Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at CNB50 Anniversary Event on 7 December 2021 at Tudor Ballroom, Goodwood Park Hotel.
Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs
Mr Ng Ser Song, Director of CNB
And all the CNB and MHA officers who are joining us online today,
A very good morning to all of you.
I am very happy to join you all today for CNB’s 50th anniversary. It is a significant milestone in our national fight against drug abuse.
Singapore’s History with Drug Abuse
Those familiar with Singapore’s history will know that the problem of drug abuse goes back to the earliest days of modern Singapore.
In the 19th century and in the early 20th century, opium was widely consumed especially by the poorer classes of society. Opium use was legal and workers often smoked opium to relieve their fatigue. One in three adult Chinese settlers were addicted to opium. Many resorted to crime to fund their drug needs and it did not just affect the drug abusers, their family members suffered too.
Recognising the harm of opium abuse, Singapore banned opium in 1946 but that did not stop people from continuing to use drugs illegally.
In the late 1960s, after Singapore became independent, ‘hippie culture’ swept across much of the world. Elements of this lifestyle found their way into Singapore. The culture began to take hold amongst our youths. Drugs like methaqualone (MX) pills, cannabis and heroin were readily available. Pot parties were rampant. Young people were popping MX pills at tea dances and nightclubs, and this took a toll on health and lives. Drug abusers were often found lying dead on the streets. Some suffered from overdoses or severe allergic reactions. Others were killed in traffic accidents while high on drugs.
The government resolved to tackle this scourge comprehensively and decisively. In 1971 we created a dedicated agency to consolidate our efforts and resources, and focus our fight on drugs. This was how the Central Narcotics Bureau came into being.
For 50 years, the CNB has led the charge against drugs. It started out with fewer than 20 officers; today, it has more than 800. CNB has become the public face of our fight against drugs. It has done an excellent job. How did it do so? Let me talk about three of CNB’s key strategies.
Laws and enforcement
First, the Government enacted tough anti-drug laws, which CNB enforced strictly against drug traffickers and abusers.
In the first ten months after CNB was created, it conducted more than 1,000 raids, seizing 450 pounds of cannabis and over 2,200 MX pills.
CNB also launched operations against nightclubs and hippie gardens where drug abuse was rampant. But despite regular raids, drug activities continued because drug traffickers and abusers were undeterred by the penalties for such offences. In other words, the penalties were too low.
And so, the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) was enacted in 1973. This introduced harsher penalties for drug pushers and traffickers, and allowed the detention of drug addicts for treatment and rehabilitation.
But the pivotal change came in 1975 when we introduced the death penalty for the most serious drug offences, in particular for trafficking more than 15 grammes of diamorphine, or pure heroin. Heroin had quickly become a huge problem. Traffickers at Sungei Road would hold up small bottles of heroin to openly solicit buyers. Between 1974 and 1975, in one year, the number of heroin abusers arrested increased from 9 to over 1,000, more than 100-fold. 15 grammes of diamorphine may not seem a lot to a layperson, but it is equivalent to 1,250 straws, which can feed the addiction of 180 drug abusers for one week.
The deterrent effect of this harsh penalty was soon felt. Drug traffickers became much less willing to bring drugs into Singapore. Drug abusers, desperate to obtain drugs, were forced to go to Johor to purchase and smuggle into Singapore drugs in small quantities, a practice known as “ant trafficking”.
At the same time, CNB stepped up its enforcement activities. In 1977, CNB, Police, Prisons, the Customs and Excise Department, and the Scientific Services Department launched a massive joint operation, codenamed “Operation Ferret”. Police and CNB officers conducted operations across more than 100 sites. Some drug traffickers were armed with weapons and turned violent when resisting arrest, but that did not stop our officers. Over 8,000 suspects were arrested. The street supply of heroin was severely curtailed. Operation Ferret’s success became a model for subsequent drug enforcement operations.
Over the years, CNB has continuously improved its surveillance and enforcement capabilities. Last month, CNB conducted an island-wide operation. It arrested 50 suspected drug abusers and seized over $20,000 worth of drugs. Nowadays, drug traffickers and abusers use e-commerce services and encrypted messaging apps, like Telegram. CNB will need to continue using technology to the full, to tackle new threats and drug supply methods.
Tough laws and robust enforcement provide a strong deterrent that helps keep the number of drug abusers in Singapore low.
The second strategy CNB used was to set up a rigorous rehabilitation regime for drug abusers.
To ensure that former drug abusers stay clear of drugs, they are placed on the drug supervision scheme after being released from Drug Rehabilitation Centres or prisons.
Originally, this scheme was under the Probation and Aftercare Section of the then-Ministry of Social Affairs but to optimise resources and ensure better case management, CNB took over the responsibility in 1978.
Over the years, CNB reviewed its supervision regime to place greater emphasis on effective rehabilitation, including through increasing the maximum supervision period from two years to five, through compulsory counselling for young drug abusers and their parents, through allowing first-time low-risk drug abusers to continue with studies or work, instead of being sent to a drug rehabilitation centre. These initiatives help drug abusers break the cycle of addiction and better reintegrate into society.
The good work of CNB officers has transformed many lives. Let me share the story of one CNB officer, Mr Ravichandran Ramu. Ravi oversees youth supervisees at the Tanglin Division. One of his supervisees had abused cannabis since he was 15 years old. Ravi went beyond his call of duty – proactively and frequently checking-in with the youth over the years, making sure that the boy’s studies were not disrupted. When the young man became depressed and could not focus on his studies, Ravi was there to encourage him, to believe in himself, to press on. The young man went on to complete his O levels, A levels, and to be admitted to NUS, and today, he is a medical doctor. From drug abuser to doctor, from a potentially wasted life to saving the lives of others. That is rehabilitation at its best and CNB officers can tell many similar stories.
Public Education and Community Engagement
The third strategy, which you heard of in the video just now, is a comprehensive and sustained public education programme, to alert people to the dangers of drug abuse. When people think about the war against drugs, they usually associate it with anti-drug raids – dramatic, exciting, sometimes violent. But public education is an equally important part in this war, if not the most crucial part. Through effective public education, we can stem drug abuse upstream before it causes more troublesome social problems. This is also why CNB oversees our national drug education strategy.
But CNB is cognisant that it cannot win the war against drugs alone. To educate the public on the harms of drugs, especially our children and youths, CNB works closely with other agencies including the Ministry of Education, schools, and many non-government organisations. Together, they organise a wide range of activities, including school talks, exhibitions, even video-making competitions. They produce well-designed collaterals and media products, including an Augmented Reality Mobile App for primary school children. All these to win hearts and minds and drive home the anti-drug message.
Community-led advocacy is another thrust of CNB’s drug education strategy. In CNB’s early days, founding Director Mr John Hanam dedicated his weekends to giving lectures, participating in forums and rallying volunteers around the anti-drug cause. Over the years, CNB continued establishing close partnerships with community partners, including to lead the annual Anti-Drug Abuse Campaign; to co-organise seminars and meetings; to work with youth volunteers to positively influence their peers. These have amplified CNB’s outreach and advocacy efforts.
CNB’s community partners and advocates have been instrumental in galvanising public support for the anti-drug cause. Your continued partnership with CNB will be crucial to push back against increasingly permissive drug narratives seen in some overseas countries. On CNB’s anniversary, I thank you all for your support and contributions.
Singapore’s Drug Situation Today
These three strategies have been key to CNB’s efforts.
Today, Singapore is relatively drug-free. Our situation is under better control than most other countries. The number of drug abusers arrested annually in Singapore has fallen to about half that in the mid-1990s.
Our drug situation contrasts sharply against countries with more permissive approaches.
The US, for example, has been grappling with an opioid crisis. In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies aggressively promoted opioid painkillers, despite knowing that they were addictive and liable to abuse. More and more people became hooked to these painkillers, and began turning to illicit sources to obtain opioid drugs like heroin to feed their addiction. The consequences were devastating. In two decades from 1999 to 2019, nearly 500,000 people died from opioid overdose in the US, with the death rate increasing six-fold during this period.
Because of our strict anti-drug approach, Singapore has been able to keep our people safe from these problems. Today, there are no open drug markets and drug ghettos in Singapore. Nor is there a problem of drug overdose deaths.
But we cannot afford to be complacent. We know from our experience that once a society becomes hooked on drugs, it takes huge effort and a long time to wean off the addiction.
We will face challenges in future because first, the trend in many countries is to legalise drugs, in particular cannabis, for recreational use. Many of these countries have been unable to control their domestic drug situation and have decided to legalise drugs, in a bid to regain some control over the situation. Some countries have also lured been by the economic benefits of regulating the recreational use of drugs.
Whatever the motivation, these countries have advocated for a harm-reduction approach, which encourages “safer” use of drugs.
But this can easily go awry, despite their best intentions. Singapore has our own case study. In 2002, Subutex was introduced as a legal prescription for treating opioid addiction. But some people started abusing Subutex as an alternative to heroin, injecting themselves to get a “high”. Within a few years, the number of Subutex abusers and Subutex-associated deaths increased significantly. At the same time, Subutex abusers were discarding their needles in public areas. Young children and the elderly were at risk of getting hurt from the needles, or worse, contracting some disease. We decided to put a stop to this. In 2006, Singapore listed Subutex as a controlled drug, and CNB mounted swift operations to wipe out Subutex from our streets.
We learnt a painful lesson from Subutex. We are under increasing pressure, both externally and internally, for us to consider legalising drugs. But we have no intention of doing so. We must decide what works for Singapore, and not just follow what others are doing.
Second, our youths today are frequently exposed to alternative lifestyles on social media. Drug use may be glamourised, giving the impression that using drugs is harmless, or even cool. Based on annual surveys conducted by the National Council Against Drug Abuse (NCADA), the attitudes of youths towards drugs are gradually becoming more liberal. This is a very worrying trend. We must push hard against it, to prevent our children and grandchildren from becoming the next generations of drug abusers.
CNB therefore needs to strengthen our national drug education efforts. Continue to find new ways to reach out and engage the population.
But the rest of us have a part to play too; to correct misinformation about drugs, to speak up against drug abuse within our social circles, to say “no” to drugs.
Collectively as a nation, we must continue to understand, believe in, and support Singapore’s zero-tolerance approach towards drugs.
Acknowledging CNB officers
As we celebrate CNB’s 50th anniversary and look back on CNB’s progress, it is timely to acknowledge the men and women behind CNB’s achievements. I thank the past and present generations of CNB officers, including the previous CNB directors who have joined us today, quite a number of them – Sim Poh Heng, Tee Tua Ba, Eric Tan, and several others. I thank you for your years of hard work and sacrifice, for putting your personal safety on the line, for staying true to your core values of professionalism, integrity, dedication, and courage. You have played a crucial role in CNB’s success, and the heavy responsibility of keeping Singapore drug free continues to rest on your shoulders. You will have the full support of the government, Singaporeans, and your community partners. I am therefore confident that CNB will continue to succeed in this important national mission.
Happy 50th Anniversary CNB! Thank you very much.
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