Drug Addiction and Rehabilitation in Draconian Singapore

James Goyder

72456272 Drug Addiction and Rehabilitation in Draconian SingaporeSingapore 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:

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  • ChrisD324

    Perhaps we should adopt singapore’s policies here and stop treating Drug addiction as merely a social problem.

    Altenatively, do not bother at all about the fools who poison themselves; give them their poison, it will be cheaper than the failed, half-baked enforcement we employ now

  • M Henri Day

    Way to go, Chrisd324 ; nice to see that th’ Milke of humane kindnesse is still flowing ! My best to her Ladyship !…


  • Dr Dre

    You are right, War on Drugs has been a spectacular success in the US 

  • scampy2

    What do you prefer the high standard of living and home ownership with very low crime as in Singapore or the Londonistan of Tony the phony Blair and the labour stooges where terrorists cannot be deported?
    Singapore number one place on the planet without ghettos. 

  • azmi ramzi

    What’s so GREAT! about Singapore?  As a Malay-American, all laws originate in nearby Malaysia which doesn’t get a lot of publicity!  In fact many Singaporeans have homes in nearby Johore Baru Malaysia because there is a housing shortage in Singapore.  Basically it is a boring place where you could go 4 or 5 times around the island and pretty much is the same thing.  The difference between Singapore and Malaysia is that Singapore doesn’t have Royalty like in Malaysia where a Datuk and Tan Sri is equivalent to a Sir or Lord in England.  Both countries have the same judicial system which is based on British law.  Here in the United States of America people don’t believe in Royalty but give Singapore the benefit of a doubt. People in the UK & USA should look to Malaysia which is a bigger place & more industries instead of Singapore because it is just a tiny place.

  • outerspaceym

    Malaysia is a definitely a more corrupt place than Singaproe therefore it can attract more investments to the island.  All laws originate from the British colonials and what publicity should Malaysia get?  So what if it doesn’t have royalty?  A datukship and tan sriship can be bought and I thought you knew that a long time ago.  Yes, it is a boring place but a much safer place than for eg. Kuala Lumpur where the occupants are scared of burglars and kidnappers etc.  What do you mean give Singapore a  benefit of a doubt.  What doubt?  Compare please the investments that Singapore gets to  Malaysia. 

  • muggerbe

    Invade Singapore now! 

  • spee

    basically, don’t mess with Singapore – EVER.

  • studentsteve

    Is the cabin in chiang mai the place where Pete Doherty went in Thailand? It seems top quality rehabilitation is only available to the rich, but drugs are available to everyone.

    At least in Singapore it’s the same for everyone, they’re all screwed!

  • Vancouverlocksmith Pros

    They really think that it’s can work in Singapore??? A big mistake in my opinion.. 24 hour Vancouver Locksmith pro’s 24 hour locksmiths in Vancouver BC drug addiction.

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