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Opium, a highly addictive drug, was highly accessible in the 19th century to the wealthy and poor alike. To generate revenue, the colonial government introduced a tax-farming system, which auctioned monopoly rights to sell opium in Singapore. By mid-1800s, the habit was rampant mainly amongst the Chinese coolies in Singapore, who used the drug as a form of escape from the harsh realities of their lives,

By 1933, one in four Chinese adults was an opium addict. Believing that opium smoking threatened the well-being of the Chinese community, medical doctor Lim Boon Keng and philanthropist Chen Su Lan rose to provide help and support for opium addicts. They also petitioned the colonial government to ban opium in Singapore. The plot of land Shaw Tower stands on today is believed to have been where one of the many opium shops in Singapore was located.

Opium in Singapore

Singapore not only lay in a strategic location along the profitable trade route between India and China, she also had a natural deep-water port. These factors contributed to Singapore’s success as a port in the years, before and also after, 1819.

When the British arrived in 1819, they established Singapore as a free port. This brought many from the region and afar to Singapore, as it meant the fees that were usually paid to the town, harbour, port and dock were not collected here.

One of the commodities traded was opium (or ‘chandu’ in Malay). The highly addictive drug was commonly inhaled or smoked.

Image: Map of the Asian Continent [1940]. (Survey Department Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

An addiction to opium

Opium earned much revenue for the colonial government. The years between 1825 and 1910 were most profitable for opium trade. In fact, during this period, opium accounted for up to 55 percent of the British government’s total revenue yearly. The government earned most of this revenue by franchising the sale of opium to wealthy Chinese businessmen via a tax-farming system. This essentially meant that they auctioned monopoly rights to sell opium and operate opium dens. Despite this, there were also many other opium dens that operated illegally.

By the end of 1847, there were about 40,000 Chinese individuals in Singapore, and over 15,000 had developed an opium habit. Many were Chinese coolies who had turned to the drug to escape their harsh daily realities and to relieve themselves of the pain caused by hard and intensive labour. Unlike the rich, who smoked high-quality opium and were not seriously harmed, the poor smoked the refuse. By the early 1900s, one in four Chinese persons was an opium addict.

Image: A Chinese coolie smoking opium. (Lim Kheng Chye Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

Activists against opium

Concerned for the well-being of the Chinese community, a few prominent individuals rose up to oppose opium trade and opium smoking. They were part of the anti-opium movement that began in the 1900s.

In 1906, Lim Boon Keng, a medical doctor, founded the Anti-Opium Society. He pushed for the colonial government to do away with opium, and ban opium smoking

Image: Lim Boon Keng [pictured, on the right]. (Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

Another who opposed opium smoking was Chen Su Lan, one of Singapore’s first medical graduates, and also a philanthropist. In 1930, Chen was elected President of the Anti-Opium Society. In 1933, he started an anti-opium clinic – supported by public funds – in Kampong Java Road to treat opium addicts. The clinic admitted its first patients on 8 May 1933. Within a year, it had successfully treated 1,300 opium addicts.

In 1907, an Opium Commission was set up to assess the ills of opium smoking. Eventually, the government took over the manufacturing and sale of opium. In 1909, the commission recommended to abolish the tax-farming system, impose a ban on the sale of the drug and suppress its use in brothels. These recommendations were implemented in stages over the years, and by 1934, possession of opium without a medical certificate for health usage was deemed illegal.

Despite all of this, there were still 16,552 opium addicts in 1941, and during the Japanese Occupation, this number was thought to have risen to 30,000.

Image: The death penalty was introduced in 1969 for those found to be selling opium.

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