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Speech by NMP Kok Heng Leun on the Parliamentary Motion on Strengthening Singapore’s Fight Against Drugs

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland Bukit Timah), Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio), Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong), Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson), Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang):

STRENGTHENING SINGAPORE’S FIGHT AGAINST DRUGS :“That this House strengthens the fight against drugs by reaffirming Singapore’s strong anti-drug stance and calls on the Government to continue (i) applying tough laws to deter the trafficking of drugs into Singapore; (ii) investing in the rehabilitation of drug addicts; and (iii) preventing a drug-tolerant culture from being established in Singapore.

Speech delivered by NMP Kok Heng Leun, 4th April 2017 

Mr Deputy Speaker Sir,

I would like to thank the Honourable Members who proposed this motion. It has allowed me to understand deeper the drugs issues and I agree with the Members on the need to be more proactive in dealing with the drug problems.

I am sure the House would also wish to join me in paying tribute to officers in the Central Narcotics Bureau for the work that they do in keeping Singapore safe. Our officers often place their personal safety on the line in the course of their work, and I think we ought to put on record our appreciation for their sacrifice and bravery.

The motion covers 3 important points but I will only address two of them. The first one on the motion of applying tough laws to deter drug trafficking into Singapore, and the second one would be my suggestion for rehabilitative work with drug offenders, traffickers and users alike.

  1. The death penalty

Sir, the first part of this motion proposes that this House calls on the government to continue applying tough laws to deter drug trafficking into Singapore, and this includes the retention of capital punishment for drug offences in the form that it presently takes.

Let me state my position clearly. I do not support the death penalty. It is against my own personal philosophy: that I do not believe in a life for another life. I will not want to impose my moral position in this, but I think there are other issues with regards to this matter that I hope that we can have more discourse on.

I agree that it is important to have tough laws, but I do not believe that capital punishment as a demonstration of the tough law and resolution to fight against drugs problems is something I can support.

Sir, capital punishment, as we all know, when they take place cannot be remedied.

Ian Callinan, a former Australian High Court Judge says: “The criminal justice system is fallible. Mistakes occur. Any system that retains the death penalty will inevitably, even if infrequently, cause an innocent person to die. It is not within our capability to avoid the possibility of error. In my experience, the phenomenon of human fallibility is irrefutable, and, in my view, must be accorded primacy when weighing the arguments in favour of, and against, the death penalty.”

Sir, any criminal justice system in the world, however advanced, will make mistakes. It is not a question of having professional, honest and upright judges, police officers, prosecutors, or defence lawyers. However much trust we have in our system, however much faith we have in the people that operate our system, mistakes are unavoidable because humans do make mistakes and sometimes genuine mistakes.

In a capital case, once the execution takes place and the life of a person is terminated, any mistakes made cannot be corrected. The person’s life is lost forever. As the saying goes, “you can release innocent people from prison, but you cannot release them from their graves”.

The criminal justice system has itself demonstrated that it is never 100% sure that the person it is sending to the gallows is in fact guilty.

Secondly, because of the risk factors in the system, even with a very good and disciplined police officers that we have now, mistakes may happen.

In normal cases, our criminal justice system requires a person’s guilt to be proven beyond reasonable doubt before he/she can be convicted, and, in the context of capital cases, sentenced to death. The law has always made it clear that proof beyond reasonable doubt does not mean proof beyond all doubt. But because the death penalty is irreversible, nothing less than proof beyond all doubt would suffice if we are serious about ensuring that no innocent person is wrongfully executed.

Sir, if our judges themselves can disagree over the question of whether the accused persons in some cases were guilty or innocent, we have to ask ourselves whether we can be absolutely sure that we always send the right people to the gallows. The answer to me, is that no, we cannot.

Just a few weeks ago, our Court of Appeal overturned the conviction of Mr Harven a/l Segar, who was found guilty of drug trafficking by the High Court. But the Court of Appeal was not unanimous. Two of the three judges thought that the court should acquit the accused, while the third judge thought otherwise.

On top of this, there are various procedures within the criminal process, which increases the probability that wrongful executions that can happen or will happen.

Firstly, a person charged for an offence of drug trafficking or importation is automatically presumed guilty, once the prosecution shows that the accused was merely in possession of the package containing the drugs. As a result, accused persons have to prove that they are innocent, and they have to do this without the resources available to the police. As Professor Michael Hor has pointed out, “where the presumption is employed there can be no doubt that an accused person can be found guilty and executed in the absence of proof beyond reasonable doubt”.

Professor Michael Hor also points out that when there is no access to counsel immediately upon arrest, it could affect the ability of the accused person to defend himself against a capital charge, especially since incriminatory statements obtained by the police can form the sole basis of a conviction, without corroborating or supporting evidence of any kind.

While there is indeed a rule that involuntary statements are inadmissible, proof of exactly what happened in the interrogation room and of exactly how statements are obtained depends entirely on witness testimony of the police and of the accused. There is no requirement of recording of any kind, even where no defence counsel is present. Furthermore, what goes on during the investigation process is especially important because statements of co-accused persons can be used against the accused and can also form the sole basis of a conviction without corroborating evidence, even if the statements are subsequently retracted at the trial by the co-accused.

So in Professor Hor’s view: “…all these rules and practices taken together must at least cast some doubt on whether there is sufficient due process for the conduct of capital cases.”

Sir, if every other advanced criminal justice system in the world has convicted the wrong person, there is no reason to think that Singapore is immune to the problem. Miscarriages of justice have been found in systems such as Canada, Australia, Norway, and many others. Why should we think that the situation in Singapore is any different?

Of course, one may ask: have there been any proven cases? Sir, in my view maybe that is really not the right question. Rather, the right question is whether we should wait until someone is wrongfully executed before we decide to change our position.

Now, I would like to speak now on the humanity of the families of those executed and those who have their loved ones on death row. While we do not see it, the reality is that our criminal punishment, especially the death penalty, creates a new class of victims in the families of the death row inmates. These family members are innocent people. They found themselves having their loved ones taken away from them through no fault of their own. Most of them are mothers and sisters who have done all that they can to make a decent living for themselves and their families.

In conversation with a former death row convict who was acquitted by our Court of Appeal, I was struck by the poignancy of how he described the impact of the death penalty on his family. He told me this: “When you sentence me to death, you sentence my family to death too”.

Sir, I do not wish to play down the impact of drug abuse on the family members of drug abusers. But just as it is important to recognise and address the impact of drugs on the families of drug abusers, I hope we also consider how capital punishment impacts the families of the condemned. Both groups of family members are equal victims in this process.

But if we cannot sufficiently show that the death penalty yields more than a marginal deterrent effect or provide any objective data and evidence, we also have to ask ourselves whether it is necessary or indeed fair, for us to create a whole new class of victims by carrying out that punishment.

So do we have good and conclusive data and information that can prove beyond doubts that death penalty, and by extension, tough laws would deter drug trafficking?

In fact Sir, it appears, and is accepted by CNB itself, that it is active enforcement both internally as well as joint border operations by our efficient CNB, that remains the best strategy towards disrupting the activities of drugs syndicate and in reducing the supply of drugs from entering our borders as much as possible.

Let us not also forget the reality is that the ones who are being severely punished are largely the drug mules. Drug kingpins that operate beyond our borders, and who are well sheltered through a complex network chain are not going to be the ones personally affected by the harsh drug laws put in place and will continue to send individuals, who are often desperate, to supply drugs into our country. As such, would the death penalty for drug trafficking yield only a slightly higher deterrent effect than alternative punishments?

  1. More focus should be on addressing the demand for drugs

Let us be clear here – drugs are a menace to our society and its use should be eliminated as much as possible. Sir, let us also not ignore the fact that the question of drug use is not just a criminal justice issue but a social, political and economic one.

It is a question of the sufficiency of our social and economic structures to ensure that individuals have the social and economic means and support to enable them to lead a dignified and meaningful life such that there is little incentive for them to abuse drugs. It is most telling when in 2015, out of the 1400 individuals that are placed in the various drug rehabilitation centres, 821 individuals have only secondary education, 308 individuals have only primary education and 6 individuals do not have any education at all. Perhaps the profile of drug abusers might give us some indication that it is in the inadequacy and gaps in our social and economic institutions, rather than the failure of not having implement more punitive punishment on drugs consumption and drug-trafficking that the problem lies.

Ultimately, the issue of supply needs to be addressed through the demand lens as well, which I agree with the members. It goes without saying that if we are unable to effectively reduce the demand for drugs, the supply of drugs will continue to creep into our borders.

Sir, while I do agree that we must invest in the rehabilitation of drug addicts, I also want to raise another point – that rehabilitation should also be for drug traffickers and not just drug users. We should also be mindful that many traffickers themselves battle addiction, poverty, unemployment and mental illnesses. In many cases, as recognised by our Courts, they are simply people driven to desperate measures to earn money for their families. They too, are ordinary people who have fallen through the cracks and are equally capable of rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

Let me now speak of the rehabilitative work. Addiction is complex and it is not illness that can be remedied by medication. It is mental, emotional and affects the physical being.

Once my company Drama Box did a work with inmates from the DRC (Drug Rehabilitation Centre). In fact what struck us was their concern on how they would find a good support system when they move back to the society. In fact in one performance, when we moved the play out of the DRC, and had it performed by professional actors, an audience member shared his experience of helping his relative. He sent a relative, who left the DRC, to work in a logging firm in Brunei, deep in the forest. Over there, the relative learnt about discipline and it took him away, at the same time, from his previous social circle. When the relative came back to Singapore 3 years later, he had enough money to start up his business. The rehabilitative process is a very very long one.

Visual Artist Ms Shelly Soh who worked with some woman drugs offenders in her Seeing (from) The Other, a work for the Singapore Biennale 2013, noted this, and I quote: “The most important challenge working with the women inmates was to encourage self expression in discovering their own stories of growth, change, inspiration and agency. What was equally crucial for these women, many of whom had very low self-esteem and were often poorly educated.” And in the end of the process, Shirley noted, “Ultimately, what surprised the women inmates was how much the art process was about life and their own life experience and aspirations that were worthy of sharing with the outside world.”

I saw a performance performed by inmates in the Prison centre just last year. It was one of the most beautiful performance I have ever seen. The sincerity and commitment, but importantly when you look at the faces and hear the voices of these inmates, when they first appeared on stage, slightly embarrassed, but as the performance went on, you know that the experience of working on the performance had made them stronger, more confident, more aware of themselves.

According to Ms Peggy Ferroa, the Arts Educator who worked with them, I quote: “Inmates on the programme spend at least 6 hours a day on week days rehearsing, planning ahead for performances or reflecting. If their minds are occupied with things that require concrete outcomes that they know they can do well in, it is likely that they spend less time thinking of ways to beat the system. When their time is meaningfully spent and they are able to reach their personal goals, and they gain confidence and start to think about what they can do for others. Some inmates in the programme have come up with educational workshops using drama for other inmates.”

Yes, Arts is powerful in helping the rehabilitative process, of building that resilience in them – to face change, to make change, to be the change themselves. For this to happen it needs the Prison Service to be able to invite more of these work. I hope we can look at more such co-operation, as proposed by fellow members, and of course managing the procedures to allow the artists to work with the inmates.

I would like to stress that it is not about making them artists so that they can get a skill. Of course if they are very talented and want to do so, we would be so happy to have more additions to our artistic and creative community. But the programme builds very important soft skills, as well as resilience, which will serve them well when they go back to society. And these programmes must not be short workshops, but sustainable ones that would focus on the process.

Finally let me be clear again, Sir – my position on the death penalty is not a dogmatic one. It is not cast in stone, and just as I hope Members who disagree with me would keep an open mind in this discourse, I in turn promise to keep an open mind to any new arguments or evidence that my honourable friends and other members of society may bring forward. I sincerely hope that the government would do more to facilitate a more informed public discourse on this subject, and I hope to continue this conversation, with Members in this House, and with my fellow Singaporeans at large.

Thank you.

A clip of Mr Kok Heng Leun’s speech may be found here.

And the Minister for Home Affairs and Law’s response may be found here and here.

Mr Christopher D’Souza’s response may be found here.

Professor Michael Hor’s article on the death penalty may be found here.

We would also like to express our gratitude to Mr Kok Heng Leun for allowing us to reproduce his speech here.

Joint Statement: Halt imminent executions in Singapore and Indonesia

We the undersigned human rights organisations, and concerned human rights defenders condemn the imminent executions of Kho Jabing in Singapore and at least 15 individuals – which apparently includes 4 Chinese nationals, 2 Nigerians, 2 Zimbabweans, 1 Senegalese, 1 Pakistani and 5 Indonesian nationals – in Indonesia. We call on the authorities of the two countries to halt the impending executions.

Continue reading Joint Statement: Halt imminent executions in Singapore and Indonesia

Joint statement on imminent execution of Kho Jabing

CLARIFICATION ADDED 15 May 2016

It has come to our attention that the President, while acknowledging Kho Jabing’s intention to file a fresh clemency petition, has taken the position that his decision to reject the previous clemency petition in October 2015 still stands. It is unclear if he will consider the new clemency petition once it is filed.

The death penalty is an irreversible punishment. A life once taken, cannot be returned. The fact that one High Court judge and two Judges of Appeal have expressed the opinion that the death penalty is not an appropriate punishment for Kho Jabing shows that there continues to be doubt a death sentence is justified in this case. It is on these grounds that we urge the President to grant clemency to Kho Jabing, and commute his death sentence to life imprisonment.

It is of utmost importance that this case not be rushed, and that the forthcoming clemency plea be given due deliberation. We call on the President of the Republic of Singapore to stay the execution scheduled for 20 May 2016 so as to allow a reasonable time for the consideration of Kho Jabing’s fresh clemency petition.

14 May 2016

For immediate release

We, the undersigned, are troubled by the imminent execution of Jabing Kho in Singapore, despite strong concerns over the development of his case. We believe there are strong grounds for President Tony Tan of the Republic of Singapore to grant clemency in this case.

The family of Sarawakian Jabing Kho, 31, received a letter from the Singapore Prison Service on 12 May 2016 informing them that his execution had been scheduled for 20 May 2016. Jabing was convicted of murder in 2011.

Continue reading Joint statement on imminent execution of Kho Jabing