By Melanie Lee

SINGAPORE, Dec 10 (Reuters) – It is Friday night. Ling, a bank analyst in Armani heels, pops a small, blue pill into her mouth and dances to the thumping beat. Later she heads to a house party with her friends where they snort cocaine off tabletops.

Singapore’s party drug scene used to be the domain of high-flying foreign bankers and other expatriates who would take ecstasy and snort cocaine in defiance of the city state’s drug laws which, with a mandatory death sentence for drug trafficking, are among the toughest in the world. But these days, the drug scene for foreigners is not as pronounced as among well-to-do locals in a country which has the world’s fastest-growing number of high net worth individuals, totalling some 67,000 in 2006.

And fast cars and fancy clothes are not the only things young, hip and rich Singaporeans want to buy.

“In general, you go for ‘trippy’ drugs, drugs that make you feel good as well as make you dance harder,” said a student from a wealthy family, who declined to be identified.

With one gram of methamphetamine costing S$300, it is an expensive habit that not everyone can feed.

Singaporean authorities say drug use is low, but anecdotal evidence tells of the emergence of an underground party drug scene mostly at night clubs frequented by the wealthy.

Singapore is Asia’s second-richest country, with a 2006 GDP per capita of $29,000, on a par with Italy and Spain. The booming economy, driven by manufacturing and financial services, has made the city-state a playground for the rich.

And with money to throw around, some of these rich Singaporeans are spending it on drugs smuggled from neighbouring Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

They are taking a big risk.

In Singapore, anyone caught carrying more than 15 grams of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine, 500 grams of cannabis or 250 grams of methamphetamines faces a mandatory death sentence by hanging.

Penalties for consumption are also strict, including up to 10 years in jail, a S$20,000 fine, or both.

“There are definitely a lot of people doing drugs in the party scene, but it doesn’t get reported because there’s no way to really catch them since the circle is closed,” said bank analyst Ling, who would only give her first name.

Drugs and Gangs

With its borders closely monitored by vigilant authorities, it is not clear how drugs enter Singapore. But former gang members say some drugs are brought in on row boats from nearby Indonesian islands, or are smuggled along the causeway separating Singapore from Malaysia.

“Don’t think it’s elaborate trucks with hidden compartments – sometimes the drugs are just in a motorcycle front basket and driven through,” said Jonathan, who spent 7 years as a gang member before entering a drug rehabilitation program.

According to Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) figures, 1,127 drug users were arrested in 2006 compared to 793 in 2005. Forty-nine percent of those arrested took drugs such as ecstasy, ketamine and Nimetazepam.

In 2004, the CNB carried out a raid which exposed a glitzy underground drug scene. The cocaine drug bust saw 23 people arrested, including the former editor of high-society magazine Singapore Tatler, an award-winning French chef and an oil broker.

Three of those arrested jumped bail and left the country. They are still wanted by the Singapore police and Interpol. Nigel Simmonds, the editor of Singapore Tatler, was jailed for two years.

“Every couple of years, they (the police) go out and get people so everyone is way too scared to do drugs,” said a British lawyer, who declined to be named. “The drugs of choice here (for foreigners) really are women and alcohol.”

The city-state, which executed two Africans and an Australian in recent years, has faced pressure from rights groups and governments to end its mandatory death penalty for drug smuggling.

Singapore defends its position by saying it needs tough laws to deter drug traffickers. But some believe the death penalty is ineffective as a deterrence against drug smuggling.

“When you hang a drug courier, you are only killing the small fry. The kingpins are the ones you don’t see,” said Sinapan Samydorai of rights group Think Centre.

According to Amnesty International, about 400 people have been sentenced to death in Singapore since 1991, most of them for drug trafficking. This gives Singapore the highest execution rate per capita in the world, the human-rights group said.

But tough laws are still not enough to stop some drug users. “It’s the same as having unprotected sex. You do it because it feels better. But if you get caught it’s the worst high ever,” said the wealthy student who declined to be named.

(Additional reporting by Annika Breidthardt; editing by Neil Chatterjee and Megan Goldin)