On 3 July 2021, a group of activists, advocates, filmmakers and citizens gathered online for the screening of Ayahku, Dr. G, directed by Loh Jo Yee, Hidayah Hisham and Dominique Teoh. The short documentary, which follows a daughter’s journey to save her 60-year-old father from the death penalty in Malaysia after he is arrested for using medical cannabis to treat his chronic illnesses, was followed by a discussion on drug use, the death penalty, and drug liberalisation in Singapore and Malaysia.
Can recreational cannabis be legalised in these tightly governed countries, and what are advocates of medical marijuana fighting for? What effect does the criminalisation of drug use have, and how does it harm marginalised groups in society? These questions and more were explored in a critical discussion on the “War on Drugs” in Malaysia and Singapore that followed the film screening.
Moderated by Transformative Justice Collective members Kirsten Han and Kokila Annamalai, and featuring filmmaker Hidayah, Malaysian cannabis advocate Hadhinah Felice, and anti-death penalty advocate Sharmila whose brother is on death row in Singapore, the digital event was attended by more than 60 people, and created a safe space for an honest conversation around drug use in our societies.
History of the War on Drugs in Singapore and Malaysia
The film, a Freedom Film Fest 2020 Grant Recipient, brings several issues into focus: the difference between recreational and medical drug use, the laws surrounding narcotics in Singapore and Malaysia, how we got here, and where we’re headed.
“Drug problems have always been in our society,” Hidayah said, pointing to the colonial past of both countries. “The rules back then never worked because the problems still exist and persist in our societies. We’re clinging to old laws that didn’t work then and don’t work now.”
When it comes to public perceptions of these drug laws, the societal verdict is still out. “Collectively, everyone agrees that what’s happening to Dr. G is unfair, but they’re also divided into two groups,” Hidayah explained. “One for decriminalisation of cannabis, the other is still against cannabis. How do we unite these two groups?”
What needs to change about the system(s)?
While Singapore and Malaysia have their own draconian laws firmly in place, the world is shifting towards greater acceptance of recreational and medical drug use, and the reclassification of cannabis.
When looking at the demographic of those incarcerated for drug-related offences in Malaysia and Singapore, another common characteristic is the low-income backgrounds many come from, and the fact that most are ethnic minorities. In Singapore, many involved with drugs are Malay and Indian, while quite a number on death row are Malaysians. “It’s also hard for [minorities] to survive here, being a minority,” Sharmila said, “And some of them unfortunately fall into this trap, where they go into drugs.”
It is here that we need to compare the narrative that the government pushes, she said: “That the war on drugs saves us from really bad people — but then look at the reality that extremely disenfranchised people are behind bars for these offences.”
In contrast to the strict laws in place, the drug problem in Singapore is disproportionate to the problem because we talk about it as if it’s a bigger problem than it really is, Kirsten pointed out. ““It’s not like we have huge cartels or anything, a lot of drugs we are seizing are transiting, or from friend to friend,” she said.
As a result, she continued, we are often left with the task of navigating political theatre, such as the charade presented by the Singapore government: presenting a country with no crime, harsh drug laws, and a low overall crime rate.
For Sharmila, the film hits particularly close to home. “It reminds me of what my brother is going through,” she said. “He’s been in [prison] since 2011, and it’s 2021, so it’s been 10 years. He’s locked in solitary confinement. It’s all covered up. You can lose your mind.”
The lack of attention to these cases, and the absence of compassion for those on death row, is something Sharmila ties to the negative opinion of the general public to drugs.
“I feel that drugs are treated by people as something evil in Singapore and Malaysia,” she said. “A lot of people say [those on death row for drugs] deserve what they’re getting — but I think this is not right because what was shown in Dr. G’s story is that he was taking it for medicinal purposes. Why do they have to criminalise it to that extent?”
Whether illegal substances are taken for pain management or recreation, the inhumane treatment of inmates convicted of drug offences and the cruelty of the mandatory death penalty demands transformation.
“My brother has medical problems as well,” Sharmila said, pointing to his chronic arthritis in the knees and shoulder. “He’s got pain everywhere, and I’ve been making noise about giving him medication. But they don’t respond to me in a timely manner, and they don’t treat him the way he should be treated.”
And physical turmoil is only part of the struggle. “It takes a lot of willpower, to be alone inside, when you know you didn’t harm anyone,” she said. “It was just for yourself, and you’re being punished this way.”
The laws that mandate death sentences for drug-related offences often keep inmates in periods of uncertainty for years. Family members, too, are caught in a toss-up between hope and despair.
“There’s anticipatory grief; you’re not sure when they’ll pass away,” Hidayah said. “When your family member is on death row, technically they’re kind of gone already.”
What We Need to Do
While there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, some tangible steps are within reach.
“We need to change the mindset of the people [who think that] drugs are evil, because that’s the main thing that causes the problem,” Sharmila said.
“When news comes out that the CNB catches someone, people are like, ‘good job!’ Why don’t they see the bigger picture? Why is this still happening when you say the death penalty works, and people are [still] getting caught?”
In prison, rehabilitation centres fail in their goals, too. “They call it a rehab centre, but there’s no proper rehabilitation there, so it’s hard for them to come out of that circle,” Sharmila said. “You already label these people: ‘once a drug addict, always a drug addict’. They need to work on that as well.”
Instead, she said, more resources should be channelled into proper rehabilitative treatment, instead of punishing those who continue to go through this cycle. “They should work on helping to rehabilitate and integrate into this system. In Singapore, I think this is what they’re failing at most.”
‘No such thing as false hope’
It is with this in mind that the film focuses not only on the person facing death row, but the children who grow up under these conditions. “These drug laws completely disregard children,” Sharmila added. “They get harmed too.”
In Sharmila’s own experience, the Malay society is especially unlikely to take part in the conversation. “I try to convince them [to speak out] but they don’t want to lose face,” she said.
But the few that have come forward make it worth the fight.
“It’s a work in progress, but I’m happy that about one or two have been happy to step forward,” she said. “Finding the right moment, and right things to say [are important].”
Hope, for Sharmila, is essential to this process of dialogue.
“People shouldn’t think that we’re giving [death row inmates] false hope by campaigning, talking about it, fighting [against it],” she said. “For someone facing the death penalty, there’s no such thing as false hope; there is only hope.”
Exploring decriminalisation and harm reduction approaches
To understand the necessity of the decriminalisation of cannabis, it is first important to consider how widespread the use of medical marijuana is internationally — from Europe to the US, New Zealand to Morocco.
“We have countries around the world with good examples of decriminalisation,” said Hadhinah, who has herself depended on marijuana to cope with major depressive disorder and severe anxiety.
“Many people came to me asking how to help decriminalise cannabis in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore,” she said. “And we can’t just wait for the government to take action — with more voices we can be heard, and this will prompt the government to take action and slowly destigmatise cannabis.”
To better understand medical uses of marijuana, Hadhinah says that it’s important to differentiate between medical and recreational drugs. “More people are accepting cannabis as pain management better than prescribed drugs by doctors,” she said.
“Both decriminalisation and legalisation are important,” said Hadinah. “First to remove heavy punishment, and then to encourage and allow safer routes.”
While navigating and attempting to reform drug laws in our own countries, a closer look at countries that have successfully made the transition is a must. Even beyond legalised cannabis, the decriminalisation of all drug use has also seen good results beyond the benefits of medical marijuana.
“Portugal is a compelling case study,” said Kokila. “Once they decriminalised cannabis, the opioid crisis stabilised, as did HIV and hepatitis rates, and drug-related crime.”
Their drug policy rests on three pillars: First, that there’s no such thing as a soft or hard drug, only healthy and unhealthy relationships with drugs; secondly, that an individual’s unhealthy relationship with drugs often conceals frayed relationships with loved ones, with the world around them, and with themselves; and finally, that the eradication of all drugs is an impossible goal.
Meanwhile in Malaysia, community-based interventions into drug use are being piloted, and advocacy efforts for moving away from mandatory detention are gaining traction. “These programmes are voluntary; they’re supportive healing spaces,” said Kokila. “Malaysia is much further ahead than Singapore given that there are pilots in this regard.”
What can we as Singaporeans and Malaysians do to support one another and build cross-border solidarity on this issue?
With the entangled geopolitical realities of Singapore and Malaysia, from colonial history to a shared border, it’s important for both sides to work together, Kirsten said.
“In Singapore, we have drug mules on death row who are Malaysians, so there’s a lot of activity between lawyers and activists on both sides,” she said. “With the Causeway and borders closed, Malaysians on death row here can’t see their families, which only deepens their isolation.”
And beyond mutual aid between lawyers and activists, the conversation needs to be further extended to citizens, too. “Get a bunch of people in a room, and it really opens up this conversation,” Hidayah said. “Let’s make the room smaller and let’s talk more — this is a prerequisite step towards approaching a scientific conversation — being open and vulnerable with conversations can reveal things we still need to work on.”
“A state that has the death penalty expects citizens to feel threatened, and that we should in general be compliant,” Kokila said. “There’s a narrative of obedience and subordination, and no access to resources to benefits for humans, and how it is much better for us to move away from draconian laws. Singapore is doubling down on this status quo, even as the world around us changes.”
With more understanding of drug use, medical cannabis, and the changing laws of the world around us driven by their own citizens, in Singapore and Malaysia we continue to push for justice and transformation, for all those on death row for drugs, and for the families that suffer as a result.
Find out more about the campaign, the film, and the team behind it here.