The illegal legal guide to “rules” in Singapore
Welcome to the most expensive city in the world. Now run for your life if you’re thinking of doing something illegal, for you will either be fined, or judged to death from looks of disapproval by onlookers. We are labeled as “The Fine City” for the very laws that keep Singapore clean and disney perfect. Just how many of these laws are there and what is this whole thing about?
I’ve noticed that every time I mention that I’m from Singapore to travelers on the road, the most commonly asked questions are the same ones. “Is it true that you get executed for drugs? “You can’t do this right? Is everyone really uptight?”
No, Singaporeans are not uptight robots, even if majority of the people do live in fear of doing the wrong things and it’s been a norm growing up in such a strange land where dictator ‘rules’ or instructions are found on every other surface.
If you’re a traveler coming to Singapore, or simply passing through to get somewhere else, here is a list of things you should take note of:
1 CONTRABAND CIGARETTES
Under Singapore laws, arriving travelers need to pay taxes to bring in cigarettes or other tobacco products, liquor products or other taxable goods exceeding the duty-free concession and Goods and Services Tax (GST) relief. Even an open pack of cigarettes is not allowed. Every single stick of cigarette is marked with SDPC marking (which stands for Singapore Duty Paid Cigarette) to differentiate between contraband and Singapore cigarettes.
Why: An increase in the percentage of smokers in the country has caused a higher tax on tobacco in an attempt to urge smokers to quit. How effective this is? Extremely debatable. Yet the tax keeps going up yearly and the percentage of smokers doesn’t decrease much at all. In fact it’s actually possible to witness old men scavenging the ground for cigarette buds that still have a couple of puffs.
The Risk: If caught, failure to declare cigarettes will cost you a fine is $200 per packet per 20 sticks. That’s $10 per stick!
Tip: Many people are unaware of this but no one is going to remind you to throw your cigarettes before leaving customs. It could be your lucky day should you choose not declare your tobacco and go scott free.
2 CHEWING GUM
No chewing gum is allowed to be brought or sold inside Singapore, it is illegal, no matter how much or for what purpose. The only exception is nicotine gum for medical purposes.
Why: You know that black circular stain seen on pavements and buses? Nothing says memories like dried gum stuck onto a surface that’s possibly never going to scraped off for months or years. One of the reasons why Singapore is spotless to the point where it’s probably OK to eat off the floor in malls is because the government decided to ban gum in 1992 after people wouldn’t stop sticking their gum on train doors.
The Risk: Confiscation. Not that big of a deal, let’s just see it as doing charity for the poor guy working at the customs who has to look at ALL that gum he is NEVER allowed to chew. Or does he….
Tip: Enforcement isn’t that tough on gum, maybe except the Singapore customs at Johor Bahru Causeway. Nothing is going to happen to you should you have a packet of gum. But if you are bringing in boxes, be prepared to be pulled aside. Your passport will get blacklisted, particulars taken down, and your gum… destroyed.
3 DRINKING ALCOHOL IN PUBLIC BANNED AFTER 1030PM
This newly implemented rule is the mother of all party poopers. Unlike the rules in US, there’s no need to disguise a can of beer in a brown paper bag while drinking in public here. With such high taxes on alcohol, it’s always been a luxury to be able to drink in public at an affordable price (when purchased from a convenience store). Unfortunately, it seems the rule makers of the land enjoy taking candy away from children. Thus we now have a curfew for drinking, making it illegal to enjoy booze outside of a drinking establishment.
Why: Popular drinking spots such as ‘The Bridge” at Clarke quay is possibly one of the more interesting spots in Singapore to go to meet other happy drinking folks. But with popularity comes jealousy. Residents who complained about the noise level and littering at these watering holes are finally heard after months, years, or a lifetime of sleepless nights and tripping over beer bottles. And the rule makers have now deemed every person who drinks alcohol after 1030pm to be a complete nuisance, because these people are apparently lightweights anytime after happy hours.
The Risk: oh look, yet another fine. This one might make it to the top of my hall of shame for fines, because they’re charging $1000 and repeat offenders may be jailed for up to three months.
Tip: There is no hope. Cower in fear while secretly drinking after 10:30pm and run for your life when somebody approaches you to borrow a light. They’re definitely officials in disguise. TRUST NOBODY EXCEPT THE DRINK IN YOUR HAND. BECAUSE NOBODY CAN AFFORD AN INNOCENT $1000 DRINK.
4. ELECTRONIC CIGARETTES
E-cigarettes was originally marketed as a safer alternative to conventional cigarette smoking and as a way to quit smoking. One day it was allowed, the next it was banned. Just like a temperamental woman on menopause with her mood swings.
Why: Apparently science could not demonstrate the effectiveness of e-cigarettes in helping smokers quit tobacco use. The health people of the land then became concerned that e-ciggs “could potentially be a gateway to developing a smoking habit, particularly among the young”. How thoughtful of them to think of the next generation.
The risk: Tres Low. Ain’t nobody got time to be bothered by small problems. Ain’t nobody.
Tips: E cigarettes are somehow available if you hunt down all the alleys and talk to shady people with good deals. Just don’t smoke it on a bus or right in front of a cop, who probably wouldn’t know what to do if he saw it happening anyway.
Dun dun dun~ the one thing people fear so much. It’s like speaking of Voldemort’s name in Hogwarts. Drugs are bad for you, period. Drugs are illegal almost everywhere in the world but to what extent? Singapore sentences people to death not just for smugglers or dealers, but also for possession. That’s why it costs so much, that’s why it’s a taboo subject that people are extremely hush about. That’s why the people here go to places like Amsterdam or Indonesia to blow, puff and snort their minds out of control thinking it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever done. That’s why some people OD because they’re so overwhelmed by something that’s usually forbidden.
Why: As mentioned before, drugs are bad for you, period. And as for the death sentence, no exceptions have been made by far. Not even to silly travelers that “forget” to dump their stash of recreational hash. Why? To send a message to the rest who even think about trying.
The Risk: The death penalty is very real and it’s silly to put your head on the line just to get high or stoned. Arriving on the flight in, there are announcements and warnings on immigration cards that constantly remind people about just how strict it is to bring drugs into Singapore. Saying “i didn’t know” is not going to cut it if you’re caught in possession. IMHO it’s just not worth it. But for the curious and the persistent, heed this only advice – Venture into the chamber of secrets and thou shalt find a basilisk.
Ahh, that all familiar fruityÂ scent. Too bad. Shisha’s been banned since November 2014. Although existing importers and sellers of the tobacco can continue their business until July 31, 2016 to deplete their resources. The charm of Arab Street is slowly withering away and i guess the Turkish people wouldn’t be delighted. I see you right there G, attempting to nano manage every little aspect of our lives.
Why: Health experts warned that a single session of smoking shisha is equivalent to smoking 200 cigarettes. Can you imagine all that money you will save on your nicotine intake if you smoke shisha though…
The Risk: Be ready to be convicted to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or imprisonment not exceeding 6 months or to both in the case of bringing in shisha sets, distributing it or selling shisha tobacco.
Tips: Do not attempt to bring shisha sets into Singapore or be prepared to let it be confiscated. If you own a shisha set and live in Singapore, do note the actual banning of shisha smoking is from July 2016 onwards. Smoke in the comfort of your own home and close yo’ windows, close yo’ doors, hide yo’ keys. You will never know if your neighbour is gonna tattle on you.
I knew a friend who had to go to court for leaving behind beer bottles behind after drinking. And it is very common to be damned to hell for flicking/tossing a cigarette bud. Littering is a big no-no in Singapore. Trash cans are practically everywhere, there is no excuse to say that you couldn’t find a place to dump your rubbish
The risk: Minor things aren’t as “serious” as tossing cigarette buds. That’s mostly the most “feared” kind of littering in Singapore amongst locals. If caught, hefty fines and warnings eventually leads to CWO (Community Work Order), where offenders get to wear this extremely fashionable neon vest and help clean up neighbourhoods. Trendy and environmental friendly! Captain Planet must be behind this vigilant act in 1992, when it was first implemented in a successful attempt to shame litterbugs. Fast forward 23 years to today where most people have no shame, the effectiveness of shaming by CWO is highly questionable.
Tips: The NEA officials that catch people for littering usually dresses in civilian clothing. If anyone looks sketchy while loitering around, think twice before you litter. And as a tourist on a short stay, you’re not going to commit the same offence 3 times to join the Planeteers. I wouldn’t fret it, but if there is a bin, I see no reason to litter. This ain’t India where locating trashcans are as rare as spotting a Yeti.
Jaywalking is something that everyone is guilty of. But to make a point on how strict Singapore is, the law makes sure people don’t forget that by making jaywalking a crime.
Why: to lower the risk of road accidents caused by reckless pedestrians or motorists. And also probably because making detours just to cross the street using a traffic light or overhead bridge urges one to walk more and is good for your health.
The risk: It doesn’t happen very often but should you be the unlucky one, this crime of laziness and impatience only costs you $20. Why, that’s only the price of a cocktail! Great value, only in Singapore!
Tips: Honestly, this hardly ever happens to anyone. IF you threw 10 stones at a crowd in OrchardÂ Road, you might not even hit anybody who has been fined for jaywalking. Much less if you’re a tourist. Pull the “I’m an ignorant tourist” card. It works as well as the “but… I’m just a student” discount trick.
9 SMOKING AREAS
Building on #1, there are designated smoking areas across the island. However, the more the years go by, the smaller these designated areas become. Soon, smokers will have to stand on each other’s shoulders like circus clowns to inhale nicotine legally. There was a time where smoking was allowed in clubs, bars, restaurants, coffeeshops, carparks… Oh wait that’s how it is for most of the world. My apologies. Anyway, its basically illegal to smoke wherever there isn’t a sign that says “smoking area”. The ‘no smoking’ sign in Singapore practically gets around more than sexually transmitted diseases.
So where can you smoke? It’s straightforward. In a smoking room, in an outdoor space that has got bright coloured tape to box smokers in an invisible cage, in the casino, in your own home, in restaurants and KTVs that don’t give a hoot about rules, open air spaces where no “no smoking” signs are plastered on walls, lamp posts, or projected as a hologram.
Why: I believe it’s because second hand smoke kills. Also, concerned citizens and the health people of the land are afraid of air pollution and human extinction. It’s also quite likely that people might quit smoking due to frustration of not being able to find a legal smoking area after a long time. This non-subtle Quit Smoking campaign is definitely in it for the long run.
The risk: if caught, smoking in restricted areas may score you yet another fine to add to your collection. This one is $200, or $1000 if convicted in court. Collect them all and make a unique souvenir, along with a “Singapore is a fine city” T-shirt. Who says you can’t get anything non-touristy as a souvenir in Singapore?
Tips: If you can’t find a smoking area, smoke where there’s a bin outdoors, making sure you’re at least 5 metres away from a bus stop or the entrance to a building/mall, or follow your good sense of smell and look for the same flock of birds.
10 PUBLIC TRANSIT ETIQUETTE
In Japan, talking on phones are unallowed in trains. There’s even a signage for that. In Singapore there are signs for no eating, no drinking, no smoking, no assault of bus captain (lol), no durians, and the long list of icons that have been illustrated for signs goes on and on. Even drinking bottled water was considered a problem at one point. That just did not make sense. What if I was dehydrated and have been commuting for an hour?
Why: Beats me. Probably trying to prove a point that here in Singapore, signs have the ability toÂ dictateÂ people and how humans should behave… or else.
The Risk: All the condescending signs come with a warning of a fine. But really, all you’re going to receive is judgement from other commuters, or the occasional Good Guy telling you to follow the rules… or else.
“Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you” – CCTVs of Singapore
Truth is, like every other country in the world who has rules, the most important rule above all rules is this : Don’t get caught
With countless restrictions, bans and signs that shout out to the world with a big red circle and a slash across, of course people are going to be fined on a daily basis. But there are also 6 million people in Singapore. The probability is not that high.
For those who haven’t been to Singapore, I’m sure an overly creative mind would imagine the country to have police/government officials standing in a line across the whole country, waiting for that moment like a hungry bald eagle when some poor citizen slips up and does something wrong, just to issue a fine. No, just no.
Singapore is clean, the rules may be strict but it moulded the country to the way it is. I do find myself appreciating the fixed prices, and not having to smell trash or poo as I’m walking through the city. And as much of a pain as these rules are, and as difficult as it is for a traveler to understand, it really isn’t that intimidating or scary. The law is the law, but no one is there to make sure that all 6 million of us are behaving.
We hope this list helps prepare travellers coming to Singapore, be it your first time or not. ^_^v