A diamond-hard Line: Singapore’s fight against illegal drugs

THE authorities in Singapore reserve the right to drug-test visitors upon arrival. Even a positive result – in the complete absence of any drugs on one’s person – can be grounds for arrest.

Immigration card distributed to travelers at Changi Airport in Singapore. Image © Douglas Lemoine / Creative Commons.

“There are CNB [Central Narcotics Bureau] officers at Singapore customs and they are trained to look at signs of drug use,” says Singaporean drug counselor and former addict Tony Tan. “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.”

In the past, Singapore’s bureaucrats could justify such draconian measures against illegal drugs by pointing to a stellar success record in that department.

“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%,” boasted Singaporean diplomat Michael Teo back in 2010. “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.”

Recent findings have taken the shine off such unbridled optimism. Nationwide drug arrests ticked upward in 2011, increasing by 13 percent from 2010, Singapore’s Central Narcotics Board reported. And thanks to a computer error uncovered last year, a previously touted “downward trend” in the number of drug abusers arrested from 2008 to 2010 was revealed to be an increase in arrests.

No surprise there: from the beginning, Singapore has been fighting an uphill battle against illegal drugs in Southeast Asia. Heroin and methamphetamine are the two most abused drugs in Singapore; these drugs are produced in huge quantities in the Golden Triangle, and are smuggled by couriers overland from Malaysia.

The walls of Changi Prison, Singapore. Image © penreyes / Creative Commons.

The worst case scenario – played up constantly by the CNB – imagines a less-than-vigilant Singapore being overwhelmed by a flood of illegal drugs from the Golden Triangle, with the island nation becoming a drugs transshipment point for the region.

The local authorities go to great lengths to ensure that such a scenario does not come to pass. Consider the extremely harsh drug laws in Singapore, codified by the Singapore Misuse of Drugs Act. The Act places the burden of proof on drug suspects – that is, if drugs are found on you or on your property (a parked car, your luggage), you are simply assumed to be the owner, and it’s up to you to disprove your ownership.

Section 17 of the Act simply assumes that you are trafficking in drugs if you are caught with at least 2 grams of heroin, 3 grams of cocaine or morphine, 15 grams of marijuana, or 25 grams of meth.

The death penalty automatically applies if you are caught with at least 15 grams of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine or morphine, 250 grams of meth, or 500 grams of marijuana. Singapore isn’t afraid to execute foreigners, even in the face of heavy diplomatic pressure from death row inmates’ mother countries.

So be warned: if you’re a drug user coming to Singapore, the odds are against you even if you have no plans of indulging there in the first place. Singapore drug justice is swift, merciless, and blind. In the face of the rising tide of drugs in the region, one might conclude that Singapore’s authorities have little choice.