Opium Treatment Centre

Singapore Infopedia


The Opium Treatment Centre opened in February 1955 on St. John’s Island for the treatment and rehabilitation of opium addicts. The centre was the colonial government’s first attempt at treating addicts; prior to this, opium addicts were charged in court and sent to prison.

From the late 19th century, Chinese associations and social reformers such as Chen Su Lan and Lim Boon Keng had been campaigning against the sale of opium, eventually leading to the formation of the Singapore Anti-Opium Society in 1906.1

Chen, a medical doctor recognised as an authority on opium addiction, led efforts under the auspices of the Singapore Anti-Opium Society to establish the Anti-Opium Clinic on Kampong Java Road in May 1933.2 The clinic provided a confinement space for opium addicts to be weaned off the drug.3 However, it closed in August 1938 due to financial difficulties.4

Shortly after the Japanese Occupation (1942–45) ended, the British Military Administration announced in October 1945 that opium was banned in Malaya.5 At the time, there were an estimated 16,000 opium smokers in Singapore.6 The Opium and Chandu Proclamation enacted the following year prohibited opium smoking and the possession of opium smoking tools, among other regulations.7 However, opium dens continued to operate illegally, with 1,571 opium saloons recorded in 1949.8

In the early 1950s, the authorities in Singapore began taking more active steps to combat opium trafficking. In 1952, a massive crackdown resulted in more than 2,000 arrests on opium-related charges.9 The following year, amendments were introduced to the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance 1951 – the legislation that replaced the Opium and Chandu Proclamation – to extend the authorities’ power to prosecute opium smokers.10

The police force was tasked to arrest opium smokers and peddlers on the ground, and the Central Narcotics Intelligence Bureau was established in 1954 within the Customs and Excise Department to tackle opium trafficking.11 The bureau also worked with the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau to probe into bribery cases involving government officials.12

While raids and arrests were conducted to stamp out the vice, the colonial government also began to explore ways to rehabilitate opium addicts. In October 1954, a bill amending the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance was raised in the Legislative Council to provide for the establishment of an opium treatment centre13 and it was decided that the facility would be located on St. John’s Island.14 Before the centre opened, opium smokers were charged in court and sent to prison.15

The Opium Treatment Centre began operations in February 1955 with R. W. Heal as its first superintendent, W. E. Hutchinson as medical officer and Wong Yip Keong as rehabilitation officer.16 Managed as part of the Prisons Department, the facility was described as “experimental” and received international attention for its pioneering role.17

Treatment programme
Opium smokers who were arrested by the authorities were first remanded in the Opium Ward of Outram Prison and then sent to the General Hospital (now Singapore General Hospital) for examination to be certified suitable for treatment at the Opium Treatment centre.18 This selection process was controversial at the time, as some addicts were denied treatment for being “beyond redemption”.19

The opium treatment programme comprised three phases: withdrawal, rehabilitation and follow-up. The withdrawal phase lasted between two and four weeks and took place in the prison hospital. A tincture of opium was used as the withdrawal drug and administered over a period of 10 days. This was followed by the rehabilitative phase when the addict was moved to the Opium Treatment Centre on St. John’s Island. The length of the stay at the centre lasted about six months to a year. At the centre, the patient was assigned occupational therapy such as carpentry, rattan work or tailoring, so that he or she could find work upon release.20 Upon discharge from the centre, the rehabilitated individual rejoined the community but had to go through the follow-up phase, which consisted of weekly visits to the General Hospital’s outpatient department. This regular monitoring was to reduce the chances of a relapse.21

The Opium Treatment Centre took in 18 patients in the first week after its opening.22 By the end of 1960, the centre was treating close to 580 patients.23 The centre also reached out to opium smokers and encouraged addicts to come in voluntarily for treatment.24 It was reported in 1966 that 4,000 opium addicts had been rehabilitated at the Opium Treatment Centre since its opening in 1955.25 When opium addiction was less common in Singapore and deemed to be under control by the authorities in the 1970s, the centre was converted into a drug rehabilitation centre to handle all types of drug addicts.26

1. Carl A. Trocki, Opium and Empire: Chinese Society in Colonial Singapore, 1800–1910 (NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 204–12 (Call no. RSING 305.895105957 TRO); “Anti-Opium Society’s Fine Work,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 18 March 1937, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Chinese Topics in Malaya,” Straits Times, 23 February 1933, 14; “Birthday of Anti-Opium Clinic,” Straits Times, 21 May 1934, 13; “Singapore Opium Addicts Clamour for Treatment,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 21 October 1935, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Birthday of Anti-Opium Clinic”; Chen Su Lan, “Dr. Chen Su Lan Clarifies,” Straits Times, 13 August 1952, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Anti-Opium Clinic Has Closed Down,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 11 August 1938, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Goodbye, Opium,” Straits Times, 10 October 1945, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “The Opium Problem in Singapore,” Bulletin on Narcotics 9, no. 3 (1 January 1958) 
 7. “Suppressing Opium Smoking,” Straits Times, 4 February 1946, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “1,415 Dens for Opium Smokers,” Straits Times, 22 June 1950, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Big Swoop on Opium Dens,” Straits Times, 6 July 1952, 1; “Raids Shut 1,000 Opium Dens,” Singapore Free Press, 18 December 1952, 1; “Opium Convictions Set a New Singapore Record,” Straits Times, 10 June 1953, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Opium ‘War’: New Powers,” Straits Times, 3 October 1953, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Singapore, Annual Report (Singapore: [s.n.], 1955), 139–40 (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SIN); “Customs Win Opium War,” Straits Times, 21 December 1955, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “New Move to Smash Far East Dope Ring,” Singapore Free Press, 18 Junr 1954, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “War on Opium,” Straits Times, 14 October 1954, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “St. John’s Is Ideal,” Straits Times, 13 September 1953, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “War on Opium.”
16. Patricia Morgan, “Whole World Watches This Store Experiment,” Straits Times, 5 February 1955, 8; “Opium Advisers Appointed,” Straits Times, 23 February 1955, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Morgan, “Whole World Watches This Store Experiment.”
18. Saravana Perumal, oral history interview by Daniel Chew, 12 October 1983, transcript and MP3 audio, 27:44, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000335), 151–4; Adelaide Eastley, “It’s a New Life for Lost Soul,” Singapore Free Press, 7 May 1956, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Opium Addicts,” Straits Times, 9 December 1955, 8; “It Is Funny, Says Court,” Straits Times, 25 March 1956, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Opium Problem in Singapore”; Eastley, “New Life for Lost Soul.” 
21. “Opium Problem in Singapore.”
22. Morgan, “Whole World Watches This Store Experiment.”
23. Prisons Department, Singapore, Annual Report (Singapore: [s.n.], 1960), 22. (Call no. RCLOS 365.95957 SIN)
24. Prisons Department, Singapore, Annual Report (Singapore: [s.n.], 1954), 140. (Call no. RCLOS 365.95957 SIN)
25. “4,000 Saved in 11 Years,” Straits Times, 6 August 1966, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Two New Centres to Treat Drug Addicts,” Straits Times, 29 April 1973, 7; “‘Opium, Morphine Problem under Control’Straits Times, 27 March 1973, 10. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
80,000 Who Smoke Opium? No, Says Blythe,” Straits Times, 20 August 1952, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Better Smoking Pipe of Opium Than 15 Cigarettes a Day,” Straits Times, 13 December 1957, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Campaign Launched to Fight Opium Evil,” Straits Times, 12 February 1941, 11. (From NewspaperSG)

Chen Su Lan, “The Case for Opium Reform – II,” Straits Times, 21 February 1930, 14. (From NewspaperSG)

Complete Suppression of Opium Smoking Advocated,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 27 November 1934, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Dens Are Not the Only Places,” Straits Times, 30 August 1952, 9. (From NewspaperSG)

‘Enlightened’ Laws as First Step to End Addiction,” Straits Times, 22 November 1954, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Opium Policy Needed,” Straits Times, 22 August 1952, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

Saravana Perumal, oral history interview by Daniel Chew, 6 October 1983, transcript and MP3 audio, 27:29, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000335)

Untitled,” Straits Times, 20 May 1934, 20. (From NewspaperSG)

Why Does the Coolie Smoke Opium?” Straits Times, 5 January 1936, 12. (From NewspaperSG)

Wu Lien-Teh, “Opium: Some Echoes of the Past,” Straits Times, 13 November 1945, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 24 January 2016 and correct as far as we are able to 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.

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