“If you can’t think because you can’t chew try a banana”
Lee Kuan Yew uttered these memorable words during an interview with a BBC reporter in June 2000. He was referring to a ban on chewing gum in Singapore – a ruling implemented by the Government in 1992.
It might sound far-fetched, after all, you could argue there are many substances that pose a threat, such as drugs, alcohol, cigarettes – but chewing gum? Why would a government outlaw such an innocuous item? To understand the ban, we need to find out more about Singapore, it’s inhabitants, its government and Lee Juan Yew (LKY), the man who governed the country for three decades.
A Fastidious Founding Father
Born to third-generation Chinese immigrants on 16th September 1923, LKY was often referred to as Harry Lee during his younger years. Little did his family know that he would go on to become a long-serving prime minister and would be regarded as Singapore’s founding father.
LKY had big plans for Singapore, keen to transform the city-state from a third-world region to a first-world haven – and he succeeded. Once a land of limited resources, Singapore is now considered an international trade giant. But, aside from his determination and grit to make sure Singapore joined the global stage, LKY also had other fish to fry. A man of principle and virtue, he longed for a clean and tidy place to live, inhabited by well-behaved and respectful citizens.
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A Quest for Perfection
Over the years, Singapore has introduced regulations to create a cleaner, greener land. Laws were brought into force to prohibit littering, graffiti, spitting, jaywalking, and even ejecting mucus from the nostrils. There are even rules around urinating. Citizens can pee in a toilet (flushing obligatory), but nowhere else – definitely no public piddling!
Why Ban Chewing Gum?
The first rumblings of discontent regarding chewing gum began back in the 1980’s, when Ministers of National Development complained that carelessly discarded gum was costing thousands to clear up. Gum was stuck to pavements, elevator buttons and other annoying places, and was proving to be unsightly and hazardous. LKY implemented restrictions such as fines for littering and a veto on gum advertisements, in a bid to reduce the problem.
Unfortunately, the sticky issue continued, coming to a head in 1987 when mucky Singapore citizens began sticking gum onto train doors. The government were incensed, they had spent around $5 billion revolutionizing the Mass Rapid Transit system, only to find chewing gum jammed into door sensors – causing malfunctions and lengthy transport delays.
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The Big Ban – 1992
Despite whisperings surrounding a ban, chewing gum wasn’t actually outlawed in Singapore until 1992. Tired of the clean-up bill and inconvenience, the government decided enough was enough, bringing into force a ban on chewing gum.
By this time LKY was no longer at the helm, however, he was still a senior minister, and exerted a great deal of power over parliamentary issues. However, it fell to president Goh Chok Tong to impose the restrictions, and many came out in force to oppose him.
Some felt a total ban to be too punitive, and considered the embargo to be an infringement of their rights. Others agreed with the government – especially cleaning staff tired of spending countless hours scraping gum from rails and paths.
The ban covered the prohibition of the import, sale and production of chewing gum. The government did allow vendors to sell off whatever gum they had left, and people began chewing their way through the remaining stock. But, following on from this gum was to be no more.
Penalties were in line with the countries littering law forfeits, ranging from $500 – $1000 for first-time wrongdoers and up to $2000 for those caught lawbreaking more than once. Those who continuously flouted the law were often issued with Corrective Work Orders (CWO).
Offenders were publicly chastised by being made to don bright jackets and clean public areas, their shame made worse by the media – who were often invited to film and photograph corrective work in progress. Suddenly gum chewing became a much less attractive past-time!
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A Lucrative Black Market
As with many banned items, smugglers were quick to pick up the slack. They figured that there would be a lucrative black market for gum, and set about transporting it from nearby Malaysia and Johur Bahru. Officials were quick to act, publicly defaming those who tried to smuggle chewing gum into Singapore.
Tourists and those traveling into Singapore were not exempt from the prohibition either. There were serious consequences should you try and sneak large quantities of gum into Singapore, or try and profit from the sale of gum. Those caught trying to “smuggle” substantial amounts into the country would be dealt with severely, potentially facing huge $100,000 fines, or even running the risk of being placed behind bars for up to two years.
The Chewing Gum Laws Are Relaxed
Today, the law surrounding chewing gum is more relaxed. In 2004 the Singapore free trade agreement came into force and gum started to make a reappearance. The government conceded that dental, sugar-free and nicotine gum would be made available via pharmacies and dentists.
However, if you do chew gum, the Government still insist you must do so responsibly! If you choose to spit out your gum or stick it to something you shouldn’t, then you are, for all intents and purposes, littering.
As we’ve already established – this is hugely frowned upon in Singapore! If you have the audacity to do and are caught, you can expect to be punished and will be required to pay a fine.
To Chew or Not to Chew?
Even though the gum chewing laws are more lenient, gum hasn’t been welcomed back with open arms. Many are now used to a gum-free life and embrace the cleanliness of Singapore with gusto.
Ask those who live in Singapore and many will tell you that they prefer to make their way about the country without having to worry about the inconvenience and mess of gum getting stuck to their hand or shoe. Fortunately, this sticky problem is no longer an issue in Singapore.
Gin lover. Coffee addict. Nicola has traveled the world for 7 years and is a staff writer for Hotel Jules. Born in London, Nicola first got the taste of travel studying abroad in Barcelona. Since then she's been hooked - traveling the world non-stop. Passionate about green travel and vegan lifestyle, Nicola spends more of her free time staring at maps wondering where she will head to next!