British entrepreneur Richard Branson has declined an invitation from the Singapore government to take part in a live television debate on the death penalty.
Branson – a longtime anti-death penalty activist – had criticized Singapore’s decision in April this year to execute 33-year-old Nagaenthran Dharmalingam for drug trafficking.
In a blog post at the time, Branson called the news “heartbreaking” and spoke out against Singapore’s “relentless death machine.”
Branson doubled down on his criticism in another post on Oct. 10. “The truth is that the Singapore government appears determined to execute dozens of low-level drug traffickers, mostly from poor, underprivileged minorities, without providing clear evidence of any noticeable impact on drug use, crime or public safety,” he wrote.
In response to this criticism, the Singapore government said it had invited Branson to Singapore to speak with Interior Minister K. Shanmugam about its approach to drugs and the death penalty.
“Mr. Branson can use this platform to point out to Singaporeans our mistakes and why Singapore should scrap laws that have protected our people from the global scourge of drug abuse,” the government said in a statement released Oct. 22.
“We do not accept that Mr. Branson or others in the West have any right to impose their values on other societies,” the statement continued. “Nor do we believe that a country that fought two wars in China in the 19th century to force the Chinese to accept opium imports has the moral right to educate Asians about drugs.”
Branson declined the invitation to Sunday’s debate.
In an open letter posted to his blog, Branson said televised debates “always run the risk of prioritizing personalities over issues” and “cannot do the complexities of the death penalty a disservice.”
“It reduces nuanced discourse to soundbites and turns serious debates into spectacle,” he added.
He also argued that “local voices” were more valuable than his own. Local activists criticized the invitation to the TV debate as a publicity stunt rather than a meaningful attempt to deal with the issue.
“What Singapore really needs is a constructive, ongoing, multi-stakeholder dialogue and a genuine commitment to transparency and evidence,” continued Branson.
He dismissed claims that he was imposing Western values on Singapore, saying it was about “universal human rights”.
The United Nations has declared that the death penalty “is incompatible with the right to life and the right to live free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
Branson isn’t the only person who has spoken out against Nagaenthran’s execution.
The Malaysian was arrested in 2009 for smuggling 42 grams of heroin into Singapore. He had been on death row since 2010 and was hanged in April this year despite international appeals for clemency.
Nagaenthran’s case has been widely criticized as he was estimated by a medical expert to have an IQ of 69 – a score indicative of intellectual disability. However, a Singapore court agreed that he was not disabled and authorized his execution, sparking a wave of protests.
The government claims that “the death penalty has had a clear deterrent effect on drug traffickers in Singapore”.