Friday 12th March 2010

Singapore myths dispelled- part two

Last week I started on my two-part information share tirade about people’s preconceptions of Singapore and what it is really like to live here. Today I will continue in much the same vein; telling all my friends and family that all the valuable advice they took the time to offer me in the run up to my move here was completely wrong. Thanks for nothing.

A couple of weeks ago I was completing a writing project for a man in the United States and during a phone conversation about his business requirements he asked me, “What’s Singapore like? Is it really Disney with a death penalty?”

“Of course” I replied, “that’s why we love it so much.”

So is it?

Here are some of the common myths about the rules and regulations here:

Chewing gum in Singapore is illegal-

Like many people, I thought that chewing gum was illegal in Singapore, and that you could be fined if caught with it in public. I was very shocked therefore when—on my first day viewing apartments in the city—an estate agent offered me a piece of Orbit. Although I was initially concerned that this was all part of a covert sting operation aimed at identifying expat renegades at the earliest opportunity, my need to live life on the edge got the better of me and I accepted. Do you know what? Nothing happened. Nothing! No sirens sounded, no SWAT team arrived pointing guns in my face and no film crew arrived to document the latest expat downfall. In fact, no one even so much as gave me a sideways glance. I was a little disappointed and briefly wondered what would happen if I spat it out on the floor, but even I don’t like to live that dangerously.

Now this in one of those Singapore things—like the bomb shelters—that truly puzzles me. Not many people know this, but the official line when it comes to that stick of Wrigleys is that it is perfectly legal to chew gum in Singapore. Whaaaattt? Yes indeedy, it’s legal here… apparently.

Now here comes the hard part… buying it. Let’s put it this way, it would be easier for me to reverse-engineer the Hadran Collider than it would be to get my hands on the stuff. You see, while it is legal to chew it, it is technically illegal to "bring or cause to be brought into Singapore (chewing gum) by land, water or air from any place which is outside Singapore...” What’s more, the only chewing gum that can be sold here is required to have a “therapeutic value”.

The lack of chewing gum in my life has been quite a serious issue for me since I arrived in Singapore so last week I was delighted when a friend informed me that you could actually buy it at a chemist. They were right, chewing-gum utopia was right there all along. I was so delighted that I grabbed five packets of the stuff—just in case the government changed their minds and I would never again get the opportunity to arrogantly chew gum with my mouth wide open again. However, when I got to the counter it suddenly became obvious that it wasn’t going to be quite as straightforward as I had hoped. The pharmacist pulled out a big book and I was asked to complete a form giving details of my name, my identity card number and the quantity of each flavor and type of gum I had purchased. Suddenly buying five packets didn’t seem such a good idea anymore. When I returned home I told my husband about this and got the usual insightful response, “Gees Sarah, if they find some gum stuck on the pavement or stuck under a bus seat yours is the first door they're going to be knocking on!” At the time I laughed heartily along with him, but since he said that I have lost quite a lot of sleep secretly wondering if that might be true.

So, chewing gum is illegal in Singapore = myth (depending upon where you got it from). In any case, I don't believe that you can go to jail for any offense related to gum (unless you kill someone with it).

Singapore is crime free-

Let’s get one thing straight. There is no city on earth that is crime free. Where there are people, there’s crime. So no, Singapore is not crime free. On paper it does seem to have a lower crime rate on average, but since arriving here I have heard more about crimes happening to people I know than I ever did in Hong Kong. In the six degrees of separation thing I am definitely averaging two degrees; a friend of a friend’s maid was murdered, two joggers were stabbed and—never one to miss out on the action—my husband’s wallet was stolen; “That would never have happened in Hong Kong,” he repeatedly tells me.

Now, the incident with my husband’s wallet was a bit of an eye-opener and has led to the development of our own little conspiracy theory. When my husband visited the police station to report said crime he was asked if he actually saw it happen. Alarm bells started ringing straight away... of course he didn’t see it happen. Who in their right mind would stand idly observing someone stealing their wallet like it was some kind of sideshow entertainment put on especially for you?

Apparently, we were told, if you didn’t see it happen then it technically can’t be recorded as stolen because it may just have been lost and, in the presence of any doubt, the Singapore police opt for “lost”. Okay, so if my car disappears from the underground car park while I sleep, it is lost?! Anyway, that’s all I will say on that matter for risk of being deported faster than Gary Glitter arriving on a Virgin Atlantic flight in Orlando.

Singapore has a low crime rate= fact (ahem).

Singapore is crime free= myth.

Singapore is a FINE city

Most people, when they think about visiting a park, imagine a pleasant afternoon that involves a relaxing walk followed by a snooze in the midday sun. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT. In Singapore, sleeping on a park bench is actually an offence! There is a story that does the rounds about a bus driver who, unaware of this, dozed off on a bench while seeking shelter from the rain. He was severely reprimanded for his 15 minute nap and was fined SG$200 (approximately $144 USD). There are many similar stories in circulation but it is clear that Singapore is definitely not as bad as it used to be…

Many years ago bar top dancing was banned. On face value that doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue, I’m sure many other countries ban such activities. However, it gets weird when you listen to the justification for the ban as given by a Singaporean government minister:

“If you want to dance, some of us will fall off that bar-top. Some people will die as a result of liberalizing bar-top dancing, not just because they have fallen off the bar-top. Because usually a young girl, with a short skirt, dancing on a bar-top, may attract some insults from some other men, and the boyfriend starts fighting. Some people will die. Blood will be shed for liberalizing this policy."

Today bar top dancing is legal in Singapore once again, so if you really feel compelled to test how close to a nasty death you can go, forget BASE jumping, Heli-skiing or cave diving... go and see a bar top dancer in Singapore.

As with a lot of the rumors about Singapore, the concept of it being a place where people are continually bombarded with fines is slightly unfair. Just as you could get fined for walking across the street on a pedestrian red light, eating on the public transport network or smoking in certain public places in Singapore, so you can in Hong Kong, London and Japan.

Singapore is a FINE city= True-ish. When it comes to fines here the reality is that you CAN be fined, but probably won’t. You can do anything… just don’t get caught.

I’ll maybe cover the death penalty stuff another day as I have surprised even myself with how much I can go on about the Singapore myths. The truth is that the only rule I am struggling to cope with is the alcohol taxation—that isn’t a myth and the cost of drinks here is certainly a serious issue!

Do you have a comment about this article, a further question or even a correction? If so please do let us know.
We may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all comments will be published, please be nice!