Opium and its history in Singapore



Opium (Papaver somniferum) contributed significantly to the general trade in Singapore’s pioneering years. Encouraged by the British colonial government, it reaped great profit from opium licenses. However, many Chinese coolies succumbed to this vice as an escape from their harsh realities. Despite attempts to control and ban this narcotic and addictive drug, the opium trade continued clandestinely. The death penalty was introduced for opium drug dealers and peddlers in 1989 in a bid to put a complete stop to it.

Description
Opium, also known as Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum), belongs to the Papaveraceae family. After flowering, bulbous green capsules or pods remain atop the stalks. Opium, a milky latex, is collected from these pods and then dried. Raw opium has over 20 alkaloids, the most well-known being morphine and codeine.  Medically, codeine works as an analgesic and as a cough suppressant, while morphine is an extremely potent painkiller. Heroin is synthesised from morphine. All these substances are addictive. Hence, Papaver somniferum is often subjected to statutory control as an illegal plant or weed, especially in the form of opium and its alkaloids, and is subject to legal restrictions in most countries.1


Native to the Mediterranean, opium plants can be found growing in many tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate countries all over the world. It is cultivated in the region popularly known as the Golden Crescent located between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran; as well as China, India and other parts of Asia, especially in the Golden Triangle — an area spanning parts of Burma, Laos and Thailand — for local consumption and illicit trade.2

Opium smoking
Early history
Opium smoking was an accepted social practice, by both the elite and poor, in 19th century China. The act of offering an opium pipe to a visitor was akin to serving tea.3

When the Chinese migrated, they brought with them the practice of opium smoking, although some research shows that the habit had been adopted in Singapore instead.4 With the establishment of Singapore as a free port, the opium tax-farming system was introduced as a mean to raise revenue. The Opium Regulation was passed in 1830.5

By the end of 1847, the Chinese made up most of the local population, numbering about 40,000 out of 70,000 persons. Of these, there were an estimated 15,043 habitual opium smokers, who were mostly Chinese coolies.6 With little family support, scarce entertainment and a difficult life of labour, opium smoking was a form of escape from their harsh realities. Opium smoking was not only addictive, but also expensive and many turned to crime to support the habit. Although opium dens could only operate with licenses issued by the government, there were many illegal operators.7

Opium trade
The opium trade fetched profitable returns considering that the colonial government supported the practice and most smokers were addicted. It made for such a roaring business that from 1825 to 1910, the annual revenue from opium accounted for an average of 30 to 55 percent of the total revenue.8 In another report, the percentage of revenue derived from opium of the total revenue from the colony of the Straits Settlements in the years 1898 to 1906 was between 43.3 and 59.1 percent.9 The government earned most of its revenue by franchising the opium trade to wealthy Chinese businessmen. Well-known names in the opium trade include Lau Joon Tek and Cheang Sam Teo, who made up the Lau-Cheang Syndicate, Heng Bun Soon, Tan Seng Poh and Cheang Hong Guan. Cheong Hong Lim and Tan Seng Poh were other well-known names who partnered with Tan Hiok Nee (Tan Yeok Nee) in spirit and opium farming. Opium, or chandu (Malay for cooked opium), was commonly inhaled or smoked. The ash or residue after opium was smoked for the first time was also recovered by shopkeepers and sold at a cheaper rate.10

Singapore saw a rise of the opium syndicate in the mid-19th century as opium and spirit farms grew more common in Singapore as well as Johor, Melaka and Riau. Competition between Johor and Singapore’s spirit and opium farmers resulted in frequent fights between syndicates. Violence between various secret societies or triads often arose over control of the opium as well as gambier and pepper trades. Around 1866, Singapore and Johor opium farms united, putting spirit farmers at a disadvantage.11

Later developments
At the turn of the 20th century, opium addiction was still widespread among the Chinese. Based on the Opium Farmers returns, the sales of chandu in Singapore peaked at 1,639,873 tahils in 1903.12

Individuals and institutions initiated anti-opium movements to oppose opium trade and opium smoking.13 In 1907, an Opium Commission was appointed to assess the extent of opium smoking and set up measures to end it. The toxicity of opium smoking and chandu dross were documented. It was reported that out of the 12,560 hospital admissions in Singapore from March 1907 to February 1908, some 1,626 were opium smokers.14 The February 1909 report found that there was no increased prevalence of the opium habit or increased evils arising from the use of opium in the past 10 years. Nevertheless, the Opium Commission recommended to abolish the present system of farming the opium revenue, implement a ban on opium sale to women and children under 18, and to suppress the use of opium in brothels.15 The Chandu Revenue Ordinance was enacted in 190916 followed by the creation of the Monopolies Department.17 The sale of opium became controlled and in 1925, the government issued licences to opium smokers to smoke opium in their own premises. In January 1929, supplies of opium were rationed and registration of opium smokers became compulsory and only adult Chinese above 21 were permitted to consume opium.18 In 1933, the Chandu Revenue Ordinance was amended and opium possession by those under the age of 21 was banned. In 1934, opium possession was banned by anyone who did not have a medical practitioner's certification that they needed opium for health reasons. However, there were still supposedly 16,552 opium addicts in 1941. During the Japanese Occupation (1942‒45), it is thought that the number of opium addicts could have risen to a high of 30,000.19

The work of curbing this vice was aided by the efforts of social activists such as philanthropist, Chen Su Lan who started the Anti-Opium Clinic in 1933. By that time, one in every four Chinese adults was an opium addict. Chen appealed for total prohibition through legislation.20 Although the anti-opium movement recognised the ill effects of the vice, the government did not issue a prohibition until much later. On 1 February 1946, the British Military Administration instituted the Opium and Chandu Proclaimation which made the possession of opium smoking utensils as well as prepared and raw opium illegal. Imprisonment and fines were also imposed.21 An Opium Treatment Centre was established in February 1955. Managed as part of the Prisons Department, it received international attention.22 However, opium consumption, including cannabis, morphine and heroin, continued clandestinely.23 In 1975, the death penalty was enacted for drug traffickers of heroin and morphine.24 The total number of drug addicts arrested, including opium addicts, rose from 4,730 in 1987 to 6,062 in 1988. The government subsequently amended the Misuse of Drugs Act in mid-1989 to include other forms of drugs such as hashish and cocaine, so that those supplying or consuming these drugs could also be dealt with under existing laws.25 On 30 November 1989, in an attempt to bring a complete stop to drug and opium abuse in Singapore, the government passed a bill to extend the death penalty to cocaine, cannabis and opium traffickers including manufacturers, importers and exporters.26 Twenty years later, opium addiction has been reported to be prevalent only among the very old, who receive continuing assistance by healthcare professionals.27



Author

Naidu Ratnala Thulaja



References
1. Gerald, M.C. (2013). The drug book: From arsenic to Xanax, 250 milestones in the history of drugs. New York: Sterling Publishing, p. 26. (Call no.: R 615.109 GER); Bown, D. (2002). The Royal Horticultural Society new encyclopedia of herbs & their uses. London: D.K, pp. 301‒302. (Call no.: R q635.703 BOW); Ong, T. H. (1995). Narcotics: Opium, morphine & heroin. Singapore: Shinglee Publishers, pp. 6‒11. (Call no.: RSING 362.293 ONG)
2. Bown, D. (2002). The Royal Horticultural Society new encyclopedia of herbs & their uses.London: D.K. p. 302. (Call no.: R q635.703 BOW); Ong, T. H. (1995). Narcotics: Opium, morphine & heroin. Singapore: Shinglee Publishers, pp. 8‒10. (Call no.: RSING 362.293 ONG)
3. Ong, T. H., & Isralowitz, R. E. (1996). Substance use in Singapore: Illegal drugs, inhalants and alcohol. Singapore: Toppan Company, p. 41 (Call no.: RSING 362.29095957 ONG); Moore, D. & Moore, J. (1969). The first 150 years of Singapore. Singapore: Donald Moore Press, pp. 191‒192. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 MOO-[HIS])
4. Ong, T. H. (1989). Drug abuse in Singapore: A psychosocial perspective. Singapore: Hillview Publications, pp.15‒17. (Call no.: RSING 362.29309595)
5. Derks, H. (2012). History of the opium problem: The assault on the East, ca. 1600-1950. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, pp. 44‒45. (Call no.: RSEA 363.450950903 DER); Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819-2005. Singapore: NUS Press, pp, 34‒35, 46. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddel, R. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 55‒56. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS]); Little, R. (1848, January). On the habitual use of opium in Singapore [Microfilm no.: NL 1889]. The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, 7‒11; Straits Settlements. Opium Commission (1909). Proceedings of the Commission appointed to enquire into matters relating to the use of opium in the Straits Settlement and the Federated Malay States  [Microfilm no.: NL 14242]. London: Darling & Son Ltd, p. 11.
6. Little, R. (1848, January). On the habitual use of opium in Singapore [Microfilm no.: NL 1889]. The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, 65‒66.
7. Little, R. (1848, January). On the habitual use of opium in Singapore [Microfilm no.: NL 1889]. The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, 39‒52; Straits Settlements. Opium Commission. (1909). Proceedings of the Commission appointed to enquire into matters relating to the use of opium in the Straits Settlement and the Federated Malay States [Microfilm no.: NL 14242]. London: Darling & Son Ltd, pp. 12-13.
8. Trocki, C. A. (1990). Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800-1910. New York: Cornell University Press, pp.1‒6, 96‒97. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 TRO)
9. Straits Settlements. Opium Commission. (1909). Proceedings of the Commission appointed to enquire into matters relating to the use of opium in the Straits Settlement and the Federated Malay States [Microfilm no.: NL 14242]. London: Darling & Son Ltd, p. 42.
10. Trocki, C. A. (1990). Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800-1910. New York: Cornell University Press, pp.1‒6, 50‒81, 117‒182. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 TRO); Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 131‒168. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
11. Trocki, C. A. (1990). Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800-1910.  New York: Cornell University Press, pp.117‒141. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 TRO)
12. Straits Settlements. Opium Commission. (1909). Proceedings of the Commission appointed to enquire into matters relating to the use of opium in the Straits Settlement and the Federated Malay States (Vol. 3) [Microfilm no.: NL 24318]. London: Darling & Son Ltd, p. 30.
13. A Singapore Queen's Scholar on the Anti-Opium Platform. (1891, July 15). Straits Times Weekly Issue, p. 6; Opium Smoking. (1888, July 30). Straits Times Weekly Issue. p. 8; Opium Conference: First meeting of the fourth session held yesterday. (1910, May 31). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Straits Settlements. Opium Commission. (1909). Proceedings of the Commission appointed to enquire into matters relating to the use of opium in the Straits Settlement and the Federated Malay States [Microfilm no.: NL 14242]. London: Darling & Son Ltd, p. 145.
14. Straits Settlements. Opium Commission. (1909). Proceedings of the Commission appointed to enquire into matters relating to the use of opium in the Straits Settlement and the Federated Malay States (Vol 3) [Microfilm no.: NL 24318]. London: Darling & Son Ltd, pp. 101–110, 180.
15. Straits Settlements. Opium Commission. (1909). Proceedings of the Commission appointed to enquire into matters relating to the use of opium in the Straits Settlement and the Federated Malay States [Microfilm no.: NL 14242]. London: Darling & Son Ltd, pp. 44–46. 
16. The Chandu Ordinance: Draft rules to be laid before legislative council. (1909, November 22). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Government Monopolies Accounts. (1910, September 24). The Straits Times, p. 6; The Year Reviewed. (1910, September 24). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. The opium problem in the Far East.  (1931, April 21). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Ong, T. H., & Isralowitz, R. E. (1996). Substance use in Singapore: Illegal drugs, inhalants and alcohol. Singapore: Toppan Company, p. 41‒43 (Call no.: RSING 362.29095957 ONG); Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 437‒438. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS]); United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (1958, January 1). The opium problem in Singapore. Bulletin on Narcotics, IX(3). Retrieved from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime website: http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/bulletin/bulletin_1958-01-01_4_page003.html
20. Chen, S. L. (1935). The opium problem in British Malaya [Microfilm no.: NL 7461]. Singapore: Singapore Anti-Opium Society, pp. 3, 22; Chen, C. N. & Lau, E. (1997). Chen Su Lan. (Call no.: RCLOS EPHE P34); The anti-opium clinic. (1934, May 14). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 7; Singapore opium addicts clamour for treatment. (1935, October 21). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Singapore. British Military Administration. (1946, February 1). Opium and Chandu Proclaimation: Proclaimation to provide for the suppression of opium smoking. Government gazette [Microfilm no.: NL 1262]. (Nov 1945–Apr 1946). [Kuala Lumpur: Printed at the Malayan Union Govt. Press], pp. 72‒78.
22. 400 addicts are cured in 2 years. (1957, February 7). The Singapore Free Press, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Ong, T. H., & Isralowitz, R. E. (1996). Substance use in Singapore: Illegal drugs, inhalants and alcohol. Singapore: Toppan Company, p. 43‒49 (Call no.: RSING 362.29095957 ONG)
24. Death for traffickers. (1975, November 13). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspapersSG; Republic of Singapore. Government gazette. Acts supplement. (1975, December 12). Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Act, 1975 (No. 49 of 1975, pp. 333–341). Singapore: [s.n.]. (Call no.: RSING 348.5957 SGGAS)
25. Ong, T. H., & Isralowitz, R. E. (1996). Substance use in Singapore: Illegal drugs, inhalants and alcohol. Singapore: Toppan Company, pp. 50‒58 (Call no.: RSING 362.29095957 ONG)
26. Death penalty extended to cocaine, cannabis and opium dealers. (1989, December 1). The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Republic of Singapore. Government gazette. Acts supplement. (1989, January 12). Misuse of drugs (Amendment) Act 1989 (Act 38 of 1989, pp. 1–7). Singapore: [s.n.]. (Call no.: RSING 348.5957 SGGAS)
27. Toh, M. (2009, November 29). 76, and an opium addict. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Further resources
Busted: 1990s’ largest opium syndicate. (1999, April 12). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Hale, R. E. (2016). The Balestiers: The first American residents in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 102‒108.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57030922 HAL-[HIS])

How grandfather gave up opium-smoking. (1993, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Lee, T. T. (Ed.). (1988). Early Chinese immigrant societies: Case studies from North America and British Southeast Asia. Singapore: Heinemann Asia.
(Call no.: RSING 305.8951059 EAR)

Of silk and spices, opium and oil. (1994, January 29). The Business Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Purcell, V. (1965). The Chinese in Southeast Asia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RCLOS 325.2510959 PUR)

Singapore. Probation and Aftercare Service. (1977). Collected readings on drugs and drug abuse for volunteer aftercare officers. Singapore: The Service.
(Call no.: RSING 362.293095957 COL)

Teo, X. (2008, February 4). The regional approach to busting drug syndicates. Today, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Windle, J. (2016). Suppressing illicit opium production: Successful interventions in Asia and Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris.
(Call no.: RSEA 363.45095 WIN)



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Opium trade--Singapore--History--19th century
Singapore--Social conditions
Nature>>Plants
Commerce and Industry>>Trade
People and communities>>Social problems>>Alcohol and substance abuse
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
Trade and industry
Plants

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