Cross-cultural influences on ideas about drugs


Ways of contracting the opium habit and the propagation of its use
Pot and pills


Author: J. H. K. LEONG
Pages: 1 to 7
Creation Date: 1974/01/01

Cross-cultural influences on ideas about drugs *

Senior Lecturer, Department of Social Medicine and Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, University of Singapore, Singapore.

Opium, as an article of commerce, was a fact of life at the time of the founding of Singapore in 1819. It was a prestige substance and certainly a very expensive commodity. The treaty establishing Singapore was signed on 6 February 1819. "After the ceremony of signing and sealing was over, presents were given consisting of opium, arms and woollens of scarlet colour." (Crawford.) The Government was soon taking steps to control this substance. In March 1820 Farquhar, the first Governor, suggested that the most painless means of raising essential revenue, in a port where duties were not permitted, was to establish opium, spirit and gambling "farms". The first "farms" were sold, realizing $395 monthly for four opium shops, $100 for arrack shops and $95 for gambling tables. The reasons given for this step were to raise revenue for communal policing purposes.

Incidentally, is this not an early precedent for the combined approach towards alcohol and other drugs?

The merchants who obtained these rights were wealthy. Thus ideas about opium were early associated with wealth and with the upper class; the other association was with the Chinese-in China the association with opium had developed in the eighteenth century.

Soon after the founding of Singapore immigrants arrived to work in the new port and a great many of them were Chinese; but there were also Malays, Bugis, Arabs and Indians, and they brought their culture with them. Living conditions were hard for the working class and medical facilities non-existent. Moreover the labourers lived in a foreign land without their women folk. Amongst them the belief that opium was a panacea for all ills was widespread. The idea has prevailed to this day. Amongst the reasons given by 400 opium-users seen by the author in 1966, 36 per cent invoked relief of pain, 21 per cent relief of other symptoms, 7 per cent considered it a cure for certain diseases, 6 per cent believed it helped in cases of weakness, 5 per cent stated that opium procured mental and emotional relief and alloyed fatigue; only 13 per cent took it for pleasure. The rest gave multiple reasons or no definite reason, some even denied using opium at all. (Leong, 1959.)

In Singapore opium came to be regarded as a particular indulgence of the Chinese. It figured in their daily lives and in their business associations. The opium-smoking establishment became a business meeting place. Given their long association with opium, the Chinese acquired a number of beliefs, some of them limited to particular groups or trades, while others were shared more generally. It is difficult to trace the origin of these ideas, enumerated below, but it might be possible to compare them with beliefs held by other ethnic groups and different cultures:

*Based on a paper read at the 30th International Congress on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence organized by the International Council on Alcohol and Addictions at Amsterdam in September 1972.

  1. Opium is good for one's voice. This belief was held by actors, singers and story tellers, particularly members of itinerant theatrical groups who travelled from village to village performing at local festivals until after midnight for days at a time. The ability to maintain a good volume of sound for long sessions, especially before the introduction of microphones, was attributed to opium. There is even an expression in the Cantonese vernacular to denote such a voice-an "opium throat" or "yin howe". So there has been a long-standing association between drugs and music. These stage heroes were the pop stars of those days and they influenced youngsters who frequented the shows.

  2. Opium is a prophylactic against certain conditions of ill health common in newly opened-up areas in a country where the water and generally unhygienic conditions may cause one's legs to swell. This belief is current amongst labourers clearing the jungle and among construction workers. Dr. Galloway, writing in the 1900s, mentioned that apart from mere relief of pain there were three conditions in which opium was believed to exert a specific action: (i) phthisis: "an extraordinary number of healed lungs which are found in opium smokers would lend colour to a belief that there is also some curative agent in the (opium) smoke; (ii) glycosuria: "throughout Asia, as far back as history goes, opium has been the remedy par excellence, for all diabetic conditions..."; (iii) opium is beneficial to combat malaria: "In this relation also it has been in use from time immemorial not only in Asia, but even in England, in the Fen country".

  3. Opium is an aphrodisiac. Through careful questioning of those of the author's patients who mentioned this he concluded that opium does not actually excite or bring on desire; rather it prolongs the pleasure associated with the sexual act. According to the same source it delays ejaculation and perhaps prolongs orgasm; in a patient's own words "without opium it lasts only for a short while, with opium it lasts longer". However that libido decreased after prolonged use of opium was also reported from China, where, allegedly, young widows for whom remarriage was ruled out were deliberately given opium to help them control their instincts, thereby preventing disgrace and upholding the family honour. Similarly when in a wealthy Chinese family one son showed propensities to gamble, the family, allegedly, would allow him to become addicted to opium in the hope that this would take up all his time. Thus, though he might smoke some of the inheritance away, he would not lose it as fast as if he lost if by gambling.

  4. In 1960 the author had among his patients two Chinese mothers who had infants exhibiting opiate withdrawal signs in the form of restlessness, irritability and diarrhoea. Subsequent questioning revealed that the mothers had been giving their infants small amounts of opium. From male patients case histories were obtained that showed that their fathers, addicts themselves, had practised the habit of blowing opium smoke into them because they were considered puny and weak, in the belief that this would make them strong. Galloway mentioned the Indian practice of giving opium pellets to Bannian or Brahman children, a practice which is stopped after the second year.

  5. The use of opium as a medicine has been known from ancient times in both Western and so-called indigenous treatment systems. The "quasi-medical" use of opium in India is well known. Chinese physicians often recommended opium smoking against certain ills, particularly dysentery. Fresh scrapings from a warm opium pipe were often applied to boils, and the coarse papers used as filters in the manufacture of prepared opium (chandu or smokeable extract) from raw opium were used as an external application for piles.

Singapore was a British "possession", and in the early years Indian convicts were sent to serve their sentence in Singapore. They were used as labourers. Later when the convicts were withdrawn, agents were employed to recruit labourers from India for building construction work. They introduced the habit of opium-eating and ganjasmoking. To this day the majority of the older Chinese opium-users are smokers and the Sikhs who use opiates are eaters. In addition there are Chinese and Sikh morphine users who inject the substance. In spite of over one hundred years of cosmopolitan interaction in Singapore, the habits, and thus the ideas, of one section of the community did not get across the cultural (and in this case racial) barriers.

Ways of contracting the opium habit and the propagation of its use

Since the opium habit was socially acceptable to Chinese communities, many acquired it in a "harmless" way: "They come down there with a little 'sakit prut' (stomach ache) and are a little out of sorts, and then some one offers them some opium and as they do not know what is the matter with them and find the opium 'does them good', they begin to indulge because in the first instance they were relieved from pain when they felt a little out of sorts." Rev. J. A. B. Cook in his evidence before the Opium Commission (1905) also stated: "But there were other ways of acquiring the habit." When new workers, freshly landed from China, came to work on the estate, the proprietors would supply them with opium free of charge. The farmer or the 'kangchu'-the man who is the lord of the district-did not appear in person. He had a number of people who would tempt the newly arrived coolies to gamble, and they would take to opium-smoking and become virtual slaves working to pay off their debts. People could also learn to smoke their first pipes of opium in brothels. Licensed opium shops closed at 11 p.m., but a man could get opium in brothels until 2 a.m. There were also social clubs, sometimes used as brothels. Today with pot and pills it is the discothèque.

Another phenomenon in the diffusion of ideas and the propagation of the opium smoking habit was noted: Over the years the immigrant Chinese began to put down roots in Malaya and Singapore. They settled and married 'local' girls and produced new generations of Straits-born Chinese, or 'babas'. These acquired an English education, spoke Malay-in some instances they no longer spoke Chinese-and became quite distinct from the China-born or 'immigrant' Chinese. The same Rev. Cook (1905) observed that "when I came here 25 years ago it was quite rare to have Straits Chinese smoking, but now the young fellows have learnt it. But they have learnt it amongst the Chinese social clubs as much as in the brothels, at least as far as the betterto-do class is concerned." Can one predict that pot and pills, now rare with Chinese educated youth, might be current amongst them soon?

Another phenomenon was noted by Mr. Centle, the Straits coroner in 1905. "Hylams who are in the service of Europeans and have regular hours and good food and quarters smoke much less opium than the men who do very rough work and have practically no place to sleep in or shelter from the weather. I do think that there is a good deal of inducement to use opium in the complete want of bodily comforts to which the Chinese coolie is exposed." Again, to this day, one of the reasons given by patients who have been withdrawn, and then relapse, is that they have to do hard physical labour to earn a living.

While on the one hand opium was considered an article of commerce and a status symbol, direct contact with the addict population showed clearly the effects the drug had on their personal lives. As early as 1848, some three decades after the founding of Singapore, a Chinese merchant lamented the fate of his fellows: "They are mostly very poor. Originally they came with the intention of retiring to their native landafter a sojourn of three to four years, but out of ten only one or two individuals are able to go back after five or six years, and others after seven, eight or ten years. There is a great number who remain here upwards of 10 and 20 years and ultimately die and their ashes repose in this settlement. Alas for those who originally intended to return to their native country after three years and yet, after a lapse of more than 19 years, have not been able to fulfil their wish. But what is the reason of it? It is because they became addicted to the prevailing vice of opium smoking. After a continuous residence here they learn the habit, which afterwards becomes fixed. Many of the Chinese labourers, after having earned a little money, waste it upon opium or expend it in gambling. After a series of years they save nothing, and every day it becomes more and more difficult for them to return to their country." (Siah U Chin, 1848.)

Dr. Robert Little, who came to Singapore in 1840 and lived there for 40 years, wrote in 1848: "The radical and effective cure of opium smoking is the complete exclusion of opium; but as long as it is manufactured, as long as the poppy gives forth its juice, and man is there to collect it, so long will it be supplied to its votaries in spite of pains and penalties, imprisonment and death. No possible preventive force could put a stop to its introduction. The quantity consumed might be lessened, but that could be counterbalanced from a moral point of view by the establishment of control on smuggling and its subsequent evils."

At a time when the prevailing control system consisted of limiting the number of opium shops, he suggested a campaign to educate the young not to follow in the footsteps of their elders and called upon the influential men of the Chinese community of his day to form a society for the suppression of opium smoking, of which every Chinese was to be a member.


Morphine was introduced into Singapore between 1890 and 1900. In the year 1903 activities of itinerant injectors were noted who served their clients in back lanes and on street corners. In 1906 a European chemist was using morphine as an antidote against the craving for opium. The morphine habit came to be regarded as harming the opium monopoly. During the 1930s morphine use seemed to be relatively less important. Around 1957, however, morphine dens began to sprout in the poorer sections of the city. The majority of the customers were opium addicts who considered that opium was too weak for their needs. Because it was initially cheaper, more effective and involved less risk of detection, trishaw riders, seamen and unskilled labourers took to morphine. Their association with certain streets, certain racial groups and given occupations were easily apparent. In 1972 the author learnt that very young persons began getting morphine at the dens, starting with injections worth 40 cents (100 cents make 1 Singapore dollar, equivalent to US$0.85). What is ironic is that at one leap they overcame the barriers of language and class; they were made welcome in comfortable corners as befitting their "class" and, even more ironic, the injectors-often older menadvised them against getting morphine.


The early association of cannabis use with Indian immigrants has already been mentioned. Smoking it in a pipe-the gosah or chillum-(cone-shaped clay pipe) is still generally confined to older Indians and Pakistanis. The habit is considered a localized practice of a ghetto character which, though illegal, does not create a social problem or one for the police.

Around 1964 when, owing to the confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia the smuggled supplies from Indonesia were cut off, the traffickers introduced cannabis seeds to local farmers. The "addicts" mostly unemployed unskilled labourers and seamen, introduced the drug to young hedonists who frequented "sarabat" stalls in certain districts in Singapore ("sarabat" is a soft drink containing sweetened ginger). The stall is generally an intinerant one; the hawker has a favourite pitch, stools are available and favourite sites are near an open space. Besides serving drinks, cakes and occasionally cigarettes to law-abiding customers, the stall holder is often a contact man for ganja. It is smoked as a cigarette rolled in "rokok daun", the dried leaf of the young nipah palm- Nipah fruticans-mixed with "tembakau siam", a coarse tobacco, or in home-made pipes. At about this time Hill noted that certain places in Singapore were popular amongst ganja users with a large Malay following. Many came from other areas like Amber Road, Kaki Bukit, Bukit Timah. The ideas held by the Malay cannabis users about the drug were:

  1. It gives an appetite;

  2. It provokes a sense of well-being, described as "hayal";

  3. It permits one to imagine or experience whatever personality one wishes to be;

  4. It enables one to overcome a feeling of inferiority;

  5. It permits one to put up a bold front;

  6. It helps to overcome worry and fatigue;

  7. It helps to overcome physical strain;

  8. It stimulates sexual desire and has an intoxicating effect.

The above reasons invoked by cannabis users are very similar to those given for the use of alcohol. In fact they have often declared that, since alcohol is too expensive, they take ganja. Information about a possible link between cannabis use and criminality is difficult to obtain and to interpret, Hill suggests that smoking ganja before and after committing a crime could have a "sedative" effect on the offender, who also reports a sensation of being fortified which enables him to endure fatigue, inclement weather or extra physical exertion.

Pot and pills

The author has been trying to pin-point when exactly pill-taking particularly that of Mandrax (methaqualone with diphenhydramine), known to the user as MX, was introduced to the young in Singapore. In September 1970 the newspapers gave great publicity to an incident in which two school girls were alleged to have collapsed in class after taking pills. Around that time the professor of medicine noticed that there were increasing numbers of young people who were brought to the hospital by the police for medical examination, having been found collapsed or wandering about, staggering and falling into drains, under the influence of drugs.

In April 1970 a drug dependence clinic was set up on a pilot basis to follow up these cases. The new patients were referred directly to the clinic. A new pattern appeared amongst drug users: They were young (12 to 23 years of age) and came from the so-called middle class-their parents being executives, businessmen, clerks and teachers-of the four main ethnic groups in Singapore: Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasians. Some were students; others had been working mostly in less "professional" jobs than their parents, and still others were carrying out national service or were waiters or labourers. They belonged to the English-educated section of the community rather than to the Chinese or vernacular (Malay and Indian) sections.

They were using cannabis (ganja) mixed with pills. These pills were either Mandrax, known to them as MX or Melsedin, or methaqualone, known as the M pill, or still another methaqualone product which because it had no markings was known as the "blank" pill.

From among these a few had moved on to smoking opium and injecting morphine. This is a clear instance of drug-users crossing a cultural barrier in order to experiment with a new drug. These young English-speaking Malay, Indian, Chinese or Eurasian users had to go to opium dens which were operated, and mostly frequented, by older Chinese, generally of lower social strata, or to a morphine "den" where they queued for a "40 cent" injection together with Chinese morphine addicts. They said that they were accepted; sometimes the older users even giving them well-meant advice not to become addicted to morphine.

Another example of cross-cultural influence on behaviour is connected with cannabis. As stated before, cannabis had been used by Indians of the labouring class, Pakistanis and Bengalis. The habit was passed on to the Malays, mostly young and from the poorer working class. From there its use spread to the relatively better-educated middle class sector of the four main ethnic groups who were more articulate and also Englishspeaking. Some of them now wear long hair and associate with amateur, semi-professional or professional jazz bands, motorcycle bands, beach parties, foreign (British service or American business) families and package tourists of the type who are seeing the world as cheaply as possible.

Then there are locals who have hitch-hiked or otherwise reached Europe and come back with tales and even goods from other lands, or who have established contacts and friendships or patterns of correspondence through which LSD has also come onto the scene. A number of bars and discothèques and 24-hour coffee houses are now catering for the better-off younger generation, serving as centres where the diffusion of ideas, including those on drugs, takes place.


Whether or not "hippies" play a part, big or small, in seducing the local youth to use drugs, many countries in the East are taking some action against them. Thailand instructed her airlines not to bring in anyone wearing a beard and slippers. In Singapore there is a certain "hippieland" in a district where hippies have chosen to stay in cheap boarding houses, small hotels and brothels, and where drugs are being peddled (S.T. 8.1.1970). In 1969 there was a flare-up of interest in the drug situation. The Straits Times (S.T. of 30.8.1969), describing a marihuana alert, mentioned a series of raids. On 4.9.1969 again there was a big swoop on drug addicts, 48 drug dens being raided. A report (S.T. of 30.8.1969) on "Children who go to pot" described a massive island-wide attempt to stamp out marihuana abuse. Seven girls and boys from different schools were believed to have collapsed and, having been taken to hospital, were found to have taken an overdose of cannabis. "The authorities worried that more and more school children were using the drug for 'kicks'..... White pills" were first mentioned in the press (S.T. of 15.9.1970) as being distributed to students living in the Katong area. It is interesting to note that they first appeared in the most westernized part of Singapore. According to the Straits Times (article of 15.9.1970) "fourteen years ago Katong was already notorious for its 'Teddy Boys', street corner gangs from neighbourhoods of fairly well-to-do middle class families. They were westernized gangs who patterned themselves after the cowboy heroes and Chicago crooks featuring on the cinema screen." At the turn of the century Eurasians and Baba Chinese (who speak English and Malay but not a word of Chinese) had moved into Katong because land was available, the sea was nearby, and life on the East Coast was quiet and gracious. One parent complained that the kids now spend their time riding around on motorcycles smoking pot.

Parents remember the high-tide of drug-taking in 1969 which came to an end after action by school authorities and police. Two schools in the area held lectures on the dangers of drug taking and called on students to report pot parties. Police staked out a newly opened coffee house and questioned many youngsters. This police action all but stopped sales of ganja. As a result, many of the youths gave up the habit. And then, quietly, "white pills" came on the scene and drug taking became rampant again among various groups of teenagers. "We take pills for kicks", one teenage schoolgirl said, "our parents never seem to have time for us." A 20 year old said: "My parents own a car and a shop but I never could get down to talk to them." "Time" said a group of teenagers "was the real problem. There is a generation gap. Our parents are still living in the pre-war era; we trust our parents but they could never trust us." Parents in turn blamed foreign influence and bad company for the long hair, the bell bottoms and mini-skirts that their children sported.

It was learnt that, as in the case of the Chinese opium and the Malay ganja users, those taking MX held a number of beliefs regarding the pills:

  1. They give them strength;

  2. They make them immune to pain; gang members are said to take them before a fight;

  3. MX is very powerful. This was proved, they claimed by someone who conducted the following experiment: he put an MX pill on a piece of meat (bear in this case) and later there were holes in the meat and it turned black. According to another version MX was put on a piece of mutton and the mutton shrank.

  4. Two subjective effects, experienced and often reported, were a general feeling of numbness and that one's eyes looked small or, alternatively that things appeared small to the observer.

  5. Those who ingested these pills overcame their shyness when meeting people.

The author found that, amongst themselves, drug users had a hierarchy of their own. R. said he considered himself and his friends "real" people and the others "plastic" people. "They take MX and fall down."


The population of Singapore which consists of various ethnic groups with differing cultural backgrounds has provided the author with a suitable setting to delineate some of the prevalent ideas about opiates, cannabis and psychotropic substances, to trace the origin of their use and to suggest possible cross-cultural influences.


De Silva, G. Feature article, Straits Times, 15.9.1970.

Galloway, D.J. Opium Smoking and an address at a clinical meeting (CIVC 1910).

Hill, H. The Ganja Problem in Singapore. International Criminal Police Review, No. 221, pp. 210-221 (Oct. 1968).

Leong, H.K. Opium Addicion in Singapore, Dissertation for D.P.H. (London) (1959).

----------------. atterns of Drug Dependence in Singapore, Paper presented at the Second Congress, Singapore, National Academy of Science (November 1971).

Little, R. On the Habitual Use of Opium. The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia. Vol. 1, Singapore 1847.

Report of the Opium Commission, Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States (1908).

Siah U Chin. The Chinese in Singapore: General Sketch of the numbers, tribes and avocations of the Chinese in Singapore, J.I.A. vol. 3, 1848. The journal is now defunct.

Song Ong Siang. One hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (London, 1923).

Straits Times, New Nation, daily newspapers in Singapore.

Sunday Times, Sunday Mail, Sunday newspapers in Singapore.

Wurtzburg, E.E. Raffles of the Eastern Isles, Hodder and Stoughton, London (1954).