Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (SANA) Conference on Recovery and Desistance from Substance Abuse - Keynote Address by Assoc Prof Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, Minister of State, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of National Development

Published: 29 September 2022

Dr Ismail Hanif, Vice-President SANA,

Ms Shie Yong Lee, Commissioner of Prisons,

Mr Sam Tee, Director (Designate) Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB),

Community Partners,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1.   A very good afternoon. 

2.   I am very honoured to be able to deliver this keynote address today.

3.   I would like to first thank SANA for organising this very meaningful conference, and I also want to congratulate SANA in celebration of its 50th anniversary. Congratulations!

4.   Today, the conference brings together our agencies, community partners, practitioners and former drug abusers, who each have different insights on drug abuse. And this is so, when I spoke to different groups of people. However, when you connect them altogether, you realise that it is something complex, something that we need to protect our people from, so that we can provide a better future for them and their families. And if we don’t handle it well, it will affect the whole society.

5.   The experiences shared at the sessions this afternoon will help us better understand the challenges faced by drug abusers, and how we can address them.  

Rehabilitation and Reintegration is a Fundamental Pillar of Singapore’s Drug Prevention Campaign

6.   Singapore’s drug preventive campaign is a multi-faceted one, comprising tough laws and strict enforcement, preventive drug education, and intensive rehabilitation and reintegration programmes.

7.   This morning, Minister Shanmugam spoke about the reasons for our tough laws and strict enforcement against drug trafficking. 

8.   I will speak about our rehabilitation and reintegration programmes to help former drug abusers find their way back to their loved ones and back to society.

Rehabilitation and Reintegration Programmes are Calibrated to Different Needs

9.   Rehabilitation and reintegration are the hardest parts of the journey for drug abusers. They and their family need support from the community to help them find their place in society once again.

10.   Rehabilitation does not end with helping drug abusers get over their addiction. We must address the root of their addiction, the reason they started on drugs in the first place, so that they do not relapse. So, it is not only about how to get over their drug addiction, but also getting to the underlying factors.

11.   There are many reasons why people start on drugs. For instance:

(a)   With liberal drug views being glamorised overseas, there are some who start experimenting with drugs because they think it is “cool” and “harmless”. 

(b)   Some start taking drugs because of peer or familial pressure. Studies have shown that youth offenders who have a household member with a history of substance abuse are about two times more likely to join gangs and are more likely to abuse drugs.

(c)   For others, drugs are a temporary respite from reality and everyday life. They turn to drugs to escape trauma, social or financial stress, or to cope with mental health issues.

12.   Recognising that drug abusers have different risks and needs, we take a calibrated approach towards rehabilitating drug abusers.

13.   First, a differentiated approach is taken for youths below 21 years old, with a strong focus on family support and counselling.

(a)   Low-risk young abusers are placed on the Youth Enhanced Supervision Scheme (YES Scheme). Under the Scheme, caseworkers engage youth supervisees in individual, group-based, and family sessions. The sessions aim to raise their awareness of the harmful effects of drugs, enhance their motivation to change, and teach them how to desist from drugs. Parental involvement is also critical – parents are required to attend counselling and are taught effective parenting approaches during the family sessions.

(b)   Moderate-risk young abusers are referred to Community Rehabilitation Centres (CRCs) to receive drug intervention in a residential setting. This allows youths to continue their studies or work with minimal disruption to their daily lives. CRCs are designed specifically for youths, and are different from Drug Rehabilitation Centres (DRCs) in terms of their regime, environment, and programmes.  

14.   For adult drug abusers, first-time drug abusers with low risk of further abuse will also be placed on a supervision scheme with individual case managers to support them.

(a)   In addition to the usual urine testing, supervisees go through a casework component to address their drug-taking behaviour, so as to reduce the risk of relapse. Supervisees learn what their stressors are and learn to respond more adaptively to them.

(b)   CNB’s pilot Community Supervision Skills (CoSS) Scheme also enables CNB to further aid supervisees by helping to refer them to social services if necessary. This is important because when they are journeying in their recovery, they know that someone is there to look out for them, to help them. I think that makes a lot of difference.

15.   On the other hand, high-risk or repeat drug abusers undergo more intensive rehabilitation programmes in a disciplined institutional setting in prison or in DRC. These programmes are psychology-based, and there are different intensity programmes based on the different needs of drug abusers. The aim of our rehabilitation programmes is not only to address drug use, but more importantly, to motivate these drug abusers to take ownership of their own change. Rehabilitation is most effective when drug abusers have a proper understanding of their stressors and are themselves determined to change.

16.   Further, apart from youths, low-risk and high-risk drug-abusers, we also calibrate our rehabilitation approaches for female drug abusers. 

(a)   We heard the personal stories of Ms Hannah Chun and Ms Ernie this morning. Their stories illustrate how the pathways of female drug abusers to drug use, their risk of suffering abuse, neglect and trauma, their struggle for financial independence and their role in the family, differ from men. This is also something I learned when I spoke to a few of our female former abusers.

(b)   The Singapore Prison Service (SPS) has implemented rehabilitation programmes that specifically addresses women’s pathways to drug use. These programmes are guided by trauma-informed practices and techniques – it takes into account the possible trauma that female drug abusers have suffered and ensure that they have a safe space to share their experiences. Female drug abusers learn to manage unhelpful relationships that would directly or indirectly lead to their relapse and learn to better cope in their roles as mothers, daughters, and partners. The programme also helps female drug abusers build up their ability and confidence to manage their thoughts, emotions and behaviours that contribute to their drug abuse. 

(c)   After female drug abusers complete their rehabilitation programmes in the DRC, there are also community-based programmes designed specifically for female drug abusers. Just this month, Singapore’s first secular, all-women halfway house, Rise Above Halfway House, commenced operations. The rehabilitation and reintegration interventions at the halfway house are targeted and specialised for women and provide a safe space for female offenders to build new skills and networks for a fresh start. 

17.   There is no one-size-fits-all approach. I had the opportunity to meet Hannah, spoke to her for two hours. I learnt a lot from her, the amazing things that she has been doing. Just this morning, she shared with me that she is making good progress and she wants to also help others go on this journey. I think it is very inspiring, and we need many more of such desistors to come forward, play a part and together, among themselves, develop this desistor network to help one another. Where necessary, we adjust and tailor our programmes, as we have done for youths and female drug abusers.

18.   But this is not something that the Government can do alone. Family support, stable employment, and our community partners play an equally important role in helping ex-drug abusers in their journey of rehabilitation and reintegration.

Families are Crucial Part of Rehabilitation and Reintegration Programmes 

19.   When drug abusers return to the community, one of the main protective factors to prevent them from relapsing is strong family support.

20.   Families, whether parents, siblings, spouse, or children, are a vital and consistent source of motivation for drug abusers. Their support is something that no Government agency can replicate or replace. 

21.   However, it is not always easy for family members to support their loved ones. We have heard from various practitioners this morning on the challenges faced by family members of returning offenders. A person’s drug abuse could have strained familial relationships and eroded trust. At the extreme end, family members could have been on the receiving end of violence when their loved ones were under the influence of drugs. 

22.   Our family-support programmes also help drug abusers rebuild their bonds with their families. So, we have the Family Service Centres and some other organisations who have been playing a part in helping to connect the inmates with their families and help these families when their loved ones are in prison. 

23.   I would like to share a story about ‘Ray’ (not her real name), the sister of an inmate, who recently participated in the Family Reintegration Programme.

24.   The Family Reintegration Programme is a programme facilitated by the Singapore Prisons to help inmates and their families mend relationships.

25.   ‘Ray’s’ brother, ‘John’ (also not his real name), had been in and out of prison multiple times for drug-related offences. Prior to attending the programme, ‘Ray’ had a lot of resentment towards ’John’ and as a result, did not visit him regularly. 

26.   However, since participating in the Family Reintegration Programme, both ‘Ray’ and ‘John’ were able to express their feelings better, which allowed them to communicate and work towards mending their relationship. ‘Ray’ now visits her brother regularly and looks forward to supporting ‘John’ on his reintegration journey upon his release.  

27.   The programme gave her the motivation to forgive her brother and work towards improving their relationship. In addition to that, we have organisations like SANA who also help in this process. I met someone who had been clean for 20 years then he had a relapse. He went in, he had difficulties handling the fact that he had relapsed. His family was disappointed, particularly his wife. What he told me – a SANA counsellor went to engage his wife, spoke to her, persuaded her to give him a chance and the wife did that. That really made his day and really helped him to continue his rehabilitation and reintegration journey. And when I met him, he had been released and he was happily continuing his journey even though there was a break in his rehabilitation and reintegration journey.   

28.   I am also very happy and glad to know that such programmes that we have from SPS, the community partners and organisations like SANA have been helpful. I urge other family members like 'Ray' to give their loved ones a second chance and persevere in supporting them. 

Helping Drug Abusers Obtain Gainful Employment is Integral Part of Rehabilitation and Reintegration

29.   Apart from family support, stable employment is also a protective factor against relapse. This is especially so for ex-drug abusers who had initially turned to drugs to escape from financial stress.

30.   Our agencies provide training and employment assistance to drug abusers to help them find a job after release, to reduce the risk of relapse. For instance, Yellow Ribbon Singapore (YRSG) provides inmates with accredited skills training so that they are equipped with the relevant skills for the workforce upon release. After acquiring the relevant skillsets, YRSG provides inmates with employment assistance to job match them with suitable vacancies that fits the individual’s skills, work experience, and career interest. In 2021, YRSG provided 15,680 training places for over 4,700 inmates, and secured jobs for 94% of inmates assisted. 

31.   Today, Mr Phillip Tan (Chairman YRSG) is thinking about many other ways for us to help our inmates. Not only in terms of the jobs that are available to them but in terms of other aspects of employment. We will continue to do so and help our desistors in their rehabilitation and reintegration journey. I also met quite a number of employers who feel very passionate and committed to help them. Some of the employers make an effort to train their employers to understand the attributes, some of the lives of the desistors, and how they can support them. I am very touched to see the whole-of-society effort in this. 

32.   We will continue working with individuals, organisations, and employers to provide ex-drug abusers with second chances. I am confident that by working together, we can help ex-drug abusers turn their lives around. 

Important Role of Community Partners

33.   Community partners are vital in helping drug offenders continue to stay drug-free. Without the assistance of our community partners, many of our programmes would have a more limited reach, and we would not have been able to help as many ex-drug abusers as we are doing now.

34.   As one of our main community partners, SANA has been tireless in its efforts to support the rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-drug abusers. 

35.   Let me elaborate on a few of SANA’s key programmes.

36.   SANA’s Case Management Service provides individualised counselling support and assistance to ex-drug abusers, both before and after their release to the community. As part of the Case Management Service, SANA extends interim financial aid to ex-drug abusers. SANA also helps to refer ex-drug abusers to other community partners for employment and accommodation support.

37.   Beyond its Case Management Services, SANA has three Step-Up Centres which were set up to support ex-drug abusers. These centres are embedded within local communities across Singapore and provide a varied range of assistance and support for ex-drug abusers.

38.   For instance, after their return to the community, ex-drug abusers may still require help to desist from drugs and reintegrate into society. The Step-Up Centres provide ongoing counselling services to these ex-drug abusers and offer support groups to help them on their desistance journey.

39.   The centres also provide support to the family members of ex-drug abusers, many of whom are keen to encourage their loved ones but do not know how to help.

40.   In addition, SANA also recently introduced its pilot In-care Support Group for female drug abusers. The Group addresses gaps in service, where female drug abusers find it difficult to reach out to organisations for support. The Group aims to make SANA’s services more accessible to female drug abusers and help them learn to mend their relationships with their family members. In fact, today’s launch of the book is very much welcomed. One of the writers shared that she feels very humbled and honored to have a chance to share the recovery journey of the women. I would like SANA to keep up the good work and engage as many as possible, so that we can help them and their families. 

41.   Last but not least, SANA’s Peer Leaders Programme grooms former drug abusers who have made great strides in their recovery to become Peer Leaders. These Peer Leaders co-facilitate SANA’s support groups and take part in SANA’s numerous preventive education programmes. 

Ex-Drug Abusers Play an Important Role in Motivating Others to Stay Drug-Free

42.   As former drug abusers who have overcome their struggles, SANA Peer Leaders are able to relate to recovering drug abusers. Given their experience, they can fully understand the struggles of persons in recovery and are able to better empathize with recovering drug addicts.

43.   This empathy and understanding go a long way to help other recovering addicts stay motivated and persevere in their struggles to remain drug-free. 

44.   If I can share, I'm very fortunate to be able to visit the prison and meet the ex-abusers, in prison as well as in the community, regularly. And whenever I meet them, my parting words will always be – remember, when you are released, stay connected. When you stay connected, there are opportunities for you to stay clean as long as possible. There will be people out there wanting to help you, and among them will be SANA, ISCOS and many organisations. So, if they come knocking on your doors, please open your doors and help them. If you do not have the expertise, it's okay, refer them to an organisation where you know there are people who can help, because at times, they shared with me, when they are at their lowest, that's when they will seek help from whoever they can. The last thing we want is for them to go back to their old peers, who may influence that go back to their old habits. So, my hope is that let's be open, and that whoever they approach, they can get some comfort, help and opportunities to continue their rehabilitation and reintegration journey. And this is something that, to me, is very important – for them to persevere and stay motivated. 

45.   I would like to share the story of Alif, a SANA Peer Leader. I met Alif earlier, and he is someone very familiar to me. I met him many times and I enjoy listening to his music, together with all his friends.

46.   Alif was released from prison in 2017 after a drug conviction in 2013. This was the second time he had been incarcerated for a drug offence. Upon his release, he decided to stay free from drugs. While his siblings were skeptical of his resolve, his wife and two children believed in him and motivated him to stay drug-free. Alif was also selective with the circle of friends he mixed around with. 

47.   Another factor that kept Alif away from drugs was music. Since young, Alif had been passionate about music, but due to his family’s financial difficulties, he was unable to pursue his passion. This changed when he was in prison, where he further honed his talent in the Performing Arts Centre (PAC). Upon his release, while working part-time, Alif started doing freelance performances and Alif’s brother subsequently gave Alif his guitar. To Alif, the guitar was a testimony of his brother’s support and recognition of his talent and resolve to stay drug free.

48.   Alif’s main motivation for change was because he did not want to lose the love and trust of his family members. 

49.   Alif mentioned that his recovery journey would not have been possible without the support of his family and friends, and his passion in pursuing music. 

50.   In 2019, after receiving help through SANA’s support group, Alif joined SANA as a Peer Leader. As a Peer Leader, Alif shares his life story at SANA support group sessions, at schools, and at outreach talks at prisons, halfway houses, and many other places, with the hope of inspiring others. 

51.   Alif’s story is an illustration of how a person’s own determination, family support, employment, together with the support from agencies and community partners, all form part of a person’s successful rehabilitation and reintegration journey. To be honest, there are many more persons like Alif who are going through recovery, who are Peer Leaders, and we want to urge many more ‘Alifs’ to come forward as part of their journey. A few of the Peer Leaders shared with me that when they are on-board this journey, they also benefit from it. Reminding themselves that I'm still in recovery, and while I support others, I'm also supporting myself. So, it is in our interest, for us to strengthen the desistors network, to get as many people who are going through recovery to be supported, motivated, and to be part of the Peer Leaders’ network, and your very own similar Leaders’ network. Some of you may call it different names, but the spirit and the outcome will be similar. 


52.   In conclusion, I would like to thank SANA and all our community partners for their invaluable contribution to Singapore’s fight against drugs. As I said, we cannot do it alone. We need to work together. 

53.   I would also like to thank the practitioners here today who have taken time out of your busy schedules to share your knowledge and best practices. Something that I have observed is that our practitioners are really good. You not only have the knowledge and experiences, but some of the things that you shared are really valuable in our journey to continue to support our friends and their families. Continue to deepen your skills and knowledge, because it will certainly help us to care for and help our desistors and their families. 

54.   To the former drug abusers amongst us today, thank you for your perseverance. We only succeed because you do. Each of you has seized the opportunities given to you and has overcome the challenges facing you. I am especially glad to see all of you here today and I wish you all the best in your journey. I am sure many of you, whom I have spoken to or whom we have read about, have aspirations and dreams, wanting not only to recover, rehabilitate and reintegrate, but also wanting to contribute to the lives of others here in Singapore. And we want you to be successful in this, we want you to do well. We want you to be able to continue this journey and be one of the persons who lead our journey, in not only fighting against drug abuse, but also helping those who had made the wrong choice to rehabilitate and reintegrate with their families, friends and society. 

55.   I look forward to the presentation and workshops this afternoon which I am sure will be as fruitful as the discussions you had this morning.

56.   Thank you for listening to me and I look forward to learning from you at the workshops and presentations later. Thank you.