Singapore rules to chew on

It is the one thing you can expect foreigners to know about Singapore. Not that it’s a tiny island-city that experienced perhaps the greatest economic miracle of all time under the authoritarian stewardship of Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March. Not, any more, that the island was the scene of the British Empire’s greatest humiliation, when it was conquered by Japan in 1942. No, the thing everybody knows about Singapore is that they’ll flog you if you drop your chewing gum. Or that chewing gum is banned. Or something. Basically, the country is fastidious as hell.

As usual, the truth is not quite as advertised. Strictly speaking, the possession of chewing gum (and the chewing of it) has never been illegal in Singapore. What was outlawed, in 1992, was its sale or importation. The trigger, apparently, was the havoc that gum could cause on the country’s extremely expensive new underground system – by covering the door sensors or simply making a mess of the seats.

The punishment for illegal gum trafficking was never corporal, but even for a first offence it can include a fine of up to $100 000 (R917 000) and up to two years in prison. (In 2004, a minor exemption was introduced for “chewing gum with therapeutic value” – deemed to include Wrigley’s Orbit – essentially as a favour to the United States, to close a bilateral trade deal.)

The effect of the original ban was immediate. Within a few months, chewing gum more or less disappeared from Singapore. Flattened clots vanished from pavements. Train doors went about their business unimpeded. Indeed, this is probably why the ban so resonates with people. For anybody with at least the occasional authoritarian twinge (which is, I’m guessing, all of us), Singapore offers hope that you can “stamp out” even the mildest forms of antisocial behaviour.

Because gum was not the only target. You can indeed be judicially flogged with a cane, in Singapore, if you are male and under 50. The punishment applies to many crimes, but these potentially include fairly minor matters such as vandalism and – take note – overstaying your visa. 

If convicted, you will be stripped naked in a prison room, strapped across a frame and hit across the buttocks several times with a wet rattan cane not exceeding 1.27cm in diameter. (Let us here pause to note that caning was also practised in Singapore, for many years, by the British.)

All pornography is illegal, naturally, including Playboy. In the past, even Cosmopolitan and Sex and the City were banned. It is illegal to drop litter and to “spit any substance or expel mucus from the nose upon or on to any street or any public place”.

Penalties for a first offence can be as much as $2 000 (R18 340), or $10 000 (R91 700) for doing it three times. In both cases, you may also be forced to clean the streets wearing a green vest. Whether because of its laws, or because of its people, Singapore is by all accounts extremely clean. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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Leo Benedictus
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