'Let's get real, race does matter': Shanmugam takes on tough BBC interviewer on drugs, LGBTQ and other matters

PHOTO: Photo: Reuters file

Yes, racism does exist in Singapore, just like it exists in most other multi-racial societies, said Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam when asked if there was "routine, systemic discrimination" here, particularly against the Malays and Indians in Singapore.

He was responding to presenter Stephen Sackur's question about racial discrimination in Singapore on the BBC current affairs show Hardtalk, which was aired today (June 29). 

"The question is, how systemic it is, and how much does it happen?" Shanmugam replied.

"But my own experience as a minority in Singapore, and the experience of many others is: on the whole, compared with many other societies, it's much less in Singapore."

On this show, which had previously interviewed the likes of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and PM Lee Hsien Loong, Shanmugan was interviewed by Sackur with his usual hard-hitting questions on topics including racism, LGBTQ+ matters and the death penalty in Singapore throughout the 23-minute conversation. 

Here are three key points raised in that interview. 

1. 'Race does matter in politics'

When asked by Shanmugan to elaborate on evidence of racial discrimination here, Sackur pointed out that when it comes to renting properties, ethnic Chinese people are favoured and that "it's impossible" for the Indians or the Malays to rent in certain neighbourhoods.

And when it comes to the workplace, the 58-year-old journalist said that jobs are often advertised as "Mandarin essential" when knowledge of that language actually isn't essential.

"That happens. You live in Singapore, you know it happens," he sniped.

Shanmugam responded that 93 per cent of Singaporeans live in their own housing and "what you're talking about are foreigners who are seeking housing in Singapore". 

Sackur then asked about PM Lee Hsien Loong's successor Lawrence Wong and how the "four leaders of independent Singapore in the modern era have all been ethnic Chinese".

"You've been in ministerial jobs for much more than a decade, you perhaps could have aspired to the top job," said Sackur. "Isn't it the reality that you, with your Indian heritage, are never going to be able to be Prime Minister of Singapore, and that is a great shame, is it not?"

On that, Shanmugam posed a question: "How many non-white Prime Ministers have there been in the United Kingdom? Let's get real, race does matter in politics."

He said that it isn't accurate to say that an Indian cannot be a Prime Minister, or a Malay cannot be a Prime Minister.

He added that "as long as the MPs have the confidence that he can lead them into the General Elections and win the elections. I think it's entirely possible, so I would not rule it out. And I don't refer to myself".

2. The death penalty

Another topic discussed during this interview was capital punishment in Singapore.

Malaysian Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, who brought in 42.72g of heroin into Singapore in 2009, had his capital sentence carried out on April 27, bringing the debate on the death sentence to the fore once again. 

In response to Sackur's question on whether the death penalty for that crime was the correct policy, Shanmugam said: "I don't have any doubts. Capital punishment is one aspect of a whole series of measures that we have to deal with drug abuse problem."

He goes on to say how it is a serious deterrent for would-be drug traffickers.

While Sackur agreed on the point that drug trafficking is a serious issue, he highlighted the fact that Nagaenthran had an IQ of 69 when he entered Singapore and that medical experts say that represents intellectual disability.

"You've got your facts wrong," Shanmugam replied.

He added that the courts found Nagaenthran's decision to bring the drugs into Singapore was a "deliberate, purposeful, calibrated, calculated decision to make money".

Shanmugam added that the psychiatrist called by the defence agreed and confirmed that he was not intellectually disabled.

"And last year, when his final appeal was dismissed, at the same time in October 2021, the US executed two men whose lawyers argued that they were similarly intellectually disabled," said Shanmugam.

"They had similar IQs, same range, somewhere between 64 and 72, 63 and 95. The courts, the US Supreme Court in one instance, upheld the executions. The men knew what they were doing for those reasons."

He then went on to question Sackur, "What's the difference between Mr Nagaenthran and the two persons executed in the US in October 2021, in terms of IQ?"

3. 'LGBTQ+ individuals are entitled to live peacefully'

In Singapore, homosexuality is still defined as a criminal act, said Sackur who went on to ask the minister why he is not prepared to remove section 377A of the criminal code.

In response, Shanmugam said that the position in Singapore is that people engaging in gay sex will not be prosecuted. 

"A significant proportion of our population, the middle ground as it were, don't want that law repealed," he added. 

While attitudes are somewhat shifting, Shanmugam explained that the Singapore government cannot ignore those who do not want that law repealed.

"This is a compromise that we have arrived at, because of where our society is," he added.

"We have taken this path because these issues are difficult. They are not easily settled. And we have made clear, LGBTQ+ individuals are entitled to live peacefully without being attacked or threatened. We have in fact laws that protect the community."

Click here to listen to the interview.

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amierul@asiaone.com