Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson has turned down an offer from Singapore authorities to take part in a live televised debate on the country’s death penalty and its approach to illegal drugs.
The British billionaire was invited to discuss his views on capital punishment alongside Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.
Branson previously criticized the island state’s extreme approach to drug trafficking, which is among the toughest in the world and has already seen 11 executions this year alone.
In particular, Branson has spoken out against a case in which a Malaysian man, Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, was caught bringing 43 grams of heroin into the country in 2009; any amount of heroin over 15 grams amounts to the death penalty in Singapore.
Nagaenthran was executed in April this year despite having an IQ of 69, indicating an intellectual disability, and claims in his defense that he was coerced into smuggling drugs.
A court refuted this and sentenced him to death.
In response, Branson published a blog post earlier this year saying that the Singapore government “seems bent on executing scores of low-level drug smugglers, mostly members of poor, disadvantaged minorities.”
He added: “Singapore’s relentless machinery of death did what it always does. Stubbornly rejecting international human rights law and the views of experts, it left no room for decency, dignity, compassion, or mercy.”
However, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs hit back at the billionaire saying it does not accept that anyone in the West is “entitled to impose their values on other societies.”
The ministry defended its strict policy, maintaining that the death penalty is an effective deterrence against bringing drugs into the country.
Televised debates are ‘political theater’
Branson wrote another blog post published on Sunday explaining his reasoning for turning down the debate, saying that such events are “always at risk of prioritizing personalities over issues—[and] cannot do the complexity of the death penalty any service.”
He suggested that Singaporean authorities should instead pay attention to local figures and activists who also expressed outrage over the death of Nagaenthran, adding that they should be engaging in a “constructive, lasting dialogue involving multiple stakeholders, and a true commitment to transparency and evidence.”
“They deserve to be listened to, not ignored, or worse yet, harassed,” he wrote.
Activist Kirsten Han shared Branson’s views on the TV debate, telling AFP that the invitation “was always more about political theater than any sincere desire on the part of the Singapore government to engage with an open mind.”