Singapore's Leaky Drugs Enforcement

Singapore’s fearsome reputation for dealing with drug users and dealers seems to have a few holes. The limited data that is available tends to suggest that harsh policies, most notably the death penalty for dealers in quite small amounts, are not as successful as might be thought and that policies may be being applied selectively to keep foreign tourists and local expatriates from featuring in too many cases which might rebound negatively on the Republic.

Singapore’s drug enforcement agency the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) has just admitted that instead of improving as previously claimed, the drug situation has actually gotten worse. Admitting to an error in the compilation of statistics, bureau director Ng Boon Gay said that figures now showed that in 2008 there had been 2,537 drug abuse arrests compared with the 1,925 originally reported and that this had risen 2,887 in 2010 not the fall to 1,805 previously reported. The discrepancies were blamed on a new technology system introduced in 2008. There has also been a surge in arrests over the past eight weeks.

Without all details on the age, race and income level of all those arrested and location of arrests and type of drug involved it is difficult to draw too many conclusions from the raw numbers. Some cases do get publicity which gives some indications of the issue. On September 6 and 7, the Central Narcotics Bureau arrested a dealer and 15 of his clients. The clients were aged between 13 and 25 years and were mainly but not all expatriates of diverse nationalities but included Singaporeans. The suspected trafficker, a 35-year-oldSingapore permanent resident was said to have been peddling cannabis. (For cannabis dealing the death penalty applies at 500 grams but only a fraction of this amount was seized from the clients and from the Ang Mo Kio residence of the trafficker. But a trafficker can still face up to 20 years in jail and 15 strokes of the cane).

The expatriate teenagers at least seem likely to get off lightly. One New Zealand boy was released without charge. And according to the Straits Times, expatriate teenagers have claimed that cannabis, Ecstasy and even heroin can be obtained at private, invitation-only parties. However, usually only cannabis --/marijuana -- is on offer. According to this report, marijuana sells for between S$35 and S$75 for a 3 gram pack – not a huge amount for Singapore’s mostly very prosperous expats.

Drug availability has been so commonplace that schools for expatriates are resorting to random urine and hair tests of pupils as young as 11. Details of what happens to those caught with traces of drug use are not available. However, indications are that schools like to keep this in-house and apply sanctions such as suspensions and possibly expulsion rather than hand the culprit over to the police.

The arrests of expatriate teenagers drew lots of attention. Much less normally goes to the 20 other cases that, according to the latest data, Singapore sees in an average week and are believed to be focused more in low than high income areas. But the CNB has been especially active in the past two months with dozens of arrests mostly related to heroin and ice, both said to be in abundance around the region. Burma is the main heroin source but while Singapore is happy to bank the proceeds of the heroin trade bosses, it has harsh penalties for the street traders and regular users in Singapore. On Aug. 4 arrests yielded 2.8 kilos of heroin. On Aug. 12, 116 people, including 11 alleged dealers, were detained and in mid-September another 80 users and seven alleged dealers in heroin and ice were caught. Thus in six weeks alone about ten candidates for possible execution were apprehended.

But even the severest penalties for dealers can do little to stop the import for personal use from neighboring countries. Indonesia and Thailand are especially ready sources of the recreational drug of choice, particularly for low-income groups, throughout East Asia – methamphetamines which go by various names including ice and shabu but Malaysia has problems as well. It is particularly appealing to low-income foreign workers doing Singapore’s dirty and dangerous jobs. Pills such as Erimin-5 are also known to find a ready market among teenagers, mostly from low-income families. Singapore also has its share of old-time heroin addicts.

At the same time little has been heard of late of arrests for cocaine usage – though there have been cases in the past. This is the favored recreational drug of well-off expatriates, notably those in the financial and entertainment sectors. Could this be because the authorities are more concerned with Singaporeans abusing drugs than transient foreigners? It would be logical. Likewise such users may get their supplies from abroad rather than through dealers in Singapore for whom the death penalty kicks in at 30 grams.

All told, Singapore’s hard line on drugs has almost certainly kept usage below rates in equivalent societies such as Hong Kong. But such success in suppressing occasional recreational use of party drugs has come at a high cost in human lives without necessarily making Singapore any less free of addiction than its peers.