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Customers at a cannabis store in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: EPA-EFE

Singapore’s Schooling saga of cannabis use abroad raises questions over long arm of anti-drug laws

  • Incident puts in sharp focus Singapore’s strict approach to drug use versus more liberal attitudes among some younger citizens and regional neighbours
  • But law minister says city state’s policy will not bend to shifting norms ‘in Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. Nor does it get dictated to by 400 people or ... international newspapers’
From his holiday on Thailand’s Phuket island, Zach kept half an eye on the Joseph Schooling saga, as Singapore’s once-adored Olympic gold medallist was castigated over cannabis use abroad and the city state’s residents were reminded that the law applied to them even well beyond its borders.
Still, the furore was not enough to stop Zach, who is in his late twenties, from buying six spliffs loaded with newly-decriminalised cannabis from a weed dispensary in Phuket Town – and rolling the dice with the risk of a drug test on his return to Singapore.
Though “smoking up” was not top on his holiday agenda, the accessibility of cannabis in Thailand made the decision an easy one, Zach told This Week in Asia, not using his real name.

“I just happened to walk past a weed store ... They were everywhere and out there in the open, even at night markets,” he said. “So it was like buying myself a coconut drink – I saw it and could get it right there … and so I did.”

Thailand has legalised cannabis, now it needs to weed out the loopholes

Zach’s experience with Thailand’s flowering public cannabis culture captures the tension point between Singapore authorities determined to draw the moral line on drugs – as well as other hot-button issues – and some among a younger generation that is increasingly shrugging off these warnings.

Singapore has some of the world’s harshest drug laws, under which at least seven people have been executed this year. Officials say the strict laws have broad public backing. Rights monitors, including the UN Human Rights body, say capital punishment should be reserved for only the “most serious crimes” and not drug infringements.

Crucially, Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1973 applies to citizens and permanent residents who offend overseas, treating them as if they had taken the banned substance inside its territory.

That stipulation, enacted to prevent drug addicts and users from border-hopping in a region awash with narcotics to get their highs, is in sharp focus as Thailand liberalises its cannabis laws and Malaysia considers following suit, to capture a slice of the booming medicinal marijuana market.
Anti-death penalty activists in Kuala Lumpur protest against Singapore’s decision to execute a Malaysian convicted of drug trafficking in July 2022. Photo: AP

Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) has maintained that cannabis must remain an “illicit drug” in the country on account of it being “clearly addictive and harmful”.

A fact sheet on Singapore’s anti-cannabis policy posted on the CNB website said “examples of other countries have clearly shown that a permissive attitude towards the use of cannabis exacts a high cost on society”.

“Therefore, we have strict laws against the trafficking, possession, consumption, and import or export of illicit drugs, including cannabis and cannabis products,” the agency said.

For the likes of Lin, a Singaporean in her mid-twenties living in Thailand, the city state’s laws lag behind shifting societal and cultural norms.

“It’s the same reaction as there is to every issue,” she said, declining to be named for fear of repercussions. “Singapore has progressed as a society, we’re now an ‘adult’ society, but in many ways we’re still being babied about our choices and freedoms.”

Singapore’s Joseph Schooling during a semi-final of the men’s 100m butterfly at the 2016 Olympics. Photo: AP

A hero reprimanded

Schooling admitted consuming cannabis in May this year, when he was on short-term leave from full-time National Service to train and compete for the May 12-23 Southeast Asian Games in Hanoi, according to the Singapore Armed Forces.

The 27-year-old had earlier tested negative during drug tests and has since apologised on Instagram, stating that his actions “caused hurt” to the people around him, such as his family and young fans.

“I gave in to a moment of weakness after going through a very difficult period of my life,” he wrote. “I demonstrated bad judgment and I am sorry. I made a mistake and I’m responsible for what I’ve done.”

Joseph Schooling is congratulated by Michael Phelps after his 100m butterfly win over the American swim star at the 2016 Olympics. Photo: Reuters

The news drew emotive responses from many in the country – a former national fencer described Schooling’s transgression as a “fall from grace”, while Singapore’s influential law and home affairs minister K Shanmugam said one mistake did not erase the sporting achievements.

The swimming fraternity rallied round its top performer, calling for greater support for the mental well-being of athletes. Others praised Schooling for taking responsibility for his transgression and called for forgiveness towards a young national sporting hero.

Schooling became Singapore’s first Olympic gold medallist after a stunning victory over his childhood hero Michael Phelps in the men’s 100m butterfly at the 2016 Olympics.

Thailand has legalised cannabis, now it needs to weed out the loopholes

The sportsman’s very public reprimand comes as some of Singapore’s neighbours are moving towards decriminalisation of cannabis for medical purposes or planning to loosen laws on use.

Thailand, the only Southeast Asian country to remove cannabis from its narcotics list, is currently witnessing a marijuana free-for-all, with cannabis pop-ups lining the streets selling pre-rolled joints and jars of buds.

The law is set to be refined and even potentially rolled back to some degree, but until then visitors to the kingdom are enjoying some of the most relaxed weed laws anywhere on earth.

That has prompted Thai embassies in cities across Asia to issue stern warnings against travellers carrying cannabis or related products back home.

Meanwhile, Singapore has cautioned its citizens, which make up a significant portion of Thailand’s tourism arrivals, against consuming cannabis in any form while away from home as it strives to keep its “zero tolerance” stance on illicit drugs intact.

Joint effort: Malaysia contemplates Thailand’s medical cannabis policy

Beyond tough laws, rumours of ramped-up checks on arrivals from Thailand, and other countries that have relaxed drug laws, have also acted as a deterrence for some thinking about smoking a puff.

“I heard that people have said the government will do random checks on those who return from countries that have legalised weed,” said Claudia, who declined to give her real name, after returning from a holiday in Thailand last month.

In an annual report published this year, the CNB said it worked together with police and checkpoint authorities to conduct more than 100 operations at Singapore’s checkpoints last year.


Thailand decriminalises selling and growing cannabis

Thailand decriminalises selling and growing cannabis

Place in a changing world

Wider forces are challenging what is seen as Singapore’s tough approach to law and values, academics tell This Week in Asia, leaving the government with a difficult balancing act between moving with change and upholding its traditional stance.

“We cannot escape globalisation,” said Bilveer Singh, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Lawmakers have to navigate the shifting mores of a curious youth towards drugs, changing regional drug policies and condemnation from international bodies, he added.

Singapore to lift gay sex ban, amend constitution to prevent marriage equality

The other sharply divisive recent issue in front of Singapore’s public is over homosexuality.

Last month, the government announced that it planned to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, a colonial holdover which criminalises consensual sex between men. At the same time, it plans to amend the constitution to make it the sole prerogative of parliament – and not the courts – to define what constitutes marriage.

The planned dual-pronged policy change is seen as a form of compromise with conservative and religious groups.

“Whether it’s got to do with homosexuality, or drug usage … we may think what we are doing is the right thing, but when there is so much pressure outside, and when our people believe in it because they are so globally connected, it becomes a political challenge,” Bilveer said.


Singapore to scrap anti-gay sex law, but upholds ban on same-sex marriage

Singapore to scrap anti-gay sex law, but upholds ban on same-sex marriage

The fallout from Schooling’s marijuana admission has also opened a new front in an old battle of state versus individual freedoms, experts say, and may challenge the government going forward.

Singapore has long held the stance that drugs are “associated with a suite of broader social, economic and ethical challenges”, said Noorman Abdullah, assistant dean at the faculty of arts and social sciences at NUS.

“This perspective, while dominant, may not necessarily be shared, given the accessibility of alternative sources of information and experiences, as well as a fast-changing demographic profile of highly-educated youth responding to and challenging such approaches.”

Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau has maintained that cannabis must remain an “illicit drug” in the country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Outside Singapore, cannabis users like Thai resident Lin have found a way to cut through the noise. “I just won’t smoke for three weeks before I go back to Singapore,” said Lin, of the average time it takes for cannabinoids to leave the body. “What can they do to me then?”

Officials meanwhile say they are unfazed by liberal attitudes towards drugs they believe is only prevalent among a minority of Singapore residents.

“Of course, it creates more challenges, because the more the availability of drugs, the more challenging it is to deal with it,” law and home affairs minister Shanmugam said in a Bloomberg interview this week, when asked about neighbouring countries allowing drugs to be legalised.

The views of a “small group” that believes in legalisation, and the portrayal of drugs in the media, were among the challenges the Singapore government was dealing with, the minister said. He dismissed the notion that there was a groundswell of support for a change in policy.

Activists had previously suggested a gathering of about 400 people at an anti-death penalty protest in April was indicative of the public’s changing mood surrounding the strict approach to drugs.

“[Singapore] government policy doesn’t get made in Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. Nor does it get dictated to by 400 people, or three or four international newspapers,” Shanmugam said.