Singapore is infamous for its extreme punishments against seemingly minor infractions, like gum-chewing and graffiti, and for harsh penalties like caning and mandatory capital punishment for cheating, murder, and rape.If your travel plans hold Singapore on the horizon, be aware that laws there are strictly enforced, and even failing to abide by some of the country’s odd customs could land you in serious trouble.
The State Department urges travellers to remember that they are not exempt from foreign law and the U.S. passport is not a “get out of jail free” card.
Jennifer Polland, an associate editor at Frommer’s who edited Frommer’s Singapore and Malaysia 2011, went on a press trip to Singapore in 2009.
“I didn’t feel like it was a totalitarian state,” she said. “But it was very, very clean to the point it was almost sterile. I knew not to litter but I don’t litter here anyways. If you’re a respectful person and a respectful traveller, you’re not going to run into an issue.”
We’ve compiled a brief guide to the rules you must abide by next time you’re in Singapore.
It is widely thought that gum chewing is illegal in Singapore; however, this is not the case. It is illegal to import or sell gum in the country.
If you bought a pack of gum before your flight and chew it throughout your trip, you shouldn't have any problems. You can also purchase medical or dental gum that you obtain from a pharmacy with a prescription.
The sale of gum was banned in 1992 after gum was used to shut down the SMRT, the country's public transportation system, after it was stuck on the sensor doors and brought the system to a halt.
The punishment for smuggling gum into the country is a year in jail and a $5,500 fine.
Smoking is currently banned in restaurants, cinemas and other indoor public spaces.
Singapore is considering increasing the ban to include parks and other public spaces. The current fine for first time offenders can be as much as $1,000.
There is a mandatory caning policy for vandalism offenses. This applies to writing on public property as well as hanging banners, flags, pamphlets, or displaying anything on existing public property.
According to the U.S. Department of State, these penalties will be applied to foreign nationals, including U.S. citizens. Fines can include up to $2,000, between three to 8 strokes of the cane and up to three years in prison. Women, men over 50 and those with health conditions are exempt from caning.
You can also be arrested for littering, spitting and jaywalking and fined for failure to flush the toilet.
The image to the right shows graffiti of Singapore's most-wanted fugitive, Mas Selamat bin Kastari, now being held indefinitely under Internal Security Act for alleged terror plot.
For some drug offenses, there is mandatory death penalty.
Officials do not distinguish between drugs consumed before entering the country or those taken in Singapore.
The police are able to force both residents and non-residents to submit to random drug testing.
You're not permitted to eat, drink, or breastfeed on the trains. Not even a sip of plain water.
According to the website of the SMRT, the country's transport authority:
Drinking plain water, or any beverage for that matter, is also not permitted because it could spill and wet seats, soil other commuters' belongings or cause them to slip and fall. We want to prevent any accidents and make sure that everyone can enjoy a pleasant ride.
The SMRT is really concerned with your safety.
Unwanted touching, both violent or sexual, falls under the 'Outrage of Modesty' law. Violations of this law can bring up to two years in prison, caning, or a fine.
Oral and anal sex between heterosexuals was just made legal in 2007.
While we're on the topic, avoid public displays of affection in general. And don't touch anyone's head; the head is considered to be sacred.
Censorship of radio, broadcast and other forms of media are strict in Singapore. Human Rights Watch's 2012 report notes that laws require media organisations to renew registration with the government annually, and the government controls circulation of foreign publications that might be critical of the government.
The Internal Security Act and Criminal Law Act allows activists to be detained without trial indefinitely., and, according to a Gallup world poll, Singapore ranks 106th in terms of its citizens feeling safe speaking out against the government.
A few more tips before you head to Singapore:
- Being on time is important
- Handshakes are the traditional form of greeting but traditional Singaporean Malays and Indians might not shake hands of members of the opposite sex; Singaporean Chinese may bow but won't expect this of foreigners
- Gifts may be considered bribes
- Seniority is important--eldest should be greeted first
- Sometimes 'yes' means 'no' or 'maybe,' because Singaporeans want to avoid conflict
- Avoid direct eye contact for long periods; it's considered rude
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