Legalisation of cannabis in Thailand will present more challenges, with many people travelling to and from Singapore: Shanmugam
Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam also said the death penalty works as a serious deterrent against drug trafficking.
SINGAPORE: The freer availability of cannabis in Thailand will present more challenges, with many people travelling to and from Singapore, said Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam on Thursday (Sep 1).
Mr Shanmugam was responding to a question by Malaysian broadcaster Astro Awani about how Thailand’s decision to legalise cannabis will impact the drug situation in the region and in Singapore.
“Would it be a problem? I think the freer availability of cannabis in Thailand, to which a lot of Singaporeans go to and from, where a lot of tourists come to Singapore, is going to present more challenges. I'm sure it will,” he said on Astro Awani’s Consider This programme.
If there is clear evidence of current use of drugs, Singapore authorities will take action, regardless of whether the consumption was in Singapore or overseas, the minister said in a Facebook post earlier on Thursday about national swimmers Joseph Schooling and Amanda Lim.
Schooling and Lim had both admitted to taking drugs in the past, he added in the post.
Research shows that the use of cannabis is harmful and addictive, said Mr Shanmugam, noting that it can cause irreversible brain damage, brain shrinkage, serious mental and psychiatric illnesses.
“Some pharma companies and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) with vested interests have argued that cannabis is a soft drug, that cannabinoids have medical benefits,” he added.
“But really, they are driven by the green rush, the desire to make money. It is a lucrative industry.”
In Singapore, the use of cannabis is allowed when doctors require it for medical purposes, based on medical advice, said Mr Shanmugam, who is also Law Minister.
After Thailand decriminalised the sale of cannabis in June, the government “had to then try to rein in the effects”, he added.
“Within a week, cannabis was everywhere in drinks, in food, in toothpaste and cookies,” he added.
The Thai government made schools cannabis-free areas, banned smoking in public, and banned the sale of cannabis to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. It also moved to try and protect minors and vulnerable parts of the population, Mr Shanmugam said.
“But once it's in cookies, and once it’s in soft drinks, and once it’s in toothpaste, how do you protect breastfeeding mothers? How do you protect pregnant women? How do you protect young children? How do you police this? So, there are difficulties in controlling once you do this,” he added.
MALAYSIA’S CANNABIS LAWS
Mr Shanmugam also responded to a question about Malaysia’s health ministry researching and looking into legalising medical marijuana, and how it could impact Singapore.
“If Malaysia legalises cannabis or other drugs, given the even greater flow of people between Malaysia and Singapore compared to Thailand and Singapore, of course, it will be more challenging from the law enforcement (angle) and trying to keep Singapore drug free,” said the minister.
“If you mean by impact, whether because Malaysia does something therefore will we follow suit, I think that's not the usual way our legislation works,” he added.
“We look at the research and we look at the science, and we decide for ourselves. And our laws don't always look like Malaysian laws, and our policies don't look like Malaysian policies. We diverge when we have to.”
With Malaysia planning to abolish mandatory death penalty, Mr Shanmugam was asked if this was something Singapore would consider.
“There is a good reason why we have the mandatory death penalty,” said the minister.
“These are matters for Government and as a matter of policy, for a long time, we have decided that once a certain threshold is crossed, in order to have the deterrent effect, people must know that the mandatory death penalty will apply.
“If we remove that, the deterrent effect of the death penalty will be substantially reduced.”
He noted that the mandatory death penalty has a “very high deterrent effect”.
“And if you remove that, you dilute the deterrent effect, and the deterrent effect is part of the Government's policy against drugs,” he said.
“So, we are not likely to change simply because Malaysia changes. We will change when we think that the deterrent effect is no longer there, for example, or the conditions are different, and you need to adopt a different approach to have that deterrence.
“It is a question of what's your policy, and how you seek to achieve it.”
He said the task of any government is to persuade people that they are doing the right thing. If there is a different view that is in the majority, laws will have to change to reflect the majority viewpoint, he said.
“But, if you are in the government and you believe that something is right, whether it's majority viewpoint or minority viewpoint, you explain your position, and then you decide whether morally, you are prepared to stay on even though you think the steps that are going to be taken are going to be against public interest.”
PENALTIES MUST BE EFFECTIVE, DETERRENT
The minister was asked about the Singapore Government’s approach to those working against the death penalty.
He said any penalty can only be justified if it is explained rationally.
“You don’t impose a penalty, particularly the death penalty, because you want to be harsh. This is not the question of being harsh for the sake of being harsh,” he added.
“The penalty must be effective, it must be deterrent, and that's what I mean by effective.”
People know of the laws in Singapore and therefore they do not traffic drugs, he said.
“Some decide that they will chance their lives, take the risk, because they want to make a few extra bucks. But most don't,” he added.
He said that it is his duty to continue to try and persuade Singaporeans that having the death penalty works as a serious deterrent, and that it saves thousands of lives.
According to a 2021 survey by the Government, seven in 10 people say they support the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking, and nearly 80 per cent support the mandatory death penalty for murder, noted Mr Shanmugam.
“Why do they support it? Because more than 80 per cent believe that the death penalty had deterred these offences in Singapore. Twenty to 30 per cent disagree, and in any democratic country, you will have that 20 to 30 per cent that disagree. The data speaks for itself,” he added.
A government survey of the region where people could be trafficking drugs into Singapore also indicates that a “substantial majority” – more than 60 per cent of people, including people in southern Malaysia – said that the death penalty is a very effective deterrent, said Mr Shanmugam.
“How does Singapore’s reputation suffer? I mean, there are people who are ideologically opposed. But you must be careful to distinguish between a few Western correspondents, who go to the same people in Singapore who oppose the death penalty, quote them, and then write articles,” he added.
“And the majority viewpoint in Singapore, and the majority viewpoint about Singapore, is a well-governed, well-run, well-managed country, where people are free to walk about and do what they want to do.”
Mr Shanmugam also addressed criticism that the survey was not an independent one.
“When you don't like the results, some people will question the results too,” he said.
“Let's be clear. Drugs are bad, drugs destroy more lives. It's a point I make. These large numbers, there is no answer. We are responsible for the lives of Singaporeans,” he added.
“And this survey - I don't design the surveys, I don't look at the questions. They are done by professionals, and we are not in the business of designing questions in a way where we get the answers we want. I'm sure it was done professionally."