British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by J. S. A. Lewis, O.B.E.
How Government Officers became Official
Opium Dealers in the old Federated Malay
Malayan Tin Works
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.

How Government Officers became Official
Opium Dealers in the old Federated Malay
Malayan Opium Dens
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.

How Government Officers became Official
Opium Dealers in the old Federated Malay
Taking Opium
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 small scale.

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 test.
Escape from Singapore
St. John's Island

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 their craving.

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.

map of British Empire
Straits Settlements Map
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 68 (October 1994)


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