Singapore’s only Olympic gold medalist in history is facing a ban on upcoming competitions, months of supervised urine tests, and a potential stint in detention—after telling authorities that he consumed some cannabis four months ago, while in another country.
His harsh punishment, which comes despite the athlete testing negative on a drug test, has divided opinion in the small Southeast Asian city-state, which is under growing scrutiny for its ultra-harsh approach to drug offenses.
Joseph Schooling, Singapore’s most successful swimmer, represented the country on the world stage six years ago, when he beat his childhood hero Michael Phelps in the final of the 100m butterfly at Rio 2016. But that glory felt long ago, when on Tuesday he admitted to having consumed cannabis while training and competing at the Southeast Asia Games in Vietnam in May.
According to a statement released by Singapore’s Ministry of Defence on Tuesday, the 27-year-old said he had used cannabis when he was taking a break from military service to compete in the games. Subsequent urine tests conducted on Schooling returned negative, the statement added.
Despite this, Schooling was investigated by the country’s Central Narcotics Bureau, which then passed his case to the country’s armed forces for potential penalties. The athlete is currently completing his military service, which is mandatory for all Singaporean men.
Amanda Lim, another Singaporean national team swimmer investigated at the same time as Schooling, was issued a stern warning by the CNB. It’s unclear whether Lim tested positive for cannabis in her urine tests, why the pair was investigated now, or why Schooling confessed.
“If he confessed… despite the negative tests, it shows how remorseful he is for his actions,” Luo Ling Ling, a lawyer who defends those charged with drug-related offenses, told VICE World News.
According to Singapore’s Ministry of Defense, Schooling will no longer be able to take a leave from military service to train or compete. If upheld, this means that Schooling, who started his service in January, will be unable to compete until 2024.
He will also be placed under a supervised urine-test regime for six months, during which a positive test would see him charged and sentenced accordingly, said the ministry. Any military personnel who tests positive during this time, it added, may be sentenced to up to nine months in detention.
On Tuesday, the 27-year-old issued an apology statement on Instagram.
"I am sorry that my actions have caused hurt to everyone around me, especially to my family and the young fans who look up to me," he wrote. "I gave in to a moment of weakness after going through a very tough period of my life.”
In November last year, Schooling’s father died of cancer.
Schooling has struggled to recreate the same success he enjoyed at the 2016 Olympics. At the Tokyo Olympics last year, his performance was scrutinized by Singaporeans, with even his body criticized.
The country’s sports authorities said they will decide on the steps to take following an investigation into Schooling and Lim.
"Drugs have no place in our society and we take a zero-tolerance stance towards illegal drug use," said the president of the Singapore Swimming Association, adding that national athletes are expected to uphold the highest standards of conduct.
Schooling, who has worked as a brand ambassador for various companies, including camera brand Canon and drink MILO, also risks losing his partnerships. Hugo Boss, however, expressed “strong and unwavered” support for Schooling.
“We have taught future generations that it is okay to make mistakes, to own up, but you will have to take responsibility and more importantly, fix it,” the company’s spokesperson told local media on Wednesday.
Thailand became the region’s first country to fully decriminalize cannabis in June, and neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia are mulling over legalizing the plant for medical use, but Singapore has stuck to its tough stance on drugs—which includes the death penalty for carrying more than small quantities of banned narcotics, including weed.
According to Singapore’s drug laws, those found to have possessed or consumed drugs, including cannabis, may also face up to 10 years in prison—even if the consumption occurred overseas. Schooling, however, looks unlikely to face this punishment.
Ramesh Tiwary, a lawyer who defends those charged with drug offenses in Singapore, told VICE World News that the restrictions on drugs taken overseas by citizens are “quite unique to Singapore.” He said the clause is believed to prevent Singaporeans from developing their drug habits abroad then returning home.
“If your policy is zero tolerance, then this all makes sense,” he said. “I think the social impact of drugs will not be addressed if [Singaporeans] can just go overseas and take drugs.”
However, it’s unclear how effective this approach is in preventing drug addiction among Singaporeans living abroad. Schooling’s predicament has also drawn sympathy from many on social media, who have expressed surprise that Singaporeans can be investigated for consuming drugs overseas, months prior, and in the absence of a positive drug test.
“It just doesn't make sense to me why we are policing people's bodies even when they are outside of Singapore,” Kirsten Han, a local anti-death penalty activist, told VICE World News. “It was his choice over his body. He was going through a hard time and he didn't hurt anybody.”
“We have this very punitive policy that doesn't actually help people who might need help. And it also doesn't recognize the sort of complexity of drug use and drug consumption.”