Prior to 1874 the Malay Peninsula was comprised of the Straits Settlements, i.e. the
Colonies of Singapore, Penang and Malacca, and nine Native States ruled by their
own Sultans. In 1874 three of these Native States, Perak, Selangor and Negri Sembilan,
accepted a British Adviser to assist the Sultans in the administration of each State and in
1888 the Sultan of Pahang also accepted a British Adviser. In 1896 all four States
became a British Protectorate and were known as the Federated Malay States, whilst the
remaining five States continued to be ruled by their Sultans and, in due course, with the
assistance of a British Adviser.
Even by 1874 there was a large number of Chinese immigrants in the Federated States
working in tin mines and as shopkeepers and many of these had brought with them their
opium smoking habit.
In order to raise revenue to pay for the administration costs of the Federated States the
authorities had, since 1875, imposed a tax on the importation and sale of opium,
although their main source of revenue was the export duty on tin and tin ore. The export
duty on rubber was not introduced until 1906.
For ease of collection, the right to import opium, prepare it for smoking and sell it to
their customers was farmed out to the highest bidder in the coastal districts. (This had
already been the practice in the Straits Settlements since 1835.) In inland tin mining
areas the tin mine owners and large employers of Chinese labour were licensed at a fee
to supply the drug to their opium smoking employees.
This state of affairs continued until 1910 when the British Government (which had
taken over the control of India and the Straits Settlements from the East India Company
in 1867) decided that the Colonial Governments of both the Straits Settlements and the
Federation should take over the job of importing and selling the opium themselves. This
was due to a growing anti-opium sentiment in Britain at the beginning of this century
which forced the British Government to take some action to reduce opium smoking in its
overseas possessions. No doubt this was more profitable to the local treasuries but, of
more importance, it enabled the Colonial Governments to exercise proper control over
the drug traffic.
In Singapore the Government created the Monopolies Department to implement the
new policy and built a factory to convert the raw opium into a form suitable for smoking
and to pack it for distribution. The raw opium, which was imported from India, resembled
dark brown putty and had to be boiled and otherwise treated to convert it into a thick
dark brown treacle (called chandu locally) which could be smoked in an opium pipe.
This thick treacle was then packed into small paper packets weighing 2 hoons (about
'U gram) but in about 1934 the paper packets were replaced by small aluminium tubes
also weighing 2 hoons.
In the Federation, the Trade & Customs Department (in which I served at a later date)
was called upon to operate the new policy. Chandu shops were opened in every town in
the Federation, stocks of packed chandu were bought from the Singapore Government
and sold at the new opium shops to anyone who wished to buy the drug without any
restriction. The Government also opened smoking saloons where customers could smoke
a pipe in clean and peaceful surroundings and have pleasant dreams.
During the early 1930s the Government decided that more should be done to reduce
the extent of opium smoking in the Federation. In order to enforce this new policy every
opium smoker had to register with the Customs Department and was given a
Registration card which enabled him to purchase opium from any Government opium
shop on the production of his card. The Government, however, closed its opium dens so
as not to appear to encourage the smoking habit. This new policy would mean a big loss
of revenue and so an Opium Revenue Reserve Fund was set up to compensate for the
loss of revenue when opium smoking was finally eradicated.
As only registered smokers could now buy opium legally and as no-one, apart from
the Government, was allowed to sell opium, a black market developed in the sale of both
Government and smuggled opium to non-registered smokers, but this was on a comparatively
The next step was to reduce the number of new smokers which was done by refusing
cards to all young persons, I believe under 18 years of age. Those over 18 years of age
could only obtain a registration card after obtaining a doctor's certificate to the effect
that they were already opium smokers (new immigrants) and needed the drug for reasons
of health. This may appear strange but I was told by a doctor that consumptives were
kept alive for several years through smoking opium.
A regular opium smoker usually had blackened teeth and sometimes his front teeth
were worn away. I therefore used to observe his teeth when an applicant spoke to me
pleading his case for a registration card. On one occasion I told an applicant with good
white teeth that he was not a regular smoker and could not be given a card; he quickly
realised, however, that I had been observing his teeth and, with a big grin, he pulled out
a perfect set of white false teeth, which was unusual for an addict.
Many of the applicants were Chinese manual labourers who like a smoke after a
strenuous day's work. They said it relaxed them and got rid of their aches and pains.
They were earning reasonable wages and could afford to smoke. It was the poor labourer
who could not afford both to smoke opium and eat who became emaciated and ill, mainly
through under nourishment.
Opium smokers are not belligerent or dangerous to other people. They have a feeling
of contentment after a smoke and are in a dream world of their own. I remember once
when a male Chinese walked into my motor car in broad daylight. Luckily I had seen
him 'floating' across the road and had stopped my car before he collided with it, much to
his surprise. He was obviously in a dream world after a smoke.
The next step in the campaign to eradicate opium smoking was to limit the quantity of
opium a registered smoker could buy at a Government shop. This was done through a
rationing system and a smoker's ration was recorded on his registration card. I cannot
now remember whether all smokers received the same ration or whether the amount
depended on age or other reasons.
It was hoped that, as a result of these measures, the smoking of opium in the
Federation would be virtually eradicated within a generation when the registered smokers
would have died off as they grew old. Unfortunately, the Japanese army interfered with
these plans by over-running the country in 1942 and so the policy was never put to the
The Japanese authorities in charge of Malaya for the next four years permitted the
government opium shops to continue business as long as stocks lasted but, as all the
opium producing areas were out of their reach, stocks could not have lasted long.
The Japanese occupation of Malaya ended in August 1945 and in February 1946 the
sale of opium in Malaya was totally banned (I believe at the insistence of the American
Government) so that smokers had to seek illegal means of obtaining the drug to satisfy
The result was that opium smuggling into Malaya became big business but heroin
and other hard drugs were not yet a problem. The Customs Department continued as the
main force to combat this smuggling, which was mainly by sea and air, and in
Singapore a Narcotic Bureau was set up under the control of the Comptroller of
Customs. This Narcotic Bureau kept in touch with Customs and Police forces in Hong
Kong, Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon and Mombasa and sent a quarterly report on the
local drug situation to the United Nations Narcotic Bureau. An Opium Treatment Centre
was set up by the Singapore Government on St. John's Island to help convicted opium
smokers break the habit and to teach them a useful trade.
In 1957 the old Federated Malay States and the rest of Malaya became independent
of British rule and the control of drug smuggling became the responsibility of the local
Governments. The smuggling of opium and other narcotics into Malaya has now been
overcome by the effective deterrent of the death penalty for those in illegal possession
of any forbidden drug. This is a deterrent which the Colonial Government could not
have imposed without wide criticism.