A place for Drug Addicts to Get Well

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“I JUST want to be well”. Twenty-five-year-old David (not his real name), sat with me on the large verandah of a Christian drug rehabilitation centre near Sentul City, Bogor, and described his life.

Nestled in a peaceful rural setting with a beautiful mountain view, the centre is run by Breakthrough, a Christian organisation based in Singapore. The building was constructed in 2002 with funds provided by Indonesian tycoon James Riady. 

Introduced to marijuana by friends at the age of 15, David was using methamphetamine, popularly known as syabu, by the time he was 17. He left home after completing high school and became a serious user.

David’s wake-up call came in 2009, when he spent three months in hospital with kidney problems. “The doctors told me it was because I was taking drugs,” he told me.

“Did anyone offer to help you kick the habit?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “they just gave advice.”

Frightened by the experience, he stopped taking drugs for six months. But the habit was too strong for him to break alone, and he suffered a relapse.

A University of Indonesia survey in 2011 suggested that about 2.2 per cent of the population are drug abusers. This amounts to well over four million people, mostly young men. Yet the total capacity of government rehabilitation centres is only around 2,000. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have places for another 4,000.

Added to this has been poor coordination between government agencies. Clearly, the government hospital concerned did not recognise its responsibility to refer David to a suitable rehabilitation centre. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2009, when the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) was given additional powers and reported directly to the President, that Indonesia had a single body with the authority to set national policy on the issue.

Even today, both the government and the private sectors operate a confusing variety of rehabilitation centres. The Home Ministry holds addicts and pushers in purpose-built jails, the Health Ministry runs institutions under its psychiatric department, while the Ministry of Social Affairs runs yet others. There are also numerous non-governmental rehabilitation centres registered with the BNN.

Treatment periods vary considerably, as does treatment philosophy. BNN’s two new rehabilitation centres offer a 12-month programme. A sojourn at Breakthrough is similar in length, but involves much greater emphasis on spiritual awakening. My interview with a second resident, a former heroin addict turned volunteer assistant, was interrupted by a scheduled prayer meeting.

Other approaches are radically different. Emphasising the importance of maintaining an addict’s links with the community, Yayasan Karisma, an NGO operating in Jakarta, offers just one month of residential care followed by five months of outpatient treatment.

But while such variety offers addicts a choice, the under-utilisation of facilities is worrying. Breakthrough had just 27 residents when The Straits Times visited last week, despite having the capacity to handle up to 125.

Fearing that they will attract the attention of the police, and knowing the reputation of many centres for violence and regimentation, many addicts are reluctant to check themselves into rehabilitation centres. But with officials now acknowledging drug addiction as a medical condition rather than a criminal problem, the situation is changing.

The emphasis now, as in Singapore, is on former addicts helping each other through regular peer- group sessions. Breakthrough has gone further, appointing former heroin addict Stephen Vincent as the centre’s superintendent.

Breakthrough does not attempt to prevent its residents from leaving, but – like many other such institutions – it does have a “jail” where addicts must agree to be confined for one week when they first arrive. “Many take one look at it and refuse to sign up,” said Mr Vincent. Stocked with Christian literature, the room is clean and brightly lit.

Yayasan Karisma sends its workers into the streets to meet addicts and gain their trust while advising them on harm reduction practices such as not sharing needles. Only then does it invite them for rehabilitation. Breakthrough depends largely on referrals from local churches.

Few organisations contacted by The Straits Times were able to give statistics on success rates. But Mr Vincent, who says he makes a point of following up with former addicts and their families, claims a success rate of around 50 per cent.

BNN consultant Fadilan Abdul Kayong, a Singaporean, believes success rates can be improved if greater emphasis is placed on tailoring treatment to individual needs. Such reform, however, could prove costly.

I asked David if he ever wanted to give up and leave. “I thought of it when I first came here and sat in the jail,” he said, “but now I am committed.”

(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited 

Key Political Risks

The inability of the government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to bridge the deep divisions between her populist government and its royalist opponents in the military and bureaucracy remains a major concern.

Prime Minister Yingluck has selected a competent economic team, but it is difficult for these technocrats to deliver on the new government's campaign promises without triggering inflation or hurting business. 

The government has also been unable to resolve the ongoing insurgency involving ethnic Malay Muslim rebels in the south.



  1. Attempts by the government to amend the constitution. The proposed rewrite is aimed removing legal measures initiated by the royalist generals who overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the current prime minister's elder brother, in 2006.
  2. Ballooning government debt as officials seek to finance government programmes aimed at subsidising rice prices in order to retain the support of farmers.
  3. The relationship between Prime Minister Yingluck and senior generals. Coups have been a common means of regime change in Thai history, and any attempt by the government to purge royalist elements in the top brass could trigger yet another. Thailand

About Me

My name is Dr Bruce Gale and I am a senior writer with the Singapore Straits Times. I studied at  LaTrobe University (BA Hons) in Melbourne and later at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University (MA). My PhD thesis, which focussed on Malaysian political economy, was completed at the Malaysian National University (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) in 1987.

From 1988 to 2003 I was Singapore Regional Manager for the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC). 

I have written several books and articles on Southeast Asian affairs, including Political Risk and International Business: Case Studies in Southeast Asia (Pelanduk Publications, 2007). Books on language include Mastering Indonesian: a guide to reading Indonesian language newspapers (Pelanduk Publications, 2008)

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