From Colonial Indifference to Capital Punishment: A History of Drug Use and Responses in the Malay Peninsula

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have started our descent into Singapore Changi International Airport. Please be advised that trafficking drugs in Singapore carries the strictest penalties.”

All travellers to Singapore – a small island-nation at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula – are welcomed with this warning by their flight crew upon landing, a reminder of the nation’s strict stance on controlled substances. In 2022, Singapore carried out 11 judicial executions. All were drug-related. Its neighbour Malaysia has similarly strict drug laws, with over 900 people on death row for drug trafficking.

Singapore and Malaysia share strong historical, cultural and social ties. The city of ‘Singapura’ was supposedly founded by a Malaysian prince in 1299. Trade and cultural exchanged between Singapore and mainland Malaysia existed for centuries. Between 1826 and 1946, the two were brought under joint British rule: Singapore and three Malaysian states formed the Straits Settlements Colony under direct British rule, and four Federated and five Unfederated Malay States were considered British protectorates.

Consequently, the two countries’ drug histories are closely intertwined across their colonial and post-colonial past. Various factors motivate modern-day harsh drug policies, including a proximity to the ‘Golden Triangle’ of heroin production (Myanmar, Thailand and Lao), historically high rates of opium addiction in colonial times, and prevailing attitudes on drug use as a serious moral and social problem.

The Straits Settlements – Stephen Luscombe,


Early patterns of drug use

Opium den in Singapore in 1941 – Carl Mydans

Drug use (particularly of opium) in Southeast Asia predates the 1800s arrival of the British. Though scholars know little about usage rates pre-1800s, there is evidence of opium-smoking among Malay aristocrats and merchants in pre-colonial times. The early nineteenth century marked a turning point, with mass migration from ethnic Chinese, Malays, Bugis and Indians to British Malaya (modern-day Malaysia and Singapore). This migration was closely tied to drug consumption.

Opium-smoking – already commonplace in China– became a popular pastime among Chinese immigrant labourers as a form of escapism and pain relief. Indian immigrants were associated with cannabis use as a pre-existing feature of Indian culture. Yet, as immigrant communities mixed, so did patterns of drug use. Opium was not limited to the Chinese, just as cannabis was not limited to the Indians. Labourers from all ethnicities used drugs for entertainment and to alleviate their pains.

Colonial indifference to drug use

Colonial authorities were largely indifferent to drug use among local populations. In fact, the British tacitly encouraged drug use for economic purposes. In 1821, a British parliamentary paper stated: “from the opium trade the Honourable Company has derived for years immense revenue and through them the British government and nation have also reaped an incalculable amount of political and financial advantage.” Indeed, in the mid 1800s, opium revenue accounted for about 50% of the total revenue of the British Straits Settlements. Singapore’s strategic location made it a major transport link for cooked opium (Chendu) from British India to East Asia. In 1910, the colonial government increased their revenue share in the trade by monopolising all opium farms and various opium shops in the region.

Estimates reveal that one in four adult Chinese in British Malaya used opium around 1930. Yet colonial authorities did not invest in addiction treatment, and instead took a hands-off approach to locals’ health. Additionally, because of British financial interests in the drug trade, opium was seen as an economic opportunity rather than a social evil. Opium smoking therefore remained legal in British Malaya for over a century.

Not everyone in Malaya favoured such a hands-off approach. A minority Straits Settlement ‘anti-opium’ movement emerged led by local Chinese intelligentsia. In response, the government began mandatory registration of opium smokers in 1929. The government rationed opium supplies, but smoking remained legal. There were thought to be 300,000 people who used drugs across British Malaya that year – largely male Chinese adults.

Cultivation of the opium poppy in British India – National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board

Pressure from the anti-opium movement, coupled with the increasing criminalisation of opium worldwide (including in Britain), contributed to a series of new restrictions in Malaya. 1934 marked a turning point when registered opium smokers had to produce medical certificates to purchase opium. Opium smokers who failed to comply with these and other regulations were now considered illicit users for the first time.

From 1942 to 1945, Japanese forces briefly occupied Malaya and Singapore.

Newspaper article on the anti-opium movement – National Library of Singapore

When the British returned to rule in 1946, the joint Straits Settlements colony was dissolved. Singapore became a separate colony; the rest of the Malay peninsula was merged into the Malayan Union (1946), and eventually the Federation of Malaya (1948). The British Military Administration issued the 1946 “Opium and Chandu Proclamation” amidst these political changes – marking the beginning of drug criminalisation in the Malay peninsula. This went beyond the restrictions imposed in the 30’s and 40’s and brought Malaya in line with global criminalisation trends.

Following this prohibition, drug use trends remained unchanged at first and underground networks flourished. If anything, lower-income Chinese largely transitioned to morphine as a cheaper alternative. Yet addiction rates gradually decreased with government enforcement and the establishment of treatment facilities – that is, until a new generation began experimenting with drugs in the 1960s and 70s.


1970s: A new wave of drug users

British rule over Malaysia and Singapore ended in 1963. That same year, various ex-British colonies and protectorates formed the Federation of Malaysia. Singapore was initially part of this Federation, but it became independent in 1965 following a series of failed agreements. While drug usage appeared to subside in the post-war period, the newly-independent Singapore and Malaysia soon found themselves contending with a new wave of drug problems.

Drug consumption increased rapidly on the peninsula in the 1970s, influenced by the availability of new drugs and by the hippie movement in the West. Drug usage was now more evenly distributed across ethnicities (Malay, Indian and Chinese) and income classes than it had been in the past. By 1974, 46% of Malaysia’s crime was drug-related and heroin accounted for 80% of illegal drug consumption.

Drug abuse continued to increase so drastically that it was declared the main national security threat to the country in 1983.

Similarly, young people in Singapore began to get involved with drugs in the early 1970s. Unlike the pre-independence period, when people who used drugs mostly consisted of immigrant labourers, in the seventies drug use was apparent across all segments of society. Many were middle-class, educated youths influenced by Western trends. While cannabis and amphetamines were the most widely-used substances, opium, morphine and LSD became more popular. Addiction to heroin in particular reached epidemic proportions, rising from under 10 arrests annually pre-1973 to 7,372 arrests in 1977.

Camp Semengat, Malaysia’s Woodstock – Twitter

According to Hon Koon Leong, a Singaporean doctor at the time, this demographic change in people who used drugs was a significant shift. The drug trade encouraged interaction among social classes, as lower-income Chinese dealers would supply drugs to young users. Even school-age children and women were involved in the drug scene for the first time, and drug use took place primarily for recreational rather than therapeutic purposes.

Regulation and criminalisation

Newly-independent Malaysia and Singapore took hard-line, pre-emptive measures against the new “drug problem.” Singapore used two parallel approaches: social-behavioural interventions and criminalisation. From 1972, the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association implemented national education programmes in schools and other public spaces on the dangers of drugs. SANA also provided counselling for clients after their discharge from a treatment facility. In 1992, rates of relapse under SANA’s care stood at 58.8% as compared to 75.2% for those not under SANA.

These social initiatives went hand-in-hand with harsh criminal penalties. Singapore passed the Misuse of Drug Act in 1973, introducing harsh punishments against drug traffickers and mandating treatment for people testing positive for controlled drugs. Criminalisation was seen as an effective means of deterrence and a signal of the immorality of drug use. Singapore’s “war on drugs” intensified over the following decades. The Misuse of Drugs Act was amended in 1975 to include the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking. In 1977, the government launched “Operation Ferret” to curb heroin supplies through the mass arrest of abusers and traffickers. As the problem persisted, the definition threshold for drug trafficking was lowered in 1989 to include the possession of merely 10 grams of cannabis or 3 grams of cocaine. Singapore’s tightening measures successfully framed drug use as moral and social evil, and to this day popular support for harsh drug laws remains high.

Operation Ferret (1977) – The Straits Times

Between the 1970s and 2000s, Malaysia followed a similar approach in terms of demand and supply reduction. The Dangerous Drug Ordinance was passed in 1952 and amended in 1983 to introduce the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking. Drug use was proclaimed a national security problem, allowing cases to be tried under the Internal Security Act rather than through normal criminal proceedings. Simultaneously – much like in Singapore – Malaysia expanded the role of education, detoxification and social counselling for those who used drugs. Government treatment centres accepted voluntary admissions and those who had been convicted under the Act, yet only 20% of clients released from Malaysian government centres remained drug-free in the 70’s and 80’s. Prevention became an increasing focus through school workshops and mass communication programmes.

Modern challenges and future directions

Singapore is largely considered a drug-free society and its absolute numbers of drug-related arrests remains low, at 2,812 in 2022. In Malaysia, drug use is relatively more common. In 2021 Malaysia saw 129,604 arrests of people who use drugs, from a population of 33.6 million. The prevalence of substance use is estimated to be 380 out of 100,000, and treatment admissions for methamphetamines have increased 31 times between 2011 and 2018. Exact figures are difficult to find for both countries as there is a high reliance on data of convictions. What can be assumed, however, is that Singapore’s centralised governance model and small size has made it easier to enforce containment measures as compared to Malaysia.

Today, drug use is disproportionately concentrated among the Malay population in Singapore. Ethnic Malays account for 15% of the local population yet 47% those who use drugs. Interestingly, Malays had not historically been leading drug consumers in the Malay Peninsula – but when drug use grew more recreational in the seventies, Malay youths became wide consumers of cannabis, opium and morphine. Malay males were at the heart of the nation’s heroin epidemic: in 1988, 7 in 10 drug users were Malay whereas drug usage rates declined among the Chinese population. This disproportionate ethnic distribution continues to the modern day, and likely relates to a range of economic, social and structural factors.

In Malaysia, Malays accounted for 87% of identified drug “addicts” in 2022 and approximately 70% of the population – a somewhat more representative proportion.

National Council Against Drug Abuse (Singapore) – Arturo de Albornoz

While criminalisation remains the default approach, Malaysia has introduced some harm reduction measures. These include Opioid Treatment Programmes and Needle/Syringe Exchange Programmes to prevent the risk of HIV transmission. However, like in Singapore, these measures are limited to users only possessing small quantities of controlled substances and thus not presumed to be traffickers. Harm reduction efforts are further hindered by the high social stigma surrounding drug use and police aggression toward people who inject drugs.

Singapore and Malaysia seem unlikely to alter their anti-drug policies given the numerous factors that have shaped their current stance. These include geographical factors (e.g. proximity to the heroin-producing “Golden Triangle” in Southeast Asia), historical factors (namely widespread opium addiction and a lack of public health responses from the British colonial government) and social factors, including ingrained narratives on the immorality of drugs and consequent low social acceptance of drug users.

The world is moving toward decriminalisation. Canada, Uruguay and Malta are among the countries to have legalised the recreational use of cannabis. In 2022, Thailand became the first Southeast Asian country to join the list. This move was identified as “concerning” by Singaporean and Malaysian authorities due to its geographical proximity. As international trends move further toward decriminalisation and harm reduction, it remains to be seen how Singapore and Malaysia will react.

Capucine Barcellona
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Capucine Barcellona is a researcher in Global Health at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and a Contributing Editor at Points. She writes on themes related to health equities within East Asian health systems with a particular focus on drug/pharmaceutical policy/legislation, harm reduction, and mental health.

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