'We could sniff out opium dens on our own': Retired CNB officers on their job in the 1970s

Mr Teo Chin Seng (left) and Mr Tan Kong Hai in front of a display of items used in anti-drug education for students. ST PHOTO: ZAIHAN MOHAMED YUSOF

SINGAPORE - Opium was a problem in Singapore for almost 100 years, with smoking dens tucked in Chinese enclaves, especially where the coolies worked, but a new trend emerged from the 1960s - the use of heroin and cannabis among young people.

Between 1969 and 1974, 65 people died in cases related to illicit drugs. More than half were found dead in the streets.

The drugs of choice included opium, cannabis, heroin and the prescription drug MX used as a sedative.

On Oct 19, 1971, the Government announced a new agency - the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) - with the mandate of dealing with the drug menace, a task previously carried out by the Central Investigation Department and Singapore Customs.

CNB, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, was officially formed a month later.

Mr Tan Kong Hai and Mr Teo Chin Seng were in their 20s when they joined the fledgling agency.

Mr Tan, who retired as a deputy superintendent in 2009, recalled that officers quickly developed "a nose" for the job.

"For opium dens, the smell (coming out of the den) was strong and pungent. Whether they were cooking or smoking opium, I could smell it from far away," said the 67-year-old.

Mr Tan and Mr Teo, who retired as senior assistant director for intelligence projects in 2015, were involved in Operation Ferret.

It was launched after the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in 1973. A true picture of Singapore's drug problem emerged.

During a debate in 2017 on the need to strengthen Singapore's anti-drug stand, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam described how the authorities were arresting fewer than 10 heroin abusers a year in the early 1970s.

"But after we set up CNB and after we started Operation Ferret, by February 1978, 26,000 abusers had been arrested," he noted.

Mr Teo Chin Seng looks at a display of drug paraphernalia inside CNB's heritage room. ST PHOTO: ZAIHAN MOHAMED YUSOF

In 1975, CNB had its biggest seizure of MX pills - 30,000 - which were worth $45,000 then. But the threat remains.

In March this year, it seized about 20.5kg of cannabis - the largest haul of the drug in about 14 years.

That record was broken the next month when 23kg of cannabis, 16kg of heroin and other drugs were seized.

Said Mr Tan, who was appointed in 1997 to lead a new Special Task Force (STF) that targets traffickers: "Previously, we didn't have advanced equipment (to break into drug dens). We used mostly crowbars and cutters, not electrical equipment."

Today's STF officers have sophisticated tools to gain quick entry into a trafficker's lair.

The unit invests in modern technology, such as devices that use radar technology to see through walls, and rigorous training, which includes having officers in the elite unit shot at with non-lethal bullets.

Mr Teo, 64, helped to set up CNB's Financial Investigation Division in 1992. The team works to seize assets and proceeds from drug trafficking.

His first major case saw the bureau seize more than $1 million in assets from a former civil servant who was convicted of trafficking heroin.

Mr Tan Kong Hai stands over a display at CNB's heritage room which shows the simple equipment used in the early days. ST PHOTO: ZAIHAN MOHAMED YUSOF

The man, who would often carry $60,000 in cash every day, could not explain his unaccounted wealth, properties and lavish lifestyle.

Investigators later learnt that his mistress held 40 bank accounts to keep ill-gotten gains.

"The whole family's harmony was disrupted by that one arrest and drug seizure," said Mr Teo.

"Mothers do not believe their children are doing drugs. This part is heartbreaking when you see a mother clinging to her son before we take him away."

Both retired officers said their families knew their jobs were not without risks.

Many traffickers hid parangs (large, heavy knives) and other weapons in their cars or lorries, said Mr Tan, who had in the past found threatening messages on the windscreen of his car parked outside his home.

But Mr Teo said one chance encounter with a former drug trafficker surprised him.

He and his wife had finished watching a movie some years back when a former inmate, who was released after a 15-year sentence, bumped into him.

He told Mr Teo, who had handled his case, he needed a job.

Mr Teo said: "I was apprehensive at first because he had surprised me and I didn't recognise him. What I did was to refer him to CNB's Job Placement Unit.

"The incident was amicable. I think if you are fair and just in dealing with them, they will respect you."

The coolies of the early days are gone. Today's drug user is educated and employed.

CNB marks its 50th anniversary this year. ST PHOTO: ZAIHAN MOHAMED YUSOF

CNB said the drugs of choice include methamphetamine, or "Ice", and new psychoactive substances (NPS), which include bath salts.

On May 1, 2014, NPS were listed as Class A controlled drugs in the First Schedule of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The drug trade now taps encrypted communication platforms such as private messaging apps to buy drugs.

In 2019, the Misuse of Drugs Act was amended to beef up the rehabilitation regime.

To prepare CNB officers for the implementation of a five-year supervision order, the CNB Psychological Unit developed a community supervision skills course for its officers.

The course equips CNB officers with skills to engage drug supervisees more effectively with the hope of long-term pro-social behaviour to stay drug-free.

It is a significant leap from the early 1970s, when the only government drug treatment centre operated on St John's Island.

Mr Tan said: "Having the right aptitude is essential, as CNB officers often put in long hours, and put their lives and health on the line to reduce the drug menace in Singapore. However, there is an immense sense of satisfaction in playing a part to keep Singapore drug-free."

CNB director Ng Ser Song noted the contribution of the pioneer officers.

"We commemorate our golden jubilee this year, and it is an opportune time for us to pay tribute to past and current generations of CNB officers who contributed significantly to the drug-free cause through hard work, sacrifices and a strong sense of purpose," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.