DANGER WAS
PART OF OUR JOB

The drug scourge remains one of the most
insidious challenges to public order and
health. Having seen the deadly toll exacted
by drugs, most bitterly on families and
the young, Mr Lee Cheng Kiat made it his
life’s work to bring offenders to justice and
help their victims.

He reflects on 50 fearless years of service.

Asked if he was ever worried about the dangers of raiding opium dens and pursuing armed criminals, Mr Lee, 70, looks perplexed, as if the concern had never crossed his mind. “Danger was part of our job,” he says. “I expected it, so I was never too worried.”

Mr Lee has been in drug enforcement since 1965, when he joined the Singapore Customs Department. In 1971, he was seconded to the newly established Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) as part of its first batch of field officers. “The drug situation in Singapore was just so bad in the 1970s,” he recalls. “We needed a specialised team to fight the threat, and that was why the bureau was formed.”

CNB’s founding Director, Mr John Hanam, ran a tight ship of only 18 field officers. Mr Lee was often in the thick of the action, conducting stakeouts and raiding opium dens. “The dens had heavy wooden doors fortified with iron bars, and we had to use crowbars and axes to force our way in,” he recalls. “It was tough. But I must say, we were all young and fit!”

In 1973, Mr Lee and his fellow officers painstakingly tailed a suspect from Boat Quay to Duxton Hill. Raiding an innocuous-looking shophouse, the crime-fighters discovered that it was a heroin processing lab. “We conducted investigations, carried out arrests, seized evidence and charged offenders in court,” says Mr Lee. “We did everything ourselves.”

If danger wasn’t the toughest part of the job, what was? “The long hours,” he says. “We used to work 16-hour days.”

Due to the determined efforts of CNB’s crime-fighters, by the late 1980s, opium dens were unheard of in Singapore. But even as opium use among the public fell, other addictive substances took its place. “Many youths were taking MX pills and cannabis out of boredom or peer pressure,” he recalls. “There were cases when mothers and fathers begged us not to arrest their children. In other cases, parents wanted us to do so as they just couldn’t control their kids anymore. And sometimes entire families were implicated. It was heartbreaking.”

Over the decades, CNB has put in place an ecosystem for a drug-free Singapore; besides enforcement, CNB supports a network of education, treatment, rehabilitation and social reintegration efforts. “We can do our part,” says Mr Lee, “but ultimately, family support is the most important thing when it comes to beating drugs for good.”

Having retired in 2005, Mr Lee was reemployed by CNB and now serves the bureau as a Registry Officer. His continued presence sees him interacting with many younger officers, with whom he shares his considerable experience in drug enforcement. “That has been my passion; I can’t imagine having done any other job,” says the grandfather of two. “I do miss the fieldwork. But I know I’ve done my part.”