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The first woman to be executed in Singapore in about 20 years

Singapore is set to execute two of its citizens this week, one of them the first woman to be executed in about 20 years. We defend the death penalty with cries of sovereignty, but the War on Drugs doesn't even have Singaporean roots.

Last week, two families received the dreaded notices giving them seven days' notice of their loved ones' impending executions. Both prisoners were sentenced to death, for separate cases, in 2018, which means they've each spent about five years on death row.

The first to receive an execution notice last week is a Singaporean Malay man in his 50s who was convicted of trafficking almost 50g of heroin. His family received the letter on Wednesday, which means that the state plans to hang him this coming Wednesday, 26 July. His family has not given consent for his name to be made public.

The other prisoner is Saridewi Djamani, a 45-year-old Singaporean woman who was convicted of trafficking about 30g of heroin. If the state goes ahead, she will be executed on Friday, 28 July—the first woman to be executed in Singapore in around two decades. The last known execution of a woman was Yen May Woen, a hairdresser, in 2004.

You can read a little more about these two upcoming cases here.

Once again, Singapore seeks to murder people in the name of all Singaporeans, in service of a decades-long War on Drugs. When shamed and criticised—especially when this comes from foreign organisations like the United Nations or international human rights NGOs—our government talks big about sovereignty, about our sovereign right to kill as the powerful deem necessary. But the logic of the War on Drugs is itself a foreign import that has localised and entrenched itself in our national consciousness. And it's not a logic that comes from a culture of care or genuine concern for public health.

The term "War on Drugs" is largely credited to US President Richard Nixon, who in 1971 declared that "drug abuse" was "public enemy number one". In his 2016 piece for Harper's Magazine, the writer Dan Baum recounted a meeting he had with John Ehrlichman, who worked for Nixon. He reported that Ehrlichman had told him:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

This quote has been disputed, with some arguing that Ehrlichman might have been misrepresenting a more complicated situation. But even if we take it with a grain of salt, an unjust core remains: that politicians have leaned into the "tough on crime" anti-drug narrative for power and political gain—after Nixon, Ronald Reagan made the drug war in the US even more punitive—and that the War on Drugs has disproportionately harmed Black Americans. Racism runs through the US drug war, and in most other contexts where it exists, too.

The US didn't just fight the drug war within its own borders; it has also been credited as a major and active player in international drug control, whether through international drug control treaties or bilateral relations. Countries like Mexico bore the brunt of the US's bloody-yet-futile war.

We weren't immune to the international anti-drug rhetoric of the time. When Singapore introduced the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1973 to bring in harsher penalties for drug offences, Chua Sian Chin, the minister for home affairs and health at the time, identified, among a number of drug-related "dangers", the spectre of "the tourist drug addict, particularly among the hippies". Two years later, when Chua argued successfully for the introduction of the death penalty for drug offences, he used South Vietnam as an example of how drugs had undermined security—saying that the drug addiction had "sapped the spirit of the soldiers"—and talked about how the death penalty proposed in the amendment bill was, in some aspects, "a close parallel to the provisions in the Iranian law". Notably, he also remarked that drug addiction would mean that Singapore's young men and women would "no longer be productive digits contributing to our economic and social progress", giving an idea of what the priority was.

What has happened since then? The War on Drugs has dragged on for decades across the world, and for what? Demand has not been eradicated—it never could have been—and when there is demand, some way will be found to provide the supply. The illicit transnational drug trade is booming, drug prohibition presenting organised crime networks with lucrative business opportunities in manufacturing, smuggling, distribution and sales. Unsurprisingly, criminal networks don't tend to prioritise health and safety, thus exposing drug users to unsafe supplies with disastrous effects. The War on Drugs also fails to recognise that problematic drug use represents only a very small segment of overall drug use. As Baum wrote in his piece:

The [US] government’s own data, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, shatters the myth of “instantly addictive” drugs. Although about half of all Americans older than twelve have tried an illegal drug, only 20 percent of those have used one in the past month. In the majority of those monthly-use cases, the drug was cannabis. Only tiny percentages of people who have sampled one of the Big Four — heroin, cocaine, crack, and methamphetamine — have used that drug in the past month. (For heroin, the number is 8 percent; for cocaine, 4 percent; for crack, 3 percent; for meth, 4 percent.) It isn’t even clear that using a drug once a month amounts to having a drug problem. The portion of lifetime alcohol drinkers who become alcoholics is about 8 percent, and we don’t think of someone who drinks alcohol monthly as an alcoholic.

Despite this, punitive policies mean that lives are derailed by criminal punishment, incarceration, mandatory detention and more even if the individual's drug use was actually manageable. And a ton of money is spent on it , too; the Drug Policy Alliance estimates that the US spends US$47 billion to enforce its drug war every year. In its report for the 2023 Budget, Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs put the total costs of drug enforcement at S$192,818,600, and from what I understand, this does not include the amount spent on the prison system, where many people are incarcerated for drug-related offences.

I think about all this and I think about death row prisoners like Saridewi, trapped in their solitary cells awaiting the gallows. All this history and debate over the War on Drugs are simultaneously a world away from their experience, yet directly affecting their lives in the most horrific and final way.

People like Saridewi and the 56-year-old Malay uncle are not given a voice or a seat at the table when it comes to talking about the War on Drugs, its effects and its continued existence. For the past five years, they have been locked away in conditions of severe isolation, their ability to communicate with the outside world highly restricted. They have not been allowed to tell their stories or speak their truths, to help the rest of us understand the events and circumstances that prompted them to make the choices they did. They have not been encouraged to imagine a different world, one in which they could have received care and counselling and community support instead of punishment, much less been invited to participate in the creation of such a world.

Behind every policy debate about the death penalty and Singapore's drug war is that we are ending actual human lives. We are murdering actual people, often people from already disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds. We are doing this in the name of a war that cannot be won, a war that has caused more damage than the thing we claim to be fighting against. We need to wake up and stop this.