Killing them softly
The casualty meter of President Duterte’s bloody war on drugs is widely estimated to register over 13,000 deaths, more than twice the combined total of those who perished when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and terrorists crashed hijacked jetliners into New York’s World Trade towers and the Pentagon in 2001. And its architect vows that the war will go on relentlessly because the use of and trade in illegal drugs are a grave existential threat.
Few will dispute the poisonous effect of dangerous drugs on society, whose cancer-like malignancy affects not only the addicted users but entire families as well. Unchecked, the drug problem could make the Philippines a dreaded narcostate, Mr. Duterte reasons.
The argument is really over the best means to avert that perceived unfolding tragedy. Brushing aside the warning and advice of world leaders (such as ex-Colombian president Cesar Gaviria) that extrajudicial violence and force are not the answer to the drug problem, Mr. Duterte is convinced that his administration’s ruthless approach — which is mainly focused on decimating pushers and users — is the correct one. But recent events cast deep doubt on the efficacy of a basically “demand side” solution over a “supply side” which targets the real source of the drugs, namely China. On several occasions Mr. Duterte has complained that he was helpless to go after the real drug lords “because they are in China.” Translation: He fears offending Beijing with whom he is entangled in an unwholesome relationship (see my commentary, “The folly of appeasing China,” Opinion, 3/25/17).
The recent discovery that Chinese syndicates were funneling huge, multibillion-peso shipments of drugs through the “fast lane” portals of our Bureau of Customs with the obvious connivance of government officials has blown a gaping hole in the effectiveness of Mr. Duterte’s drug war. The purported involvement of his son, Davao Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte, and the so-called “Davao Group” in expediting the shipment adds more fuel to the fire. A grim-faced President has threatened to have his own son killed should it be proven that he was involved in the facilitation of the shipment.
The current Philippine experience in battling drugs need not be a search for silver bullets to wipe out the drug lords and capitalists of the evil trade. There is ample, unassailable evidence of a pragmatic approach that worked effectively in nearby Singapore, during the watch of its founder and paramount leader, Lee Kuan Yew. Our police could apply this approach and, in the process, save precious lives and expensive ordinance.
Ever resolute and meticulous in fighting crime, the late strongman stopped the flow and use of drugs in his city-state through the strict, merciless enforcement of some of the toughest national security and drug laws in the world. How tough? Briefly, anyone caught in possession of banned substances was suitable for the hangman’s noose. But violators were given their day in court to prove their innocence. So far, there has been no record of any extrajudicial killing in Singapore. In fact, only 315 people were executed (after a reasonable trial in court) for drug-related crimes during Lee’s entire watch up to the present. Not a “reign of terror” but strict, impartial application of the laws is thus the best solution to crime. In the words of a Singaporean colleague, “Drug-related crime simply dried up… Lee killed the problem softly through draconian laws, not by bullets.”
Lee passionately believed that in the necessary tradeoff between freedom and order, as he transformed his city-state from a swampy outpost to First World status, he had to make sure people were confident that their present lives and their future would be safer and brighter.
The key to Lee’s astounding success was the institutionalization of his security apparatus into models of meritocracy, efficiency and professionalism. As evidence of its reliability and integrity, Singapore’s 35,000-strong police force has consistently ranked in the top five in the Global Competitiveness Report.
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Narciso Reyes Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.
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