If you are among the generation that grew up in Singapore in the mid-80s, you can most probably recall a five-year-old you meeting up with your friends at the common playground near your area chewing some gum in your mouth. One or two in the group with a somewhat accelerated learning curve will be chewing on a more fragrant and thicker gum, blowing pinkish-white mini balloons or “bubbles” that will explode in their faces, much to the amusement of the others in the group. The rest of you would then eagerly surround that “Special One” to learn the tricks of the trade, sticking your tongue out with the gum covering the tip of it and trying desperately to blow a bubble and be cool like your friend, who still happen to be giving out free tutorials on how to blow a bubble gum successfully.
The Fateful Day in 1992
However, as everyone was about to find out, the joy of chewing on different flavoured gums and blowing bubbles out of it was short-lived. On January 3rd, 1992, those living in Singapore were hit with the news that the State has enforced a ban on these chomping sticks under the Regulation of Imports and Exports (Chewing Gum) Regulations. This ban, which encompasses all gum products of its various derivations, such as bubble and dental chewing gums, imposes a heavy fine and possible imprisonment for those caught manufacturing, importing or selling chewing gum. So what exactly lead to this drastic implementation by the little red dot?
In his memoirs, the late Lee Kuan Yew has made mentioned that when he was the Prime Minister of Singapore in 1983, a proposal for the ban of chewing gum was already brought forth and presented to him by the then Minister for National Development as the consumption of chewing gum was already causing an environmental nuisance, especially in high-rise public housing apartments, with reports indicating that vandals were regularly disposing spent gums by flicking it into mailboxes and sticking it on lift buttons as well as inside keyholes. Spent gums that are littered all over the island and left lying visibly on pavements, stairways and the seats of public buses meant an increase in the cost of cleaning, maintenance and repair of damaged properties.
The late PM Lee, however, thought that the ban was too harsh and drastic to be implemented then but took soft approaches to control the sale of chewing gums. In the 1980s, the Singapore government began to prohibit the airing of advertisements that encourage the purchase and sale of chewing gums, while school canteens were specifically instructed to stop selling chewing gum to students.
In 1987, Singapore has successfully launched its very own $5 billion local railway system, known to this day as the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT). It was the largest public project ever to be implemented by Singapore, earning the State some well-deserved bragging rights and thrusting them into the regional spotlight. However, things took a sour turn when reports surfaced that vandals had begun doing what they do best — destroying public property by sticking spent gums on the train door sensors of the MRT, causing the doors to malfunction on a number of occasions and setting off severe disruption to train services and cause major inconveniences to its users. Incidents like these were always costly and culprits proved to be difficult to trace and apprehend.
Thus, in January 1992, Goh Chok Tong, who had just taken over the reigns of Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister, decided to impose an immediate ban on the distribution of chewing gum and the restriction was enacted in Singapore Statute Chapter 57, the Control of Manufacture Act, which also governs the control and limitation of certain tobacco and alcohol products.
At the start, there was a divide in public reaction to the chewing gum ban. On one hand, the supporters of the ban, which include the likes of the Consumers Association of Singapore, the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit as well as the public cleaners strongly felt that the ban would help overturn the perennial nuisance these vandalisers bring about and as a result, significantly improve the level of cleanliness in Singapore. On the other hand, critics of the ban made it known that the enforcement was too sudden and harsh, and went on to appeal for the government to consider adopting a more rational approach, such as public education and heavier fines for those who fail to get rid of their spent gums correctly. The ban was also detested by local chewing gum distributors, including supermarkets, convenience stores and provision shops, who all had to ditch their chewing gum stocks at a loss.
The State, however, did not budge from its stance and went full steam ahead with the ban, seeing that public education implemented in the 80s did not seem to yield the desired effects. Over time, the ban overcame its odds and proved to be highly effective in lowering the number of chewing gum litter cases, with a reported average of two cases a day as opposed to 525 before the ban.
With the numbers spiralling down quickly, the government reported huge savings in island-wide cleaning and maintenance costs. In March 2004, the government partially lifted the ban on chewing gum, though it was restricted to those that offer therapeutic benefits, such as nicotine gum and oral dental gum.