The opium problem in Singapore


In the immediate post-war years Singapore was the centre and entrepot of the illicit traffic in opium in the Malayan area and catered for South Malaya, the Borneo Territories, Christmas Island and Indonesia, as well as for her own needs. Opium was as yet the only dangerous drug in widespread illicit use. The volume of this traffic amounted to some 6,000 1b a month. The addict population at the end of the war was approximately 16,000 in Singapore alone; and although little reliable information is available on the incidence of addiction during the war, it is believed that not less than this number, and probably more, were addicted before 1946. The pre-war addict drew his supplies from the government opium monopoly, whereas with the introduction of a total prohibition of the use of opium other than for medicinal purposes at the end of the war these individuals had recourse only to the illicit market if they wished to continue to smoke.


Pages: 7 to 11
Creation Date: 1958/01/01

The opium problem in Singapore

A review by the Singapore Central Narcotics Intelligence Bureau of the opium traffic in Singapore since the Second World War and an account of the work of the Singapore Opium Treatment Centre by Dr. Leong Hon Koon, Medical Officer in Charge

In the immediate post-war years Singapore was the centre and entrepot of the illicit traffic in opium in the Malayan area and catered for South Malaya, the Borneo Territories, Christmas Island and Indonesia, as well as for her own needs. Opium was as yet the only dangerous drug in widespread illicit use. The volume of this traffic amounted to some 6,000 1b a month. The addict population at the end of the war was approximately 16,000 in Singapore alone; and although little reliable information is available on the incidence of addiction during the war, it is believed that not less than this number, and probably more, were addicted before 1946. The pre-war addict drew his supplies from the government opium monopoly, whereas with the introduction of a total prohibition of the use of opium other than for medicinal purposes at the end of the war these individuals had recourse only to the illicit market if they wished to continue to smoke.

The traffic was largely in the hands of a few powerful syndicates dealing in consignments of as much as 3,000 1b at a time. Their agents served as crew members in ocean-going ships on a regular run between Singapore and ports in the Persian Gulf, India, Burma and Thailand, where cheap and plentiful supplies could be procured. They had no difficulty in secreting such consignment on board. Shipments were also made from Burma and Thailand by aircraft and motor fishing vessel.

The principal reason for the successes enjoyed by traffickers at that time were:

  1. The inability of the Customs Department as the sole enforcement authority, with its limited resources, to meet the challenge of both illicit import and domestic consumption;

  2. The preoccupation of senior customs officers with problems of reconstruction after the war;

  3. Corruption amongst subordinate staff.

Despite these handicaps, however, some large seizures of opium were made. Annual captures are shown at appendix A.

In 1952 the Singapore police force assumed, from customs, responsibility for the suppression of the internal traffic in dangerous drugs. It has since maintained steady preventive measures against premises where opium is smoked. Appendix B illustrates, its achievements to date.

The special branch of the Customs Department was reorganized to enable a small but well-qualified staff to give its undivided attention to the task of uncovering the activities of leading opium traffickers and, with assistance of the the Harbour Division, of preventing the illicit import of drugs. The setting up at the time of the Central Narcotics Intelligence Bureau within the framework of the Customs Department was a further development which materially assisted the campaign against traffickers.

The Narcotics Bureau, which functions primarily as a clearing house for information on the drug traffic in the Malayan area, has liaison with enforcement authorities in twenty-six countries and exchanges extensive information with them.

Within two and half months of its reorganization , two seizures involving over 5,000 1b of opium, valued at Malayan $ 2 million, were made. This caused heavy financial loss to the traffickers and dislocated their supply lines. Shortly afterwards, another large consignment of opium in an air passenger’s baggage from Bangkok was captured following its clearance through customs. This resulted in the dismissal of a number of customs staff for complicity. Thereafter the incidence of corruption dropped significantly. Meanwhile the harbour division of the customs met with considerable success when searching ships from suspect port, and caused traffickers to change their tactics. The practice then became to jettison buoyed consignments of opium beyond port limits for recovery by picked motor sampan and other craft fitted with high-powered outboard engines.

In 1954 and 1955, twelve leading traffickers were either banished or imprisoned, while others fled the country. This caused a break-up of the once powerful syndicates. Several minor individuals came in to the field, however, but they lacked the financial resources and standing necessary to organize drug smuggling on the scale of earlier years.

In the same period the Customs Special Investigations Branch intercepted three consignments of opium in cargo: 300 1b in paint from India, 500 1b in gum benjamin from the Persian Gulf, and 900 lb in bitumen from Ceylon. Intensive patrol activity at sea obliged smugglers to dump their buoyed consignment further afield until what is believed to have been the last attempt by this method was foiled when 1,100 1b were recovered from the sea sixty miles east of Singapore.

From this time Singapore ceased to be an important entrepot for the illicit traffic in the Malayan area, and today traffickers are restricted mainly to the domestic market. Very little opium from the Middle East has been detected during the past two years, and the main source of supply is from the Thai-Burma-China border area through the outlet port of Bangkok. This is known to the trade as "Yunnan" opium.

Today, a consignment of 500 1b is considered large. Supplies are usually conveyed by motor fishing vessel to a rendezvous point eighty or so miles from Singapore, where transfer to high-speed craft is effected and a landing made on the Singapore coast under cover of darkness. Three such consignments of 762 1b and 484 1b were seized during 1957, and several more are known to have been lost at sea as a result of the traffickers’ being surprised by preventive patrols.

FIG. 1 - Dormitory block

Full size image: 51 kB, FIG. 1 - Dormitory block

The Opium Treatment Centre was established in 1955 on St. John’s Island, two miles south of Singapore, for the treatment and rehabilitation of addicts. Dr. Leong Hon Koon, medical officer in charge, gives the following survey of the work of the Centre.


Under section 10(2) ( b), section 9(2), and section 10(2) ( a) respectively of the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, No.7 of 1951, smoking prepared opium, the possession of prepared opium and the possession of opium-smoking utensils are punishable offences in Singapore. Addicts were therefore exposed to the rigours of the law, but nothing was done to deal with them as opium addicts until 8 February 1955, when an opium treatment centre was established under the Dangerous Drugs (Temporary Provisions) Ordinance, 1954, and a programme for the treatment and rehabilitation of opium addicts was initiated.

The custody, care, treatment and rehabilitation of the opium addict became the joint responsibility of the prison and medical departments.

The first principle in the treatment of an addict is that he must be looked upon as a patient - that is, be treated medically and not as an ill-doer.

The second principle is that he must be treated as a person, and the treatment must be total.

The total treatment of the addict, as a person, consists of three phases:

  1. The withdrawal phase.

  2. The phase of rehabilitation and re-education.

  3. The follow-up phase - a continuation of the first two phases.

The withdrawal phase takes place in hospital, the second phase in the opium rehabilitation centre at St. John’s Island; the third phase is a continuing process, taking place in the patient’s home, his place of work, and the clinic that he comes to for his medical complaints - in short, in society.

The first phase lasts about two to four weeks, the second phase about six months to a year, and the third and final phase, all the rest of the patient’s life.

First Phase - Withdrawal in the prison hospital

As soon as an addict is remanded, under the Dangerous Drugs (Temporary Provisions) Ordinance 1954, he is admitted into the prison hospital. At the initial medical examination the doctor obtains a full history of his addiction, makes medical examination, and establishes the physician-patient relationship.

The first step is to make him realize that he is a patient and that he needs treatment. The doctor explains to him that opium in the manner he has been used to taking it will no longer be given him. As a result of this deprivation he will undergo a period of distress during which he will have aches and physical discomfort, tears, nasal discharge. He will be restless and unable to sleep well and eat well. He may have diarrhoea, vomiting, muscular cramps and other uncomfortable symptoms. These, the doctors explains, are the result of his being deprived of opium, to which he has been accustomed so long. He is not having a new disease. These will pass off within a week or ten days. During this time, however, medicines will be given him which will relieve his more distressing symptoms and enable him to pass the time less uncomfortably. Once this rationale of treatment is explained to him he accepts it, and in general it is found that the period of withdrawal passes reasonably well.

FIG. 2 - Two patients enjoying a cigarette

Full size image: 59 kB, FIG. 2 - Two patients enjoying a cigarette

The method of withdrawal used is rapid withdrawal with tincture of opium as the withdrawal drug over a period of ten days with : supportive therapy. The following recipe -

Tincture of opium
15 minims
Chloral hydrate
15 grains
Sodium bromide
15 grains
Chloroform water, to
1 ounce
(28 g)

is used in regular diminishing doses for about ten days, after which no more opium preparation is given.

In the meantime the rehabilitation officer interviews him, investigates his home conditions and arranges for his family’s welfare and his future employment.

A report is then submitted to the court by the Advisory Committee.

Second Phase - Rehabilitation and re-education at St. John’s Island Rehabilitation Centre [*]

After receiving his sentence in court he is sent to St. John’s Island. There, after a week’s stay in the hospital for medical check-up, he is assigned to a trade - carpentry, rattan work, tailoring, to help in the office, hospital, cookhouse or the camp grounds.

The important of this phase of treatment must not be overlooked. On the basis of total treatment of the addict, this phase of the treatment plays a great part towards final cure.

Withdrawal treatment is not to be confused with the total treatment of the addict.

St. John’s Rehabilitation Centre, with its clean healthy surroundings, well ordered establishments and facilities for work and recreation, means more than just a place where he is kept away from opium. There, the addict learns to regain his self-respect. He is put to an occupation which, besides keeping him busy, gives him something of the dignity that he has lost. He is looked upon and treated as a person with a personal problem, his addiction to opium, and he is helped to forget it. He is not alone, for other with him have the same problem, but it depends on him and him alone finally to win the fight.

FIG. 3 - Tailoring shop

Full size image: 58 kB, FIG. 3 - Tailoring shop

FIG. 4 - Carpenter’s shop

Full size image: 59 kB, FIG. 4 - Carpenter’s shop

In the few months that he remains on the island he must learn to summon up within himself the resources, the will to accept, in future, a new existence, an existence without an addicting drug.

Third Phase - Follow-up in the Community

After discharge from St. John’s Island comes the third phase - the patient has to return to the community in which he had started his addiction and in the community the final adjustment and adaptation must be made.

The third phase in the present programme is provided only by a weekly follow-up clinic , run by the doctor who has all long been treating him. This is the outpatient department of the general hospital.

This is the most difficult phase to control as the patient has to come to seek medical help on his own. When he meets with the former conditions which contributed to his addiction - access to opium, the stress of having to earn a living under often difficult conditions, the lack of activities to fill in his leisure hours, all the multifactorial urges leading to addiction - he is alone to meet the temptation. What he has gone through - all his re-education during the first two phases - should help him, if he adds to it his own will to rid himself finally of his addiction and not to relapse and re-addict himself.


What sort of people become opium addicts? With the exception of a few Indians, all the opium addicts have been Chinese. Among these, the greater number are Hokkiens, Teochews and Cantonese. Their ages range from the twenties to the sixties and seventies, the greater number being in the 45-55 age group. Many of them have been born in China and have taken up opium smoking after coming to Singapore.

By occupation they include labourers, stevedores, tongkang men, trishaw riders, hawker, masons, factory hands and a host of others. As to their mode of taking the drug, the chronic opium addicts are smokers by choice and resort to swallowing only through necessity. They start by smoking prepared opium (chandu). If they are unable to visit a den they take to swallowing. When they are unable to afford smoking they will swallow at first prepared opium. Most smokers smoke one or two packets two or three times a day. The average number of packets smoked is 3.4 per person per day. When they become poorer they resort to taking dross, either by smoking or by swallowing. The poorest of all take second dross - i.e., what remains when dross is smoked. This is known as Sam Cheng (Teochew) or Sam Char (Cantonese).

What is the cause of opium addiction? This is indeed a difficult question to answer. I would say that there is not one cause, but a number of causes; in other words, though the agent of addiction, opium, the dried juice of the unripe capsules of papaver somniferum, grown in many countries in the East and smuggled into Singapore, is known, the etiology of opium addiction is unknown. Although the causes of addiction are not clearly understood, the reasons given by the addicts themselves as to why they took opium in the first place can be analysed as follows.

Some take opium for pleasure, for the thrill it gives. They find company and relaxation in the friendly atmosphere of the opium den.

The trishaw rider, the tongkang man and the labourer who has to carry heavy loads take it to relieve fatigue. After pedalling for hours in the rain opium enables them to forget the tiredness in their limbs, and the beating of the sun and the rain.

The hawker who sells his wares till the late hours of the night takes it to dispel sleepiness.

The man who is troubled by cough, diarrhoea, dysentery, piles, who has contracted venereal disease and a host of other ills, finds immediate relief from his symptoms by taking opium (usually on the advice of another addict), and, believing that opium has cured his ills, continues taking it.

Whatever the original reason for their taking opium, once they become addicted they cannot go without opium for a day. When they stop taking opium they begin to get distressing symptoms as a result of deprivation and they then have to continue taking it to relieve the distressing symptoms of withdrawal. These symptoms include aches and pains, cramps in the muscles, yawning, restlessness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, a state of distress that they are unable to describe, but which they experience and is very real. They take opium, and all their distress disappears. So they imagine that opium has cured them of all these ills and they continue to take it until they die or until they are unable to afford it any more or until they are arrested.


It is perhaps difficult to assess results in terms of so many persons treated, so many persons cured. Relapses, or rather readdictions, do and will probably always occur. There is here no effective comprehensive method of follow-up at present. The immediate results are, however, encouraging, for whereas on the day of his arrest and admission into hospital the patient is definitely an addict, on the day of his release from St. John's Island he is no longer an addict. He has put on weight (an average gain of 11.5 lb was found in 1957). His health has improved, but what is more important is that he has learned that he is able to work and carry on the duties of everyday life without recourse to an addicting drug.

In the three years 1955-1957 the total number of persons remanded was 2,512. These were admitted into prison hospital and started on the first phase of treatment. 1,005 persons were admitted into St. John's Rehabilitation Centre and 815 were released after having completed the second phase of treatment.

It is not possible with the present inadequacy of follow-up to assess the cure rate.

It is known, however, that, of all those released, forty-six have been rearrested and convicted on a second opium charge, and these may be considered as the immediate known failures. However, after readmission into the prison hospital for another period of withdrawal treatment and a further stay in the prison (the law at present does not allow them to have a second stay in St. John's) there is the possibility that even these may learn to give up their addiction after release.

One encouraging thing has been that there have come forward for voluntary treatment a number of persons, who have been recommended by former patients of St. John's who had not been volunteers, but had been arrested and sent for treatment at St. John's, and had completed their stay.

Something has been achieved, but much remains to be done.



There is little doubt that the preventive measures against traffickers on the one hand and the curative treatment of addicts on the other, which are both designed to render the trade in opium as unattractiveas possible, are beginning to show positive results in Singapore. If these pressures can be sustained and extended, the virtual extinction of the traffic in opium may be witnessed within the next decade.


Annual seizures of raw and prepared opium in Singapore and the Federation of Malaya since the year 1947


Federation of Malaya
1947 2,363 446 2,809
1948 4,860 691 5,551
1949 4,911 1,843 6,754
1950 6,579 734 7,313
1951 7,460 2,734 10,194
1952 2,815 9,075 11,890
1953 7,081 3,957 11.038
1954 3,959 2,295 6,254
1955 4,825 1,230 6,055
1956 4,049 1,099 5,148
1957 3,940 1,963 5,903
1958 (Jan.-Mar.)
220 74 294
53,062 26,141 79,203

Cumulative totals of raids on opium smoking dens carried out by Singapore police force

Number of raids
Cumulative totals
1952 (July-Dec.)
2,209 2,209
1953 4,831 7,040
1954 3,796 10,836
1955 3,720 14,556
1956 3,149 17,705
1957 2,541 20,246
1958 (Jan.-Mar)
849 21,095


Activities of Singapore police narcotics branch against opium smokers

Number of raids conducted on dens
Number of arrests
Number of opium pipes seized
Number of opium lamps seized
Raw and prepared opium seized (lb.)
1953 4,831 3,621 4,811 4,670 601
1954 3,796 1,851 2,978 2,879 414
1955 3,720 981 1,786 1,571 105
1956 3,149 1,070 1,749 1,543 499
1957 2,541 574 2,053 1,678 297
Age groups of selected addicts arrested
Under 20 years
20-30 years
52 19 20
31-40 years
177 148 66
41-50 years
347 284 259
51-60 years
301 216 165
Over 60 years
60 56 23

See Bulletin on Narcotics, Vol. IX, No.3.