Two items will top the agenda when Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, meets Singaporean leaders, President Tony Tan Ken Yam, and Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, on his visit to the city state – the swelling Islamist terror threat to Southeast Asia and the region’s illegal drugs trade. For these men these are by far the most pressing issues that face their countries jointly. They’re happening in their backyard, they threaten their societies, their peace and their trade, and so finding solutions – separately and together – is imperative.
Although Singapore is the most West-leaning state in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), on the issues of illegal narcotics and terrorism its thinking inclines Eastward – which is why it’s been quietly supportive of Duterte’s war on drugs and has been cooperating with the Philippine in tackling the Islamist terror groups that ply the waters of the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas.
Put plainly, it would be hard to get a wafer between Duterte’s thinking on these two issues and those of the Singaporean leadership. Both believe in zero-tolerance in meeting the challenges of these destructive forces and will ignore outside criticism that seeks to alter their path. Let’s look at them in turn.
Terrorism. In many ways, Singapore leads awareness among Asean members of just how great the threat from terrorism is. Radical groups, it continually points out, are becoming increasingly networked across the region. Prime Minister Lee, his Defence Minister, Ng Eng Hen, along with other senior members of the Singaporean Cabinet have repeatedly warned of the need for a holistic approach to tackling the problem.
In August, Indonesian law enforcement foiled an extremists’ plot to attack Singapore’s Marina Bay – a mixed residential, resort and entertainment development close to the island’s central business district. This further concentrated the minds of the Singaporean leadership.
Like the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore is particularly concerned that Islamic State (IS) is primed to expand its presence regionally by developing a Southeast Asian bridgehead. And there’s plenty of evidence to justify that concern – not least on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao and along the island chain of the Sulu Archipelago where, over the past year, a number of Islamic fighting groups have sworn allegiance to IS.
Singapore has pledged its Information Fusion Centre (IFC) to support trilateral sea patrols conducted by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia across the vast reaches of ocean where pirates, people-traffickers, smugglers, drug gangs and terrorists conduct their criminal enterprises. The IFC, which is under the operational control of the Singapore Navy, is a regional maritime-security information-sharing initiative, linked to 65 agencies in 35 countries.
Duterte also strongly believes in the holistic approach to defeat this enemy. Combating terrorism has been a common theme of all his foreign trips and he has forged a number of agreements that target the war on terror. In Singapore he will encounter very receptive ears.
Illegal drugs. Here, Singapore’s policies are uncompromising and its laws – and the penalties for breaking them – are among the toughest in the business. By the side of Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act, punishments for drug offences in the Philippine look like little more than ‘Time Out’. In fact, they’re precisely the type of law which Duterte would like to see enacted back home.
Singapore’s zero-tolerant approach is very much in line with Duterte’s view that, if left unchecked, illegal drugs will utterly destroy Philippine society.
In April, the Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister, K. Shanmugam, had this to say to the UN General Assembly: “For us the choice is clear. We want a drug-free not a drug-tolerant Singapore”. He added “… a soft approach will mean our country will be washed over with drugs. This is why we have adopted a comprehensive, balanced, sustained and tough approach to tackling both drug supply and demand. The results speak for themselves. We are relatively drug-free and the drug situation is under control. There are no drug havens, no no-go zones, no production centre … Our stance on drugs has allowed us to build a safe and secure Singapore for our people”.
And that argument and those sentiments exactly mirror Duterte’s. The only difference is, Singapore set out and enforced its tough drug policies a long time ago, stuck to them and consequently was able to avoid the pitiful situation in which the Philippines now finds itself. The drug cartels never got a foothold there. By contrast, ineffective and unsustained efforts by successive Philippine administrations have left Duterte saddled with a legacy problem. The Philippines has been awash with drugs for well over a decade and the illegal-drug infrastructure is well entrenched. There is also little legal deterrence.
Under Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act, the death penalty is mandatory for anyone caught with half an ounce or more of heroine, 1 oz or more of morphine or cocaine, or 17 oz or more of marijuana. For possession of smaller amounts, penalties range from 19 years jail to fines of up to US$20,000. And in these cases, the onus is on the defendant to prove his/her innocence.
By comparison, the Philippine Dangerous Drugs Act is relatively tame, given that the death penalty in the Philippines – which was prescribed by the Act for offenders caught with 0.3 oz of opium, heroine, morphine, and cocaine or 17 oz of marijuana – was suspended from the Philippine Constitution in 1987. Jail terms for trafficking, however, start at 12 years.
Legislation to reintroduce the death penalty – supported by Duterte – is now being debated in Congress. It’s already passed through the House of Representatives which will give it the nod in the New Year and pass it on to the Senate.
However, once Philippine law-enforcement’s drugs war has run its course – the illegal drug labs dismantled and destroyed; the kingpins locked up or killed; the supply dried up and the pushers out of the business – going forward, Singapore’s anti-drug policies could provide the blueprint for the Philippines. They’re tried and tested. They work.
A number of other items will also be discussed, increasing the levels of two-way trade and investments among them. Currently, Singapore is the Philippines fifth largest export partner, receiving 6.2% of all Philippine shipments; and its fourth largest import partner with 7.0% of imports coming from the island state. Bilateral trade in 2014 was worth US$15 billion. Both sides agree there is plenty to build on here. Duterte will also be meeting key business leaders “to identify mutually beneficial areas of partnership in order to enhance bilateral trade and investment.”
Possibilities of forging a bilateral labour agreement might also be discussed. Presently there are 180,000 Filipinos working and living in Singapore, some 70,000 of which are in domestic employment. In Asia, Singapore is the second largest source of overseas remittances to the Philippines after Hong Kong. Significantly, too, 80% of this demographic voted for Duterte in the May election.
On those two main issues though, Duterte will find he’s preaching to the converted in Singapore. And any help he needs from the leaders of the city state in making the Philippines drug free and in stemming the tide of terror across the states of Asean, he only needs to ask.