From Victims To Villains: Singapore’s War on Drugs

From Victims To Villains: Singapore’s War on Drugs
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

Singapore’s War on Drugs posture has lasted for decades. It’s time for a different approach.

As an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty in Singapore, I often get drawn into discussions about the state’s approach to drug use and crime. The government adopts an unapologetically “zero tolerance” position on drugs, a stance that enjoys widespread approval and support from citizens. When activists like me pop up to argue that we shouldn’t be hanging people for drug offences (or anyone at all, really, but the majority of judicial executions in Singapore are related to drug trafficking), we tend to face resistance or dismissal from people who believe that “going soft” on drugs by removing the “tough deterrence” of the death penalty or jail terms would lead to harmful substances pouring into the country.

It’s a narrative that the government is happy to promote. Disturbed by moves in other jurisdictions to decriminalize (or even legalize) certain drugs, state-supported campaigns work hard to reinforce establishment messages. In one dystopian video, it’s suggested that decriminalization would turn Singapore into a crime-ridden society where emergency healthcare services would be diverted to indulge addictions; in another, a girl’s life spirals wildly out of control after one puff of marijuana.

While drug use can be destructive and harmful, such extreme narratives do little to truly educate the public or foster informed discourse about drugs and drug policy. Instead, they foster moral panic, which in turn contributes to judgment and stigma against people who use drugs, or struggle with addiction.

Last year, as part of a new collective seeking reform of Singapore’s criminal punishment system, I moderated a panel on drug use, addiction, and policy. It was meant to be a conversation starter: an opportunity for Singaporeans to hear from different perspectives about drug use, and to think about how our society and government policies impact the people who are actually struggling with addiction and on recovery journeys.

The current framing is one of individual morality and responsibility; drug users are seen as criminals and failures, people who have let down their families and friends, and who have “gone bad” somehow. They don’t just need to be rehabilitated, but also punished. Users who have been through Singapore’s state-run drug rehabilitation centre (DRC) — such as “Ben,” who spoke during the panel — say that it’s just prison in another form. Such conditions might get people to detox and cut off their access to drugs for a period of time, but fail to address underlying issues, or provide longer-term support for recovery. The stigma that’s attached to having been convicted of drug offences, or done stints in DRC, can also make it difficult for people to re-enter society or seek employment upon release, creating further conditions that might lead to relapse or other struggles.

One justification for Singapore’s War on Drugs is that it protects Singaporeans from the harms of illicit drugs and substance abuse. When activists campaign to save the lives of death row inmates and advocate an end to capital punishment, one common response is, “What about the victims? Don’t you know how much harm drugs can cause? Don’t you care about them?” The logic is that this tough, sometimes fatal, policy is carried out in the interests of drug users and their loved ones.

The problem is twofold. It isn’t always so easy to make a clear distinction between those struggling with addiction and those convicted of drug trafficking, and Singapore’s current approach doesn’t adequately support people who need help with recovery. In our national discourse, drug users are cast as the victims we need to protect when talking about the death penalty, then, in other contexts, recast as villains who need to be punished out of their problematic use.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
A police officer walks into the Subordinate Courts building in Singapore July 18, 2008.

During the panel, “Ben” talked about the barriers he’d faced when trying to stop his problematic use of methamphetamines, which he’d picked up from colleagues who took it to stay awake for long shifts doing physically taxing window-washing work. Despite having made the decision himself to quit, “Ben” found it difficult to seek treatment and help. Under the law, doctors and hospitals are required to report drug users to the Central Narcotics Bureau. Afraid of getting a criminal record, “Ben” ended up struggling with his addiction until he was sent to hospital with a near-overdose, appearing on the authorities’ radar.

Root causes

If we really wanted to create an environment in which people who want to address their problematic drug use can get the help they need, we’d need to first address this current system that sees and treats drug users as criminals to be reported, even by healthcare workers.

Another important point lost in the superficial public conversation on drugs and drug policy is that illicit drugs aren’t the only addictive substances or objects of addiction. As Dr. Munidasa Winslow, a specialist in addiction and impulse control disorders, pointed out during last year’s panel, he also sees clients struggling with addictions to alcohol, gambling, sex, pornography, voyeurism, and legal drugs, such as prescription medication. Sometimes, an individual can move off illicit drugs — and thereby be counted as a “success” from the Central Narcotics Bureau’s point of view — into addiction to something else like porn or alcohol or prescription drugs, which can be just as destructive and harmful, though with very different criminal penalties.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Singapore’s then-anti-drug ambassador, actor Jackie Chan (L) watches an arrest demonstration by the Central Narcotics Bureau after launching an anti-drug mobile game application at Nanyang Polytechnic in Singapore May 7, 2015.

The answer doesn’t lie in criminalizing everything that could potentially be addictive and harmful. Instead, we need to probe deeper and think about ways in which we can address things like mental health and the stressors of today’s world — not just on the personal level, but also the systemic one.

Some experts point to the importance of social dislocation theory, which considers addiction as a societal issue. In fast-paced and unequal societies like Singapore’s, it’s hard not to feel disconnected and alienated from things that are meaningful to our lives, especially for those swept up in corporate or capitalist cultures. In trying to keep up with all the expectations and demands of the world, we end up feeling adrift from connections to family, friends, or communities that keep us rooted and give us a sense of meaning and purpose. Some might then turn to substances — illicit drugs or something else — to fill this void, or cope with dissatisfaction or stressors in their lives.

Beyond shame and punishment

This is not to say that people should be absolved of all responsibility for their choices, but merely to point out that we obscure a big part of the issue if we treat drug use and addiction solely as evidence of an individual’s moral degradation. While a person should have access to medical treatment, therapy, and support groups to address their individual health concerns as well as work on their own mental and emotional issues, individuals cannot fix societal issues alone.

Singapore’s War on Drugs posture has lasted for decades. For people like “Ben,” who have struggled with addiction and are still on their recovery journeys, this approach has been of limited use, and has instead imposed blame, stigma, and shame. Meanwhile, other families are put through anxiety and pain as their loved ones are sentenced to death and hanged, despite the lack of conclusive evidence proving that such executions actually deter drug use or addiction.

If we truly care about reducing the harms caused by problematic drug use and supporting victims, we need to move away from the knee-jerk desire to shame and to punish. It’s something we’ve done for too long already; it’s time for a different approach.

READ NEXT: Will an Anti-Death Penalty Movement Take Root in Singapore?

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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