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Counting the Cost: Drug Abuse and Drug Crime in Singapore

Too high a price – taking the measure of drug abuse and drug crime, and understanding why our harm prevention approach works for us.
GRAPHIC: Home Team News

When it comes to lives, families and communities, few things are as destructive as drugs and the litany of crimes associated with it. 

This fact is known to those who work on the frontlines of Singapore’s anti-drug effort. From policymakers, researchers and medical professionals to community partners and counsellors, the consensus is clear – it takes a collective effort to fight the scourge of drugs. 


On 20 January 2020, around 300 participants that included academics, professionals from public agencies and community partners in the field of drug prevention and rehabilitation came together at the first-ever Harm Prevention Seminar to share their research findings and experiences. Held at the Lifelong Learning Institute, the Seminar was organised by the Office of the Chief Psychologist, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).  

Harm Prevention First
Singapore’s anti-drug approach is founded on harm prevention and comprises these key components: preventive drug education; tough laws and robust enforcement; and evidence-based rehabilitation.

PHOTO: Alvin Loh/SPS

In her opening address at the Seminar, Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Home Affairs Mrs Josephine Teo noted the importance of maintaining this approach, especially against the backdrop of worrying global drug abuse trends. 

“The fundamental principle underlying Singapore’s approach to drugs is to prevent harm to our people and society in the first place,” said Minister Teo. “This is clearly much more effective than letting the drug problem fester and only then, after it has happened, try to reduce the harm.”

Fighting Drugs: An Evidence-based Approach
For harm prevention policies and programmes to be effective, they must be robustly supported by research. One highlight of the Seminar was the sharing of recent studies on drug abuse and drug crime in Singapore. Among the speakers who discussed their findings were Dr Jasmin Kaur, MHA; Dr Stella Quah of Duke-NUS Medical School; Dr Mythily Subramaniam of the Institute of Mental Health; Dr Chia Wai Mun of Nanyang Technological University (NTU); and Ms Lowshanthini Panesilvam from the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (SANA). 

The toll of drugs, based on ‘The Cost of Drug-involved and Drug-attributable Crime in Singapore’, MHA, 2016. INFOGRAPHIC: Home Team News
Several of these studies have been included in a special issue of the Home Team Journal that focuses on drugs-related research. “It’s important to establish this cost because we tend to underestimate its impact on families and the burden it places on society,” explained Prof Euston Quah, Albert Winsemius Chair Professor and Head of Economics at NTU. “By looking at where the cost is highest, we can target policies in those areas.” 

This need to combat the far-reaching impact of drug abuse was also echoed by Minister Teo in her opening address. “It is our collective responsibility to help Singaporeans to live the best life possible,” she said. “This means preventing drugs from becoming a scourge in the first place… We must protect the right of the very large majority of Singaporeans to live, work and play in a drug-free Singapore.”

PERSPECTIVES: The Impact of Deterrence on the Decision-making Process of Drug Traffickers
Ms Salina Samion joined the Singapore Prison Service in 2003 as a Psychologist and helped to develop its mental resilience services and offender rehabilitation programmes. Now a Principal Psychologist at the Central Narcotics Bureau, she oversees its Psychological Unit and focuses on preventive drug education and intervention, particularly among youths. 

To understand how tough laws and robust enforcement deter drug trafficking, Ms Salina and her fellow Home Team psychologists Dr Jasmin Kaur and Ms Teo Kah Shun Dr conducted a study on the decision-making process of drug traffickers

PHOTO: Tiffany Tan

“Our study examined the impact of deterrence on the decision-making process of offenders who considered drug trafficking or who’d done so.

“Trafficking is a highly risky behaviour and, as part of their decision-making process, offenders will consider the potential gains and sanctions they face and their risk of being arrested and convicted.

“In speaking to offenders, we found that sanction awareness and risk perception influenced the propensity for trafficking behaviour among those who’d considered trafficking. We also found that sanction awareness and risk perception influenced the propensity to limit the extent of trafficking behaviour amongst those who’d already started trafficking.

“These findings have implications in terms of preventing trafficking behaviour amongst offenders. For example, interventions in criminal rationalisation can be targeted at at-risk individuals or traffickers in order to facilitate deterrence or desistance respectively. 

“The decision-making process that offenders undergo is complex and heavily influenced by individual, situational and contextual factors. To pinpoint a single factor as being more significant than another would be myopic.

“In fact, during our study, several offenders shared that they wouldn’t traffic drugs because they didn’t want to harm other people. This demonstrates an underlying sense of morality among certain offenders, which I find comforting and hopeful.”

PERSPECTIVES: Offering a Listening Ear – and Hope –to Ex-offenders
Ms Lowshanthini Panesilvam is a Psychologist with SANA where she works with clients to help them on their recovery from drug addiction. At the Harm Prevention Seminar, Ms Lowshanthini shared about the desistance journey of female offenders and how this is impacted by the way they formulate new identities, recalibrate relationships and adjust their expectations. 

PHOTO: Tiffany Tan

“I’ve been with SANA for two years and, as part of my work, I counsel drug offenders who’ve completed their prison sentences and have been placed in a Community-Based Programme. Most of the ex-offenders are in their 20s or 30s, and come from all walks of life. It’s very heartening to see them turn away from drugs and succeed in their relationships and at work. 

“One of the offenders I counselled had been introduced to drugs by her ex-husband. Once she learnt how she could change her life, she transitioned quickly from someone with very low self-esteem into an empowered person. 

“She performed well in her work at a call centre and was promoted from being a trainee to an executive. She was also able to regain custody of her five children and face challenges together with them as a family. She still takes part in SANA family programmes and continues to share her milestones with me. 

“However, another drug offender I counselled wasn’t able to break free from abusing ‘Ice.’ This eventually contributed to her having a mental breakdown. That’s the human cost of drug abuse. 

PHOTO: Alvin Loh/SPS

“What often makes the difference for an ex-offender is having positive social support. That’s where the Harm Prevention Seminar comes in; it’s a really good platform for community partners and other stakeholders to share perspectives in order to formulate better anti-drug programmes and help ex-offenders and their families. 

“As part of my work, I often conduct house visits. Sometimes I’ll meet elderly parents who have to cope by themselves now that their loved ones are serving their sentences. They’re glad to have someone to talk to, and such visits usually end with all of us in tears. So I see my work as offering hope to them as well.” 

Harm Prevention Seminar
On 20 January 2020, around 300 professionals in the field of drug prevention and rehabilitation came together at the first-ever Harm Prevention Seminar to share their research findings and experiences in fighting drug abuse. Read the opening address by Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Home Affairs Mrs Josephine Teo. 

GRAPHIC: Home Team News

At the Seminar, a special issue of the Home Team Journal titled “Spotlight on Drugs” was launched. Put together by MHA’s Research & Statistics Division and guest-edited by Dr Stella Quah, Adjunct Professor at Duke-NUS Medical School, the issue features research studies on different aspects of the drug problem such as the social and economic costs of drug abuse and drug crime; the consequences of liberalising drug policies; and the effectiveness of Singapore’s harm prevention approach. Download the Journal here.

Back issues of the Home Team Journal are also available from the Home Team Academy.

Written by

Mike Tan and Tiffany Tan


22 January 2020

Preventive Drug Education
Thought Leadership
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