Trump take note – why Singapore’s claim that the death penalty works for drug offences is fake news

Rick Lines, Swansea University

Speaking before the country’s parliament, Singapore’s minister for home affairs, K Shanmugam, extolled the country’s success in fighting drugs. He attributed these results to Singapore’s harsh drug laws, which include the use of capital punishment.

It may seem surprising to the uninitiated that Singapore has the death penalty for drug crimes. But, as the minister said: “Our penalties are severe because we want to deter such offences”.

Singapore is one of a tiny number of countries classified by Harm Reduction International (HRI) as “high application” states in the use of capital punishment for drugs. This means that death sentences and executions are a regular part of the criminal justice system. Indeed, there have been two executions for drug offences just this month, killings which were condemned by UN human rights officials.

The idea that harsh drug laws such as the death penalty are effective is one actively promoted by Singapore. And it is a belief now allegedly being adopted by US president Donald Trump. Given Trump’s notorious concern with what he considers “fake news”, it is somewhat surprising he has embraced one of the more dubious claims in global drug control – the myth that Singapore’s harsh penalties have nearly eliminated drug use and drug crime.

The Singapore myth

Singapore consistently claims that it has one of the lowest rates of drug use in the world. Yet the government does not publish reliable data on drug use, making this statement impossible to independently verify.

As far back as 2008, the reference group to the United Nations on HIV and injecting drug use found Singapore to be one of the only countries in Asia without reliable data on rates of drug injecting. More recently in 2016, HRI published its global state of harm reduction, which similarly found almost no reliable data on levels of drug use in Singapore.

Condemned.
BortN66/Shutterstock

Instead, the government typically cites information from the world drug report, published annually by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). However, rather than being independently produced, this report reflects data provided by governments.

This practice – which I have long referred to as data laundering – puts a UN seal of legitimacy on Singaporean government data that is at best unverified, and at worst politically expedient. UNODC admits that the vast disparity in data quality and collection methods between countries “affect the reliability, quality and comparability” of the data in the report, making comparisons between countries of little value.

Even the Singaporean minister’s recent speech did not offer any figures on drug-related crime, sticking instead to a few emotive stories about the “dangers of drugs”. The government’s failure to provide transparent data creates huge doubts about any claims of effectiveness, and raises the question of whether their statements represent anything more than political “spin” to justify controversial drug policies.

Missing data

The only data Singapore does publish on drug use are figures on what it terms “drug abusers” – people who come into contact with the health or criminal justice system for drug treatment. Given that UNODC estimates the number of people who require treatment globally is only 10% of all people who use drugs, we can see how these government figures (even if accurate) are a dramatic under-representation of levels of drug use in a country.

What about Singapore’s success in reducing drug-related crime? As with data on drug use, published figures on drug-related crime are neither robust nor transparent, again making such claims impossible to independently verify. The annual statistical crime brief published by the Singapore police force does not provide any data on drug-related offences. Nor does the annual report of Singapore’s central narcotics bureau – an odd omission given the bureau’s practice of regularly reporting major trafficking arrests on its website.

This lack of data certainly does not reflect a lack of crime. The government admits 80% of people in prison are drug offenders. This, coupled with the fact that Singapore has the seventh highest rate of incarceration per capita in Asia, does not mesh easily with the government’s claims of low levels of drug-related crime either.

Interestingly, what the narcotics bureau’s 2016 report does show is that seizures of both methamphetamine and cannabis increased by approximately 20% over the previous year, while heroin seizures remain basically level. Hardly indicators of a shrinking drug market.

The ConversationClearly the statistics used to promote the Singapore myth either do not exist, or fall apart under scrutiny. As a result, any attempt to use the Singapore model as evidence of the effectiveness of the death penalty for drug offences is ludicrous. Given the unprecedented overdose crisis in the US, Americans deserve an evidence-based response. Pursuing myth-based drug policies will only make the problem worse.

Rick Lines, Senior Research Associate, Global Drug Policy Observatory, Swansea University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

10 COMMENTS

  1. SBS reported 3 men at coffee shop – one lying in the floor, one slouching in the chair and another sitting dazed. Why would you not report that news in addition to this one ?

  2. Dear Mr Lines,

    Please come to Singapore and see for yourself if we do have a drug problem. Or if that problem is as rampant (and getting worse) as you try to paint it while you are sitting in your office in Swansea.

    Hanging is a deterrent and an effective one. If the prospect of dying is as irrelevant to the person’s decision making process as you make it, how much more effective can your solution be?

    Do you even have an actual alternative solution that is proven to work?

    Perhaps legalize drug use like they did in Amsterdam? I’m sure that reduces the drug problem in your little universe, nobody is breaking the law anymore.

  3. Aiyoh if based on the logic of HRI if a country has no statistics on wife beating then it must be because it has very high incident of wife beating in that country and the government don’t want to report it. Hmm? Maybe it is because the incident of wife beating is low – or may be the women or men are just too ashamed to discuss about it. Yes HRI is going to publish a report called ‘LOW INCIDENCE OF WIFE BEATING IN SINGAPORE IS FAKE NEWS!”

Comments are closed.