The Struggle to Control the Rise of Drug Trafficking in Singapore

6 February 2023

While Singapore is often considered a hub of innovation and prosperity, every country has its share of trials and shortcomings. For Singapore, one of the main social issues at present is a rampant drug trade that even the nation’s rigorous anti-drug guidelines and severe punishments for offenders, including the death penalty, have been unable to quash.

For decades, Singapore’s well-enforced rule of law has given the island nation a reputation for being a peaceful and safe destination. Despite this general positivity, however, immigrants convicted of trafficking even small quantities of drugs often find themselves face-to-face with a much starker side of Singapore.

Recently, in addition to the influx of illicit drugs, Singapore’s severe punishment policies have themselves become an internationally recognised cause of concern. In an effort to combat the country’s use of the death penalty for relatively minor and non-violent infractions, United Nations (UN)  rights experts have stated that “[r]esorting to this type of punishment to prevent drug trafficking is not only illegal under international law, but also ineffective.”

According to recent UN reports, “[t]here is a lack of any persuasive evidence that the death penalty contributes more than any other punishment to eradicating drug trafficking.”

In recent years, Singapore’s drug trafficking issue has only seemed to be getting worse. On 19 April 2021, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) confiscated 23 kg of cannabis and approximately 16 kg of heroin, which together were valued at over 2.3 million Singaporean dollar (about US$ 1.7 million). This outsized incident also brought to light that a Malaysian organisation had regularly been using Singapore as a hub while channelling drugs to other locations hidden in children’s toys.

Following this alarming discovery, Assistant Commissioner Leon Chan, Deputy Director of CNB Operations, stated that “Singapore does not tolerate the activities of syndicates which make use of Singapore’s connectivity to ship their drugs.”

Despite these firm public statements, however, drug trafficking remains a major concern in the island nation. In May 2022, another alarmingly large drug seizure led to the arrest of approximately 102 alleged drug offenders over the course of a five day raid. The cash value of the illicit drugs confiscated during this seizure alone totalled almost S$1 million (about US$ 750,000).

Drug Smuggling Worsening

In recent years, the shifts in other countries’ drug policies may also have played a role in the alarming escalation of drug trafficking in Singapore. In July 2020, K. Shanmugam, Minister of Law and Home Affairs, claimed that “Singapore’s fight against drugs is made more challenging each time countries in the region loosen their drug laws.”

With one of the harshest anti-drug policies in the world, Singapore takes a zero-tolerance approach to the possession, trade, and use of illicit drugs. Under its current protocols, Singapore permits punishing offenders with death by hanging for crimes regarding the trafficking of illegal substances.

In 2013, Abdul Kahar Othman, a 68-year-old Malaysian man, was imprisoned for trafficking diamorphine and sentenced to death by hanging. Othman’s execution was postponed several years and only took place in March 2022. As Singapore’s first death row execution in over two years, Othman’s case quickly became a rallying point for those opposed to using the death penalty to punish non-violent crimes including drug trafficking.

Nonetheless, despite considerable public resistance and widespread citizen protests, drug-related death row executions have continued unabated. In early August 2022, a 34-year-old Malaysian and a 46-year-old Singaporean were executed for smuggling sizable quantities of drugs. Singapore’s government justified these executions on the grounds that these drugs are harmful and dangerous not only to users themselves, but also to Singaporean society at large.

Only weeks later, on 18 August 2022, a 49-year-old Singaporean, Loh Kok Kiong, and his 32-year-old Malaysian girlfriend, Soh Yong Xin, were jointly charged on two accounts, the largest of which was handling 9.6 kg of methamphetamine. In addition to this joint charge, Kiong also faced solo charges for trafficking approximately 1.5 kg of methamphetamine and 139 g of nimetazepam. While the couple pleaded “not guilty” on several of the allegations, neither had a lawyer to represent them in court.

Shortly after this incident, in yet another August drug charge, a South African woman in her twenties attempted to board a Singapore-bound flight with a brick of cocaine and was promptly arrested. While this arrest took place in South Africa, as opposed to in Singapore itself, it serves to illustrate how the island country has become an internationally recognized destination and trading hub for illicit drugs.

Solutions to the Growing Drug Trade

While Singapore is by no means the only country to use the death penalty, its application in the context of drug charges is a highly polarising matter, both at home and on the world stage.

In response to the growth of drug trafficking in and between East and Southeast Asian countries, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) formally investigated the unprecedented production, trade, and use of illicit drugs in the region.

When the rising number of capital executions in Singapore came to light, a committee of UN rights officials filed an appeal to Singapore’s government to suspend the future execution of individuals involved in the drug market. Despite this formalized request and widespread domestic opposition to using the death penalty in this context, Singapore’s government continues to stand behind its claim that the incomparable severity of capital punishment serves to protect its citizens from a serious public health and safety concern, making it a reasonable and acceptable response to the drug crisis.

On 15 January 2019, the Singaporean government passed The Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Act in an effort to improve the anti-drug framework, bolster its execution forces, and strengthen drug rehabilitation programs across the island.

Assistant Commissioner Leon Chan, deputy director of CNB Operations, is optimistic that with well-enforced laws and complacent public support, Singapore has the potential to become a drug-free nation. Chan has also made clear that resolving Singapore’s current drug trafficking crisis will require an international effort, stating, “CNB will continue to work closely with our foreign counterparts to interdict the supply of drugs and to prevent Singapore from being used as a trans-shipment hub for drugs.”

Singapore’s drug laws remain a highly controversial political and social issue. While many Singaporeans have expressed a desire to alter their nation’s stringent punishment system, not all Singaporean citizens reject using the death penalty in drug-related crimes and the topic continues to polarise the society.

Article by Fatima Abuzar.
Editing by Anrike Visser.

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