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Singapore’s unnecessary war

This week: Shanmugam doubles down (again) on the War on Drugs, and a deadline extension for public feedback on the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act!

Happy weekend! I’ve had a very busy but overall quite fulfilling rollercoaster weekend. I hope you’ve had a good one too.


“This is nothing short of a war,” K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Law, said in a ministerial statement about drugs. He really doubled down on the government’s policy of criminalisation, punishment and the death penalty, and took aim at “a small group of people who attempt to mislead the public with misinformation on drug traffickers and the death penalty”, i.e. me and my peers at the Transformative Justice Collective, among others. He accused us of glorifying drug traffickers, ignoring victims and abusing court process—going as far as to read out my email address in Parliament.

It doesn’t strike me as very ‘normal country’ behaviour for a government minister to, after framing an issue as a war to “protect our people”, single out specific citizens to accuse them of undermining the country’s defence in this war. That’s not playing with fire at all! 🫠

It doesn’t come as a surprise—it’s been the government’s position for the longest time—but this hardcore War on Drugs narrative is really distressing because it leads to so much stigma and demonisation, creating false divides and leaving people uninformed (or even misinformed) about drugs, drug use and drug policy. It’s completely untrue that my colleagues and I don’t care about people who have been harmed or adversely by drugs and drug use. If you’ve followed our work, it quite clear that we do care, and that well-being, care and healing for drug users, their families and their communities is central to the work we do to push for an end to the death penalty and the War on Drugs. TJC’s members attend workshops and conferences, and are constantly engaged in conversations, to learn as much as we can about the experiences of people who use drugs and the support structures and policies that exist around the world to support them in more restorative and long-lasting ways. I started the Altering States newsletter specifically to keep studying and reading and learning about drugs and the drug trade, and what experts say is the best way to address the issue. To characterise us as glorifying traffickers out of a biased neglect for suffering is just bad faith.

And that's not the only thing in bad faith in his ministerial statement. In his speech (published on the MHA website), Shanmugam makes reference to the mayor of Amsterdam, citing her comments as one of the signs of how bad the problem is in Europe: "In January of this year, the Mayor of Amsterdam, and you see her referred to in the quote, Femka Halsema, said that Netherlands risks becoming a 'narco-state'. The illegal drug trade has grown 'more lucrative, professional, and ruthlessly violent'. Think of a Mayor of a major European city saying that and what the implications are."

I Googled this and found the op-ed that I think Shanmugam might have been quoting from: a piece that Halsema wrote for the Guardian in January this year. The headline is "As the mayor of Amsterdam, I can see the Netherlands risks becoming a narco-state" and she does say that "Spurred on by globalisation and the international criminalisation of drugs, the illegal drugs trade has become more lucrative, professional and ruthlessly violent."


The rest of the op-ed is actually a push to end the War on Drugs, not continue it. This is what Halsema writes:

The challenges we now face in the Netherlands are not an indictment of our liberal drug policy. Rather the opposite. Take the Dutch government’s approach to MDMA, influenced by the global war on drugs, which has become increasingly repressive since the late 1980s and early 90s. Under international pressure, the Netherlands placed MDMA, which is known as a party drug and perceived as relatively harmless, under the Opium Act in 1988, classifying it as a hard drug. This shift inadvertently contributed to the profitability of illegal MDMA production and created a lucrative business model for criminal organisations, as evidenced by the estimated €18.9bn street value of annual ecstasy production in the Netherlands. This experience reveals how efforts to align with global drug prohibition trends can have counterproductive outcomes.

What the Netherlands’ problems reveal is the need for a global shift in the current approach. It’s not a matter of retracting our user-centred policy, but rather advocating for international recognition that the war on drugs is counterproductive.

This means that alternatives should be urgently debated in local governments, national parliaments and especially in international assemblies. The prohibition of drugs is enshrined in international treaties that limit the space for national drug policies, meaning we will have to forge new international alliances that prioritise health and safety over punitive measures. This will involve a collaborative effort to revisit and potentially revise these treaties, fostering a global environment where innovative, health-centric drug policies can be implemented without legal barriers.

Don't just listen to Shanmugam's cherry-picking in Parliament. Read the whole op-ed here.


The Ministry of Home Affairs has extended the deadline for public feedback on the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act! The REACH page now says that the deadline is 11 June 2024, so everyone has more time to send stuff in. (This includes me; I’ve composed my email but haven’t sent it, in the hopes that I might have more brainwaves and smart things to include. 😅)

Paul Tambyah of the Singapore Democratic Party has spoken out about what he’d like to see in a proposed racial harmony bill. Whether his suggestions are what MHA has in mind, we’ll just have to see (although I’m not holding my breath…) But keep sending in your feedback!


The woman who had lied about KKH mismanagement causing her to miscarry in her communications with Wake Up, Singapore has also been charged with criminal defamation. I’d wondered about this when Ariffin was charged—why charge the platform and not the originator of the false information? Still, criminal defamation is a law recognised by organisations around the world to be a violation of the right to freedom of expression. The World Economic Forum, for instance, has published an article saying:

“Among the most prominent legal threats to journalists is the surging abuse of both civil and criminal defamation laws. Legitimately used to protect an individual’s reputation from false statements, defamation laws and the disproportionate penalties they can carry are now being used to shield powerful individuals—particularly public figures—from criticism.”

Telegram group!

On the radar

🧠 At the beginning of this week I attended the Knowledge Praxis conference organised by the wonderful team at Academia SG (I’ve been told to stop writing and saying it as, ‘cher scold) so I want to draw everyone’s attention to their Knowledge Praxis website, on which they’re publishing personal essays by scholars sharing the challenges and constraints they’ve faced throughout their career. Through these experiences, we learn about power and power structures, and how that affects academic work on Singapore. Essays by Linda Lim and Kevin Tan are already up on the site, and more are on the way.

✍🏼 Singapore’s tiny community of writers are pushing back against the use of their work to train a Large Language Model. They’re well aware of the uneven power dynamics, but there are still so many unsettled questions about copyright, compensation and respect for the work of Singaporean writers.

Speaking at the Knowledge Praxis conference! Yay!

Thank you for reading! As always, feel free to forward this weekly wrap to anyone you like, and spread the word about this newsletter!