Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Why Singapore needs to shift the conversation around drugs

1 Comment


Somewhere deep in Singapore’s Changi Prison live over 50 men who have been sentenced to death. They’ve already seen 11 of their number — men who have, over the years, become friends and brothers — being taken away to the gallows. More might also be forced to make this short journey by the end of the year; there’s no way for them to know for sure until seven days before the scheduled hanging.

Most of these death row prisoners have been convicted of drug trafficking, defined as selling, transporting, delivering or distributing drugs. If the controlled drug one is caught with exceeds a stipulated threshold, such as 15g of heroin or 500g of cannabis, the penalty is death, unless certain strict conditions are fulfilled (whereupon the court can choose an alternative punishment of life imprisonment with caning).

It’s all part of Singapore’s uncompromising ‘war on drugs’. Recently Singapore’s police described the death penalty for drug offences as part of a ‘harm prevention strategy’. According to their logic, hanging drug traffickers deters others and keeps the drug trade in check, thereby protecting Singaporeans from illegal narcotics.

This narrative is strong and death penalty abolitionists are often met with accusations from fellow Singaporeans of not caring about people and families whose lives have been wrecked by drug dependence. Yet the reality is that Singapore’s drug policies also extend to drug users, upholding the social stigma and discrimination that make people’s lives more difficult after they have been marked as a drug user.

In Singapore, doctors are legally required to report to the police patients they suspect of using illegal drugs, making people reluctant to seek help even if they want treatment for drug dependence. The Director of the Central Narcotics Bureau is authorised to send anyone who tests positive for drug use to a state-run drug rehabilitation centre. People who have been arrested for drug use or have records of incarceration find themselves facing social stigma and prejudice upon release, which also impacts their chances of obtaining well-paid employment.

Last year, two elderly Singaporeans were hanged as drug traffickers despite lifelong struggles with drug dependence. Abdul Kahar bin Othman was 68 when he was hanged, while Nazeri bin Lajim was 64. Both had experienced extreme poverty and deprivation in their youth. Once caught by Singapore’s ‘zero tolerance’ system, both men spent most of their lives incarcerated. In separate interviews, their family members told me how Kahar and Nazeri had struggled whenever they were released from prison, and how there had been no follow-up from the state to help them with their recovery journeys, or at least provide their relatives with more guidance on how to keep them on track. Unable to secure steady, fulfilling employment, the men would relapse, get caught, and the incarceration cycle would repeat again … until they were each arrested with enough drugs in their possession to attract the death penalty.


'While progress has been made to end the death penalty in many places around the world, there is a very long way to go in shifting the way people and governments think and talk about drugs. A lot more work needs to be done to turn away from dehumanising stereotypes towards evidence-based approaches.' 


The Singapore government claims that its capital punishment regime and drug policy are what keeps society safe from drugs. In March, the government produced a survey saying that most of its respondents believe the death penalty deters drug trafficking and serious crime. But the question of whether there is evidence showing a causal effect (rather than just a correlation) between the death penalty and Singapore's relatively low crime rates is a matter of debate. What we have seen is an overall increase in the number of drug users arrested by law enforcement over the past 20 years.

Readers might find Singapore’s war on drugs to be overly harsh, and rightly so, but it’s important to recognise that the country’s policies sit within a spectrum of punitive drug policies. The reality is that the perception of drug use as a criminal issue for law enforcement, as opposed to a public health issue, is present in countries all over the world, even those without capital punishment.

There is growing perception around the world that punitive approaches aren’t necessarily effective, both in terms of protecting people’s wellbeing and dealing with the illegal drug trade. ‘Around the world, enforcing repressive drug laws has led to repeated environmental and human rights violations,’ wrote the Global Commission on Drug Policy in its 2021 report. ‘A truly human rights-centred drug policy ought to protect human autonomy, reduce the harm of drug use and curb the violence and exploitation produced by the illegal trade. But today’s international law excels at undermining autonomy and amplifying the harm of drug use, while transnational criminal networks reap profits.’

This is not a refusal to recognise the harms that drug use can cause. Drugs have a terrible impact on physical and mental health, and cause significant social problems, causing suffering to many individuals, families, communities. But decades of punitive policies, including capital punishment, have not succeeded in ending this harm or the illegal drug trade that enables it.

Meanwhile, researchers in Malaysia have found that people pushed into compulsory drug detention centres for their dependency on opioids relapsed far more quickly than those who voluntarily attend drug treatment centres (where they are prescribed methadone as a substitute), indicating that human-centred treatment is more effective than policing and punishment.

While progress has been made to end the death penalty in many places around the world, there is a very long way to go in shifting the way people and governments think and talk about drugs. A lot more work needs to be done to turn away from dehumanising stereotypes towards evidence-based approaches. The more countries shift away from the attempt to punish people out of using drugs, the more pressure there will be for countries like Singapore to finally turn away from this cruel and archaic practice.




Kirsten Han is an independent journalist from Singapore.

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration

Topic tags: Kirsten Han, Singapore, Death Penalty, Drug Policy, War on Drugs



submit a comment

Existing comments

What the author of this article doesn’t realise, is that the misuse of language adopted here is the edifice upon which prohibition is built.

The notion of an “illegal drugs“ is a figure of speech and as soon as you believe that drugs have an inherent legality or otherwise, then you buy into the false paradigm that negates all possibilities for recognition of human rights.

Darryl Bickler | 09 April 2023  

Similar Articles

Ride horses no more

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 30 March 2023

The decision by Australia to buy nuclear submarines from the United States and Great Britain inevitably prioritize security over justice, equality, and fraternity. As the world faces the threat of catastrophic global warming, it is time to ask whether submarines are the answer, or whether they distract us from the far greater challenge posed by nature itself.


Updating modern audiences for old texts

  • Kylie Crabbe
  • 29 March 2023

The recent decision by Puffin Books to revise new editions of Roald Dahl's corpus has sparked debates about the changing cultural mores of our times and the way we read older texts. Navigating the challenges of reading texts from another time must be accompanied by an awareness of the worldviews that shaped them.