SINGAPORE: The number of new drug abusers has increased, with close to two-thirds of new abusers last year under the age of 30, and the problem is compounded by the rise in online drug peddling, said Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament on Friday (Mar 3).
Speaking during the Committee of Supply (COS) debates, Mr Shanmugam highlighted several drug challenges faced by the country, with one of these being growing threats from the region. He noted that Myanmar and Lao PDR account for 22 per cent of the total global area used for illicit opium poppy cultivation, while the trafficking of ice and heroin in the region generates more than US$32 billion (S$45 billion).
The number of new drug abusers in Singapore has also increased, with close to two-thirds of new abusers last year under the age of 30, he said. A survey conducted by the National Council Against Drug Abuse (NCADA) in 2016 found that young people below the age of 30 were more open-minded towards drugs, as compared to a similar 2013 survey, the minister added.
This problem is compounded by the rise in online drug availability. "Online black market sites allow users to buy drugs anonymously. The drugs are couriered in small parcels, which are unmarked, innocuous-looking and difficult to track. The young are especially susceptible," he said.
Mr Shanmugam pointed out that while many think that only youths from low-income households are vulnerable, the Task Force on Youths and Drugs commissioned a study in 2014 which found that most young cannabis abusers came from either middle or high socioeconomic backgrounds and many of them did well in school.
"Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) will take active measures, together with our community partners, to tackle this concern," he said.
Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin said in his COS speech that CNB has developed a multi-pronged strategy to better engage youths.
One of the ways it is doing so is to increase its social media presence, such as online videos to highlight the dangers of drugs, while it is also piloting a new initiative to establish positive "influencers" in peer circles, he said.
For instance, CNB said in January that it had appointed footballer Irfan Fandi as its anti-drug advocate. "Irfan is one of Singapore’s most promising young football talents, and he will help CNB in spreading the anti-drug message, and help our youths stay drug-free," it said in a press release then.
Youths from Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs), polytechnics and universities have also signed up for the pilot of an Anti-Drug Advocate (ADA) Programme, Mr Amrin said, adding that these youths will learn about the harmful effects of drugs and Singapore’s drug policies, as well as visit halfway houses and drug rehabilitation centres.
"We hope the experience will encourage them to start their own initiatives to spread the anti-drug message to their friends," he said. "We need more people to step forward and spread the anti-drug message. Prevention is a first line of defence."
WILL NOT FLINCH FROM TAKING POSITION
Mr Shanmugam also painted the wider, global picture on drugs, citing a New York Times article published in January which said that cheap smuggled heroin is "handed out like candy" across the US. In 2015, more than 33,000 people died from opioid abuse - greater than the number killed due to gun homicide, he added.
He also pointed to another article by the Economist which said that Asia's harsh anti-drug policies are falling out of step with the rest of the world and criticised these policies as needlessly severe and probably ineffective. It also conceded that Singapore's drug consumption is "admirably low", but caveated that by saying it is small in size, has secure borders, little corruption, effective anti-drug education and laws that allow searches without warrants and detention without trial.
"Apart from our size, none of the other factors happened by themselves. They are the result of our policies, many years of hard work. There is strong public support for our tough laws and our approach," the minister said.
He also said he rejected the Economist's description of him as "Singapore's fearsome Law and Home Affairs Minister" when referencing his speech at the 2016 UN General Assembly where he said: “Show us a model that works better, that delivers a better outcome for citizens, and we will consider changing. If that cannot be done, then don’t ask us to change.”
"I don't accept the description 'fearsome', but I will not flinch from taking a position, in Singapore and outside Singapore, if I believe it's in the interests of our people," he said.