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Why talk to Richard Branson? Talk to Singaporeans.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has challenged Sir Richard Branson to debate K Shanmugam on the death penalty for drugs on live TV. But why go to such lengths when they could simply heed the voices of Singaporeans?

This is a special issue emailed to Milo Peng Funders! I wrote this in collaboration with The News Lens International, who have published a version here.

Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has thrown down the gauntlet to Sir Richard Branson. In an 22 October press statement, they responded to points the British billionaire had made in a blog post published on 10 October in commemoration of the World Day Against the Death Penalty — in which Branson sharply criticised Singapore’s use of the death penalty for drug offences — 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 organisation 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 has been minimal when compared to the efforts and voices of Singaporeans on the ground. Although the Singapore state refused to recognise 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.

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