Richard Branson ‘pontificating from a distant mountaintop’, his reasons to decline debate do not hold water: MHA
Reasons given by British billionaire Richard Branson for declining Singapore’s invitation for a live, televised debate on the death penalty do not hold water, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said on Saturday.
“Pontificating from a distant mountaintop, and then avoiding a serious discussion when challenged, does not suggest any respect either for principle, nor for the people whose well being he claims to champion,” it said.
The ministry gave a point by point counter to the British billionaire’s assertions, including how a televised debate would reduce “nuanced discourse into soundbites”, with the ministry noting that no suggestion has been made that he should only engage in sound bites.
The Singapore Government offered the debate to give Mr Branson “every opportunity to explain himself fully”, and he would have been able to put forward his views, it said.
MHA added: “We can only surmise that Mr Branson realises he will be shown up, because what he has been saying about Singapore is not true.
“Mr Branson’s sudden scrupulous desire not to engage in sound bites is at odds with the sound bites and broad unsubstantiated allegations, which he has been making, in his blog posts.”
The British entrepreneur, who founded the Virgin Group of companies, had on Monday declined Singapore’s invitation to participate in a live televised debate with Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.
MHA said on Oct 22 that it had invited Mr Branson to such a debate, in a statement where it rebutted one of his blog posts which had said the Singapore Government “seems bent on executing scores of low-level drug traffickers, mostly members of poor, disadvantaged minorities”.
Mr Branson had also on Monday made a suggestion that the Government engage Singaporeans, instead of him, on discussions related to the death penalty.
To this, MHA said on Saturday that it has done so extensively. This includes discussions with thousands of Singaporeans this year alone, and in Parliament by MPs several times in recent years. The ministry added that the Leader of the Opposition has agreed that in Singapore, the imposition of the death penalty is necessary.
Singaporeans overwhelmingly support the death penalty, the ministry said, adding that a study showed 74 per cent supported its imposition for the most serious crimes, while another study found 80 per cent agreed it deters crimes like drug trafficking, firearms offences and murder.
“The Government’s offer to debate Mr Branson was in addition to its ongoing engagements with Singaporeans. He has been publicly peddling falsehoods about Singapore, using his celebrity status to campaign to change Singapore’s position,” said MHA.
The 72-year-old has a following of more than 12 million on Twitter and 4.8 million on Instagram.
The ministry said: “If his facts are wrong, it is important this be publicly exposed. If Mr Branson is convinced he is correct, he should take up our offer of a debate, and not offer lame excuses to opt out.”
Mr Branson had suggested several people and organisations that the Government should be engaging, but MHA stressed that it is not for Mr Branson to tell the Government who it should talk to here.
The ministry noted that some of his suggestions were “quite clearly among those who have been feeding him misinformation and untruths”.
MHA noted that a few of the persons indirectly referenced by Mr Branson had travelled to Malaysia in 2018 to congratulate Dr Mahathir Mohamad on being elected Prime Minister, and to ask him to bring democracy to Southeast Asia, including Singapore.
“These are persons who turn to foreigners like Dr Mahathir and Mr Branson to pressure Singapore, because they do not get much support from Singaporeans,” it said.
On Mr Branson’s suggestion that Singapore study the lessons from other countries, MHA said the Government already looks at what is happening in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and other parts of the world.
“We see the high rates of drug abuse and drug-related crime, and the countless lives lost and families destroyed. Singapore is not completely free from the drug menace either, but our drug situation is under much better control,” said MHA.
By adapting what works to Singapore’s situation and avoiding practices that have failed, children here largely grow up free from drugs and people here live without fear of violence or crime, said the ministry. It added that through such an approach, Singaporeans and foreigners alike enjoy the genuine freedoms in a vibrant, global city with a very low crime rate.
The Government is fully capable of taking its own decisions, explaining them to Singaporeans and getting support for them, including at the polls, said MHA.
Mr Branson’s “disregard for facts, his condescension in declining the debate”, and his failure to recognise that Singapore has considered these matters point to two possible conclusions, said the ministry.
“He either believes that he should be listened to without question, simply because of who he is, or he knows that what he has said cannot be defended. And to avoid being exposed, he has offered an elaborate set of non-explanations,” it added.
“We do not accuse Mr Branson of hypocrisy as some British media have done. We do not question (as others have), his prioritisation of profit over the human rights principles which he so loudly professes. Nor do we judge him for taking drugs together with his son (as he has publicly admitted to doing). But Mr Branson should act with some honour.
“If he takes a public position on a matter which can impact thousands of lives in another country, then he should be prepared to explain himself.”