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Excerpts from Minister K Shanmugam’s Q&A with university students

SINGAPORE — Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam addressed university students at a two-hour dialogue session on Monday (March 28) at the Nanyang Technological University Students’ Union Ministerial Forum, on the theme “Progressing towards SG100”. He talked, among other things, about Singapore’s ageing population and low birth rates, the geo-political realities in the region and the threat of terrorism. Students also posed a range of questions to him; they asked about the death penalty, how the Government implements hard policies, the rights of migrant workers, the environment, and whether the Government could have done better in the deaths of the two SMRT employees and the late Private Dominique Sarron Lee. Here are some highlights during the Q&A segment

Minister K Shanmugam speaks during a question and answer session at the Ministerial Forum at NTU on March 28, 2016. Photo: Jason Quah

Minister K Shanmugam speaks during a question and answer session at the Ministerial Forum at NTU on March 28, 2016. Photo: Jason Quah

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SINGAPORE — Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam addressed university students at a two-hour dialogue session on Monday (March 28) at the Nanyang Technological University Students’ Union Ministerial Forum, on the theme “Progressing towards SG100”.

He talked, among other things, about Singapore’s ageing population and low birth rates, the geo-political realities in the region and the threat of terrorism.

Students also posed a range of questions to him; they asked about the death penalty, how the Government implements hard policies, the rights of migrant workers, the environment, and whether the Government could have done better in the deaths of the two SMRT employees and the late Private Dominique Sarron Lee.

Here are some highlights during the Q&A segment

Ms Saevaal Meenakshi, 23, fourth-year student in chemical and biomedical engineering: My question is about the death penalty. In Singapore we’ve already eased it a lot for the drug traffickers and murderers. Is there any chance in the future that we will abolish the death penalty entirely?

Mr K Shanmugam: There is no right and wrong answer to this — it’s really a question of choice. So, let me put the choices to you: When we talk about death penalty for drug traffickers, what are we talking about? The person brings across heroin enough to feed 950 people for one week, that person faces death penalty. People look at the drug traffickers that we impose a death penalty on. Very little of the literature focuses on the death penalties that drug traffickers impose on society…

Then ask yourself, if you can believe that because you have the death penalty, the number of deaths actually goes down. For example, we used to arrest about 7,000 people a year, in the mid-2000s if I’m not wrong. We then tightened up our enforcement and laws considerably. It’s come down to 2,000.

I visit the prisons, I visit the families, as I said, father is in prison, mother is 20-something, two children — three years old, two years old — second husband is also a drug addict, what future do you think those children have?

So where are your sympathies, are they being misplaced? How many more of such families do you want? As I said we used to arrest 7,000, now it’s down to 2,000. Our law enforcement has remained the same, that means 5,000 lives have been saved every year, over a period of 10 years. Do you weigh that as being important, or would you want to spare the life of a drug trafficker who wants to destroy our lives? There’s no right and wrong — you choose.

Ms Ong Liyan, 22, second-year student in public policy and global affairs: Do you think we should move to become a more inclusive society that includes the rights of transient workers? Essentially they are here to fill the 3D jobs — dangerous, dirty, demeaning jobs. It’s essential for the economy. Do you think they are well taken care of, considering you’ve visited them in their dorms after the Little India riot…?

Mr Shanmugam: Why do you think they come to Singapore? They can go to Malaysia, they can go to the Middle East, they can go to many other countries.

They are making a choice to come to Singapore on the terms that we are offering, so what’s wrong? That’s the first point.

Now, I went to the dorms to talk to them. They said they come to Singapore because the salaries are higher, they come to Singapore because there’s the rule of law.

They come to Singapore because on the day they land they are given a foreign workers’ permit. At the back of it, there’s a telephone number to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), you can make a call and MOM will investigate. You try doing that in the Middle East…

If you look at their dorms, they’re clean, functional. If you look at the rights they have, it’s according to the contract. So I struggle sometimes to say what else do you want us to do.

That does not mean everything is perfect nor does it mean there are no employers who take advantage. There are always employers who will take advantage. Then it’s for us to charge them. But at the same time, there are employees who take advantage as well. So that’s life and we have to have laws which are clear, and enforce those laws. The question is, are our laws fair and do we enforce them fairly?

Mr Daryl Thong, fourth-year psychology student: There are a lot of unfortunate incidents... I’m talking about the more sensitive issues, for example, the most recent one is (the deaths of two SMRT employees), there’s also (the deaths of) Private Dominique Sarron Lee and (schoolboy) Benjamin Lim… For Private Lee’s case, there were people who said the (Defence Ministry) did not do enough… there’s only so much the ministry can do. Do you think that the ministry has done enough? Is there anything the ministry could do better?

Mr Shanmugam: I think in all of this, the fog of untruth clouds what actually happens, and then the debate carries on with the assumptions which are factually inaccurate.

So if you go back to what actually happened, any training death is something that is of deep concern. Every Singaporean male does National Service — you would have done it, I have done it, our children do it, and we obviously have to take safety very seriously. But however much you try, you know that in the end, there will be the rare occasion that there’s a fatality, not just in the Singapore army, but armies throughout the world.

Some have a worse safety record, some have a better safety record.

The question is, what framework did you have in place to make sure that the environment was safe? So the army has to make sure of that.

Second, what did you do when something happened? My understanding is that they had the proper processes in place.

In the particular facts, there was a Coroner’s Inquiry. I think people have forgotten that there was a (an) inquiry a few years ago. So the full facts were gone into…

After the coroner made the findings, I know for a fact that MINDEF (Defence Ministry) made an offer of compensation which was quite substantial, that was rejected by the family. The two officers were punished. The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), which is independent, took the view they ought not to be charged in court, but they faced punishment…

The family then sued MINDEF, after all of this and sued the officers involved. In those circumstances, the High Court ruled that the family cannot bring (on) such legal proceedings. I think the facts are quite involved and too technical for the average person to understand. It’s much easier to just realise some of the basic things — which is, well, they sued and they didn’t get justice... a lot of things had gone on beforehand...

I’m not blaming the family, just setting out the facts. And when they sued the Government and they were ordered to pay legal costs, the Government then waived the legal costs…

What else could they (the ministry) have done? I think what they could have done perhaps, with hindsight, is come out to explain there was a Coroner’s Inquiry, come out to explain what the punishments were, come out to explain that the (AGC) has looked into the culpability of the officers and what their role was — they could’ve explained it better... all of this came out some years ago, but has been forgotten. I think we have to see how we can handle these things in a way that people understand.

... I do not think there was lack of grace or humility on the part of MINDEF… I think the best thing MINDEF can do, is do what it did.

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