SINGAPORE - As Parliament yesterday began debate over the proposed changes to the mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers, some Members of Parliament questioned the regime's effectiveness, calling for evidence on how it has deterred drug crimes.
Others made impassioned speeches on the value of a human life to argue against the imposition of hanging for any offences, even as some related first-hand encounters with families and lives ruined by drugs and questioned whether Singapore could be wrongly seen as going soft on drugs - at a time when the drug menace is getting worse.
During the three-hour debate, 16 MPs rose to speak on the contentious topic, with more set to do so when Parliament reconvenes tomorrow.
First, the trafficker must have only played the role of courier and must not have been involved in any other activity related to the supply or distribution of drugs. Second, he must either suffer from a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of the act, or he has cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) in a "substantive" way.
Judges can order life imprisonment with at least 15 strokes of the cane, instead of death, for traffickers who meet both requirements.
Speaking at the second reading of the Bill, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean warned about the worsening drug situation in the region. In 2009 and 2010, 61 laboratories were seized in Indonesia, and 27 in Malaysia. As recently as June this year, Malaysian authorities discovered a factory half an hour away from the Second Link producing methamphetamine. About RM$10 million (S$4 million) worth of methamphetamine and "Ecstasy" tablets were seized, Mr Teo said.
Under the new laws, offenders who provide drugs to anyone below age 21 will face stiffer penalties, as will those who recruit the young or vulnerable into drug trafficking. Anyone organising drug parties - as compared to just the host, under current laws - will also be jailed at least three years and might be caned. Mr Teo said that the new regime will "send a strong deterrent message and enhance operational effectiveness of our enforcement agencies".
Noting that the mandatory death penalty will continue to apply in most drug trafficking cases, Mr Teo said: "We have long taken a 'zero-tolerance' approach against the drug menace. The amendments... will strengthen our ability to do so in our new operating environment and allow us to continue doing all we can to keep our streets safe and to protect our children from the scourge of drugs."
Still, MPs such as Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) and Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland- Bukit Timah GRC) felt that the changes could send the wrong signal that the Government is softening its stance. Said Mr Tong: "My concern... is that our present amendments do not inadvertently send a message or it is misconstrued that Singapore has had a fundamental re-think on our strict anti-drug philosophy."
Holland-Bukit TImah GRC MP Christopher de Souza also stressed the need for tough anti-drug laws. "Let us not forget who the victim here is - it is not the trafficker; it is society, it is the many families broken by drug addiction," said Mr de Souza. "We should have compassion for this brokenness too. The way to do so is to maintain immensely strong and muscular measures to deter drug traffickers from targeting Singapore."
At the other end of the spectrum was Nominated MP Laurence Lien, who reminded the House that "every human life is precious".
He said: "It is not just about our criminal justice system, which we also want to be proportionate and restorative; it also about the type of society that we want to build - a society that values every person and every human life, and one that doesn't give up on its people."
Taking a stand against the death penalty, fellow NMPs Eugene Tan and Faizal Jamal also pointed out the lack of casaul evidence between a mandatory death penalty regime and low drug crime rates.
In the same vein, Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim asked if the Government has relied on any studies or data to conclude if the death penalty has indeed deterred crimes and drug trafficking.
Nevertheless, both Ms Lim and fellow WP MP Pritam Singh supported the Bill. Said Mr Singh: "The amendments proposed by the Government are a step in the right direction insofar as it loosens the application of the mandatory death penalty under two specific conditions. However, this move also represents a missed opportunity to remove the mandatory death penalty from our statute books completely."- Today Online, 14/11/2012, Death penalty changes spark impassioned debate