happening in the UK, US, Europe and other parts of the world. 

"We see the high rates of drug abuse and drug related crime, and the countless lives lost and families destroyed," said MHA. 

"Singapore is not completely free from the drug menace either, but our drug situation is under much better control."

By adapting what works to Singapore’s situation and avoiding practices that have failed, children in Singapore largely grow up free from drugs and people here live without fear of violence or crime, said MHA.

Such an approach allows Singaporeans and foreigners alike to enjoy the genuine freedoms in a vibrant, global city with a very low crime rate.

"We ask only for our right to choose our own path, to continue keeping Singapore and Singaporeans safe. The elected Government of Singapore is fully capable of taking our own decisions, explaining them to Singaporeans, and getting support for them, including at the polls," said MHA. 

"Mr Branson’s disregard for facts, his condescension in declining a debate, and his failure to recognise that we have considered these matters carefully, point to one of two possible conclusions: He either believes that he should be listened to without question, simply because of who he is; or he knows that what he has said cannot be defended."

The "elaborate set of non-explanations" is a result of Mr Branson trying to avoid being exposed, it added.

MHA said that it doesn't accuse Mr Branson of hypocrisy as some British media have done or question his prioritisation of profit over the human rights principles "which he so loudly professes". It also doesn't judge him for taking drugs together with his son, as he has publicly admitted to doing.

"But Mr Branson should act with some honour. If he takes a public position on a matter which can impact thousands of lives in another country, then he should be prepared to explain himself," added MHA. 

"Pontificating from a distant mountaintop, and then avoiding a serious discussion when challenged, does not suggest any respect either for principle, nor for the people whose well being he claims to champion."

Source: CNA/lk

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