Empire of Vice. The Rise of Opium Prohibition Across Southeast Asia

Kim, Diana S.
309 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ichiro Sugimoto, SOKA University, Tokyo

This book investigates the historical accounts of the opium prohibition implemented across the Southeast Asian region under different colonial administration from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Based on detailed research on archival materials in various parts of the world, Kim's study provides a chance to gain new insight into Southeast Asia's colonial history.

For establishing the foundations of colonial rule, colonial authorities in the Southeast treated opium as “integral to managing an empire” (p. 3). Revenue raising from the sale of opium was the single most crucial revenue source and contributed to establishing a self-sufficient colonial financial base in the short term. Colonial states leased a “license to collect state revenue” to Revenue Farming for tax collection. This institution was widespread in Southeast Asia in the 19th century, but it also became common in Europe, West and South Asia. 1

For example, in Straits Settlements, colonial authorities established the free port status without imposing custom duties since they could rely on the revenue from the sales of opium. Nevertheless, opium smokers, the sole contributors of this revenue, on the other hand, need to allocate a large portion of their income for purchasing opium for daily intake.2 A significant part of consumers needs to give up a decent life. If they ran out of money to buy opium, they had to work more hours each day to satisfy their addiction or reduce the amount of opium consumed. Alternatively, opium addicts had to borrow or facilitate their purchases of other items. If all failed, they were condemned to a life of starvation and, ultimately, death.

However, these Southeast's opium-entangled foundations of colonial governance have gradually led to the prohibition in the colonies of Southeast Asia from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Colonial authorities established opium monopolies that controlled opium markets in the territory. These arrangements aim to regulate opium consumption and restore the social structure.
An interesting dimension of Kim's study is investigating how the ban on opium was made possible in Southeast Asia rather than explaining why (p. 15). Drawing on the collection of archival sources across Southeast Asia, Europe and the USA, Kim's study found that local colonial administrators and officials played a key role in tackling social, fiscal and financial issues relating to opium through their daily administrative duties.

As a conventional approach, the sale of opium was controlled by issuing licenses to opium smokers to smoke on their premises. Subsequently, supplies of opium were handled, and the registration of opium smokers became obligatory. Based on these steps, colonial authorities prohibited opium possession except for anyone who holds a medical practitioner’s certification for health reasons. Eventually, colonial states themselves officially denounced that opium was nothing more than a dangerous drug.

Kim’s study also showed the differences in implementing opium restrictions among colonies. In Part II, Kim provides three case studies to support the arguments made in Chapters one to three. Three major colonies were highlighted: British Burma, Malaya, and French Indochina.3 Interestingly, Kim found that prohibition of Opium in the respective region was occurred subsequently rather than simultaneously: Burma (the 1870s to 1890s), Malaya (the 1890s to 1920s) and French Indochina (the 1920s to 1940s) (p. 20).

In the case of British Burma, the British colonial state faced a crisis of "moral wreckage" caused by opium monopoly while enacted unprecedented prohibition of Burmese opium consumption in 1894.
Unlike British Burma, Malaya introduced a monopoly more than a decade later, in 1910, without having serious discourse. Kim found that the monopoly emerged as local administrators questioned the longstanding acceptance of dependency on opium and challenged fiscal order by introducing the opium revenue replacement reserve fund in 1925. This fund served to bounce criticism of Britain at the Geneva Convention meeting in 1924-25. These accumulated funds were utilized to finance large infrastructure projects in the British colonies. In the case of French Indochina, reduction of their colonial state's dependence on opium revenue and regulatory reform was slow due to a complex set of challenges rooted in the opium monopoly's accumulated debts and disreputable accounting practices rendered radical bans on opium consumption, or revenue substitution measures implausible to officials situated in the colony.

Kim successfully presented three case studies as comparisons: each build on the previous one to clarify how differently local administrators worked in contexts in which one might expect more similarities in administrative responses to opium-related problems as colonies of the same national empire (Burma and Malaya) and with high fiscal dependency on opium revenue (Malaya and Indochina) (p. 22).

To clarify the characteristics of colonial management for three different locations, Kim conducted very detailed archival research in many sources in Britain, Cambodia, France, Myanmar, Vietnam and the United States. To capture the administrative records concerning the opium monopolies and prohibition, Kim traced the relevant materials, preserved in serialized records, internal correspondence, minutes of meetings, policy memos and drafts, and papers compiled for commission (pp. 25-26).

In Part III, Kim addressed the present-day implications to understanding Southeast Asia's experience with colonial opium prohibition. Kim traced the lasting colonial legacies of the opium monopolies, linking the infrastructures they created for regulating opium after World War II and disciplinary laws against drug trafficking.

Based on this detailed research work, Kim's study on the prohibition of opium provides a new perspective of colonial rule in Southeast Asia. In particular, we can find that the fundamental changes were not merely achieved by "top-down" instruction. More importantly, Kim finds that those petty bureaucrats played a pivotal role. In other words, Kim provided the historical case studies that  “immodest interventions into society emerged from the activities of modest administrative actors” (p. 216). Kim’s reflection on the prohibition of opium provides an opportunity for scholars in colonial history and the modern state to rethink the historical connection between colonial and contemporary periods.

1 I. Copland / M.R. Godley, Revenue Farming in Comparative Perspective: Reflections on Taxation, Social Structure and Development in the Early-Modern Period, in: J. Butcher / H. Dick (ed.), The Rise and Fall of Revenue Farming, Hampshire 1993.
2 Choy and Sugimoto quantify the welfare ratio of opium consumers for both skilled and unskilled labour. This study found that lighter smokers who were unskilled and consumed three hoons per day could not escape the poverty trap starting from the early 1920s, see: K. M. See Choy / I. Sugimoto, Opium Consumption in Singapore,1900-39, Discussion Paper, Faculty of Economics, Soka University 2020, URL:
3 Kim’s study does not provide case studies on Netherlands East Indies under Dutch colonial rule and Siam as a sovereign state. So, it is important to include these two entities in the research.

Editors Information
Published on
Temporal Classification
Regional Classification
Book Services
Contents and Reviews
Additional Informations
Language of publication
Language of review