Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has thrown down the gauntlet to Sir Richard Branson. In a October 22 press statement, they responded to points the British billionaire had made in a blog post published on October 10 in commemoration of the World Day Against the Death Penalty — in which Branson sharply criticized Singapore’s use of the death penalty for drug offenses — and invited him to Singapore to debate K. Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Law, on live television.

“Mr Branson’s flight to and accommodation in Singapore will be paid for,” the ministry stated, rather snarkily, in their statement. “Mr Branson may use this platform to demonstrate to Singaporeans the error of our ways and why Singapore should do away with laws that have kept our population safe from the global scourge of drug abuse.”

Branson is most well-known as the founder of the Virgin Group, but he’s also a commissioner with the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an organization advocating for reforms in drug policy around the world. Singaporean anti-death penalty activists hadn’t expected him to throw his support behind our campaign to save the life of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam late last year, but it wasn’t completely out of the blue given his positions on punitive drug policies and the use of capital punishment.

Still, Branson’s input was minimal when compared to the efforts and voices of Singaporeans on the ground. Although the Singapore state refused to recognizse him as intellectually disabled, Nagaen had an IQ score of 69, far below the average of 100. He had also been diagnosed with ADHD and other cognitive impairments. His case attracted not only the attention of the international media and UN human rights experts, but also an outpouring of solidarity and support from many Singaporeans. Letters pleading with the president and Cabinet to commute Nagaen’s death sentence were signed by healthcare and social service workers, former drug users, artists, environmentalists, and the loved ones of other death row prisoners, among others. An online petition addressed to the president received over 100,000 signatures from people inside and outside of Singapore. Local bands performing at a music festival used their time on stage to express solidarity and call for the abolition of the death penalty. Two protests at Hong Lim Park (the only place where Singaporeans can demonstrate without first seeking police permission) in April drew crowds of about 400 people each time. The local #SaveNagaenthran campaign gathered more momentum than any other effort I’d seen in my 12 years of anti-death penalty activism, but Singaporeans’ calls fell on deaf ears. Nagaen was hanged on April 27, 2022.


Photo Courtesy of Kirsten Han. Hong Lim Park, April 2022.

The first of two protests against the death penalty that occurred at Hong Lim Park, the only place where Singaporeans can demonstrate without first seeking police permission. About 400 people attended.

This week, Nagaen’s family continues to mourn him. Around this time last year, while other Hindu families prepared for Deepavali celebrations, his family had been stunned to receive an execution notice informing them of when the prison intended to send Nagaen to the gallows. They won’t be celebrating Deepavali this year, either; they’ll be conducting prayers to remember him six months after his execution.

Despite anger and grief over the loss of Nagaen and the 10 other death row prisoners hanged for drugs so far this year, there has been hope and conviction, too. Nagaen’s story, and the experiences of other death row prisoners and their families, have pushed the death penalty into the public consciousness, inviting scrutiny and critique. More and more Singaporeans — especially those from the younger generation — are pointing to the over-representation of racial minorities and people from working class backgrounds on death row, questioning the imposition of such a harsh and irreversible punishment on non-violent drug offenses, and calling for an end to such exercises of state violence.

There has also been more organizing against the death penalty regime. Hundreds of family members and loved ones of Singaporean death row prisoners have signed a parliamentary petition calling for a moratorium on executions. The Transformative Justice Collective, of which I’m a member, has launched the #StopTheKilling campaign, also making the same demand for a moratorium pending an independent and transparent review of the death penalty regime. Volunteers have gone to Meet-The-People Sessions in a variety of constituencies to try to engage government ministers on the issue, with varying levels of success.

It’s interesting to note that Shanmugam doesn’t see any of this local organizing as important enough to respond to (beyond the occasional swipe at activists in Facebook posts), yet would offer to spend public monies to fly a rich white man halfway across the world just so they can duke it out verbally on TV. If the minister were really sincere about engagement and dialogue, he could always talk to those of us who are already in Singapore. Many of the relatives of death row prisoners I know are eager to meet Shanmugam: to have him look them in the eye, listen to their experiences, and answer their questions.

Debates can be illuminating, educational, and inspiring. The very best ones leave you feeling like you’ve witnessed a meeting of top-tier minds engaging on important issues of the day and providing insight to participants and audience alike. But it’s clear that the challenge issued to Branson is not going to be like that. It’s not going to be a debate in which any of us will learn anything useful. Instead, it’s an attempt by the Singapore government to frame the death penalty issue as an “East versus West” culture clash, and to set up Shanmugam as a Singaporean nationalist standing firm against a sanctimonious Western interloper. It’s not a debate. It’s a red herring designed to distract from a growing local abolitionist movement.

The Singapore government likes to describe the use of capital punishment for drug offenses as a key part of a “harm prevention strategy” that they claim saves lives. Shanmugam paints anti-death penalty activists as “narco liberals” who care more about drug traffickers than the people whose lives have been adversely impacted by drug use. But everything we’ve seen him do recently has been performative rather than demonstrative of real care for drug users and their families. He’s made the rounds in the media trumpeting Singapore’s death penalty policy even while admitting that we never catch the real drug lords, and opportunistically capitalized on tragedies like the mass killing in Thailand, even though there is so far no evidence that the killer had been under the influence of illicit drugs during his murderous rampage. What purpose does any of this serve, apart from scoring political points and soothing the egos of powerful people? What use is there in picking a fight with a faraway businessman while alternating between ignoring and demonizing Singaporean abolitionists?

If the Singapore government really prioritized the well-being of people in Singapore, they wouldn’t be wasting time and money trying to get Richard Branson over for a “debate.” Instead, they should heed #StopTheKilling’s call for a moratorium and an independent review of the use of the death penalty. Richard Branson, and his colleagues at the Global Commission on Drug Policy, could still be invited to participate in this independent review, if deemed relevant. But many more people should also get a seat at the table — namely, death row prisoners, their families, drug users and former drug users, medical practitioners and healthcare workers, drug policy researchers, lawyers and activists who have worked on this issue for years, and more. It should be a national conversation where Singaporeans have open access to research data and arguments backed up by science instead of propaganda and fear-mongering. People should be able to express different views and organize without fear.

The issues of death penalty and drug policy are complex and intersectional, involving questions related to social inequality, marginalization, discrimination, race, policing, surveillance, incarceration, social welfare, and more. If we really wanted to find the best way forward to care for people and support them in living full and fulfilling lives, what we need is education, introspection, and commitments to science and compassion. Not a random television showdown with a foreign billionaire just so a government minister can show off on his own terms.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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