Drug Addiction and Rehabilitation in Draconian Singapore
Singapore is renowned for its draconian drug laws which stipulate a mandatory custodial sentence for even the most trivial of transgressions. Aspects of this policy have been condemned by Amnesty International but the government would argue that the ends justify the means, with the South East Asian city state boasting one of the lowest instances of illegal drug use in the world.
The former British colony is clearly one of the harshest environments in the world in which a drug user or addict can operate and yet, according to official statistics, 1,805 ‘drug abusers’ were arrested last year.
The stigma which is attached to drug use in Singapore in conjunction with the threat of severe legal sanctions have created a climate in which it very rare for addicts to come forward and tell their stories.
Tony Tan is one of very few former drug users in Singapore to successfully escape from the cycle of addiction and incarceration and, after serving two prison sentences for drug offences, now works as a counsellor helping to rehabilitate Singaporean drug users,
“I have been very active in the rehab world in Singapore partly because I was a user and a pusher before so I know the trade inside out. In Singapore there is a stigma. If you were a drug addict than people will treat you as an outcast and look down on you and that is a culture created by government. As a drug addict you don’t have status in this society and because people can’t admit that they are using drugs it is more difficult for them to stop,” he said.
This vicious circle is perpetuated by potentially prohibitive legislation which deter a number of addicts from seeking professional help for their problems,
“Once you see a psychiatrist for your drug issue or go into any hospital for detox, public or private, your name will be surrendered to the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) and after you finish your detox you are likely to be picked up again and tested.”
In Singapore consumption is a crime which carries a mandatory custodial sentence of one year for a first offence. The police have the right to take anyone they suspect of being a drug user into custody in order to test them as Tan explains,
“Singapore is a bit different. The first time you are caught for drug consumption is one year, the second time is three years and the third time is five minimum with three strokes of the cane. Consumption just means that your urine has tested positive. They do pick up people randomly with a record of drugs offences so after you have served your sentence, you can be tested at any time,” he said.
Certain drugs, such as cannabis, can stay in the system for several weeks. The prospect of failing a drug test at Changi Airport and being sentenced to a year in the nearby system is enough to strike terror onto the heart of any backpacker who has inhaled at a full moon party,
“There are CNB officers at Singapore customs and they are trained to look at signs of drug use, they look for signs like bloodshot eyes and people walking unstably. People coming from areas with a high tendency of drug use such as India they will tend to look at more so they tend not to focus on people coming from Europe. In Singapore, if you are taking drugs overseas once you cross the border into Singapore and test positive you will still be charged even though you didn’t consume the drugs in Singapore,” he said.
Tan is now based in Thailand but his history means he is likely to be drug tested as soon as he steps foot in Singapore where he is also subject to random testing at any time. As a drugs counsellor his employers have been understanding about the reasons for this imposition but in any other profession it would be a major issue. Tan thinks that this is another reason why addicts in Singapore are reluctant to seek help,
“If you are rich and you have a good job the chances of being caught are slim but it is also difficult to get help. A lot of rich and educated people don’t want to get treated in Singapore because they know their name will be given to the CNB and they don’t want to take that risk. Imagine if you are a high flier and you see a psychiatrist and manage to get clean and then suddenly one day a CNB officer comes into your office and picks you up for a urine test. What would happen to your status in the company? People are very worried about being open about their issue,” he said.
Tan has been invited to offer counselling at Changi Prison, the same place he served his sentences, and estimates that more than half of the inmates there have a drug problem. While he believes that draconian penalties do act as a deterrent he also feels that an approach which focuses exclusively on prevention, at the expense of harm reduction, can have a detrimental effect,
“My previous agency, We Care, was blocked by the prison department so our programme could not penetrate into the prison. Robbery, housebreaking and extortion are all crimes linked to drug addiction. While Singapore has detox programmes and post detox halfway houses I think if the government placed more emphasis on rehabilitation crime would be reduced,” he said.
In a 2010 interview with a UK newspaper Michael Teo, Singapore’s High Commissioner to the Court of St. James’s, launched a robust defence of Singapore’s drug laws,
“According to the 2008 World Drug Report by the United Nations office on drugs and crime 8.2% of the UK population are cannabis abusers; in Singapore it is 0.005%. For ecstasy, the figures are 1.8% for the UK and 0.003% for Singapore; and for opiates – such as heroin, opium and morphine – 0.9% for the UK and 0.005% for Singapore. We do not have traffickers pushing drugs openly in the streets, nor do we need to run needle exchange centres,” he said.
Tan disputes this view and feels that the actual number of drug users in Singapore is considerably higher than the figures suggest,
“I don’t think the statistics on drug use in Singapore are accurate because they are based on people who have been caught and sentenced in court. The
statistics normally come from the police and don’t include people who haven’t been caught, those who are seeking treatment or those who haven’t been sentenced. In previous projects I have been involved with a lot of addicts have come forward,” he said.
Tan also takes umbrage at the suggestion that Singapore does not need to operate needle exchanges,
“Most heroin addicts will inject, and Hepatatis C is a major issue. About 90% of users who inject are Hep C carriers because they share needles. The government are aware of this problem but Singapore remains one of the few countries in South East Asia without needle exchanges,” he said.
Tan was recently nominated for the Young Singaporean of the Year Award and has received widespread credit for the manner in which he has turned his life around. His quest to provide the best quality help available to his compatriots has actually taken him away from the country of his birth to a state of the art treatment centre in northern Thailand,
“The Cabin, a rehabilitation centre in Chiang Mai, came to Singapore and I can speak English, Chinese and a little bit of Malay and had been working on the ground conducting an outreach program so they offered me a job. The Cabin uses Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a scientifically proven model which looks at the links between Action, Behaviour and Consequence, but they combine it with a secular 12 steps structure, which I was already familiar with. I have been amazed at the results these methods bring and the high recovery rate. One day I would love to introduce a similar program to Singapore, ” he said.
Ultimately Tan wants to return to Singapore and continue the work he started in Changi Prison but first he feels he needs to spend time overseas in order to truly learn his trade,
“In Singapore our rehab work is still very young and very new so I realized that the best way to help Singapore was to go overseas and gain experience working from a leading treatment centre so that in the future I can bring the techniques back there. Psychiatrists in Singapore are not comfortable sending people to treatment because they don’t know about it. There is nothing like it in Singapore, you go into detox or a few weeks and that is it. Treatment for addiction is not just about a few weeks, it is a long process,” he said.
For more information about Tony Tan and his current work in the rehabilitation world visit: www.thecabinchiangmai.comTagged in: changi prison, death penalty, drugs, harm reduction, heroin, rehabilitation, singapore
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