Singapore Chewing Gum Ban

chewing by audrey yang

The chewing gum ban in Singapore was enacted in 1992 and revised in 2004 and 2010. It bans the import and sale of chewing gum in Singapore. Since 2004, only chewing gum of therapeutic value is allowed into Singapore following the Singapore–United States Free Trade Agreement. This law was created because people disposed of gum incorrectly by sticking it under places like chairs or tables.

A common misconception among citizens is that personal use of chewing gum is allowed in Singapore. However, according to the set of Regulations, ‘importing’ means to ‘bring or cause to be brought into Singapore by land, water or air from any place which is outside Singapore …’ any goods, even if they are not for purposes of trade. The set of Regulations also does not make any provisions for personal use of quantities to be brought into Singapore. Therefore, bringing chewing gum into Singapore, even small quantities for whatever purpose, is prohibited.

In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew recounted that as early as 1983, when he was still serving as Prime Minister, a proposal for the ban was brought up to him by the then Minister for National Development. Chewing gum was causing serious maintenance problems in high-rise public housing flats, with vandals disposing of spent gum in mailboxes, inside keyholes and even on elevator buttons. Chewing gum left on floors, stairways, and pavements in public areas increased the cost of cleaning and damaged cleaning equipment. Gum stuck on the seats of public buses was also considered a problem. However, Lee thought that a ban would be ‘too drastic’ and did not take action.

In 1987, the S$5 billion metro system, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), began operations. It was then the largest public project ever implemented in Singapore, and expectations were high. One of the champions of the project, Ong Teng Cheong, who later became the first democratically-elected President, declared,’… the MRT will usher in a new phase in Singapore’s development and bring about a better life for all of us.’ It was then reported that vandals had begun sticking chewing gum on the door sensors of MRT trains, preventing the door from functioning properly and causing disruption of train services. Such incidents were rare but costly and culprits were difficult to apprehend. In 1992, Goh Chok Tong, who had just taken over as Prime Minister, decided on a ban.

After the ban was announced, the import of chewing gum was immediately halted. However, a reasonable transition period was given to allow shops to clear their existing stocks. After that, the sale of chewing gum was completely terminated. When first introduced, the ban caused much controversy and some open defiance. Some took the trouble of travelling to neighboring Johor Bahru, Malaysia, to purchase chewing gum. Offenders were publicly ‘named and shamed’ by the government, to serve as a deterrent to other would-be smugglers. No black market for chewing gum in Singapore ever emerged, though some Singaporeans occasionally still manage to smuggle some chewing gum from Johor Bahru for their own consumption. The ban has been partially lifted, as some types of gum are allowable, such as gum chewed for dental health. However, the government refuses to completely lift the ban for the risk of gum littering again.

In the mid 1990s, Singapore’s laws began to receive international press coverage. The U.S. media paid great attention to the case of Michael P. Fay, an American teenager sentenced in 1994 to caning in Singapore for vandalism (spray paint, not chewing gum). They also drew attention to some of Singapore’s other laws, including the ‘mandatory flushing of public toilets’ rule. Confused reporting about these issues has led to worldwide propagation of the myth that the use or importation of chewing gum is itself punishable with caning. In fact, this has never been a caning offence, and the only penalties are fines.

Singapore leaders responded by arguing that, as a sovereign state, Singapore had the right to formulate its own policies based on its own unique political and cultural values. Besides, they argued, these policies would result in greater overall benefits for the country. When a BBC reporter suggested that overly draconian laws would stifle the people’s creativity, Lee Kuan Yew retorted: ‘If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana.’

In 1999, United States President Bill Clinton and Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong agreed to initiate talks between the two countries for a bilateral free trade agreement. The talks later continued under the new administration of President George W. Bush. Details of the closed-door negotiations are unknown, but it became apparent that by the final phase of the negotiation in early 2003, there remained two unrelated issues: the War in Iraq and chewing gum.

The Chicago-based Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company enlisted the help of a Washington, D.C lobbyist and of Illinois Congressman Phil Crane, then-chairman of the United States House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, to get chewing gum on the agenda of the United States-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. This caused a dilemma for the Singapore Government. It recognized the health benefits of certain gums, such as a brand of sugar-free gum that contains calcium lactate to strengthen tooth enamel. Sale of this newly categorized medicinal gum was allowed, provided it was sold by a dentist or pharmacist, who must take down the names of buyers. Soon, the agreement was signed and the ban was revised. ‘They were tough,’ Crane said of the talks. Some found it surprising that Wrigley had fought hard on this battle, given the small size of Singapore’s chewing market. But the company said it was worth it. ‘There’s many examples in our history of things that may have not made short-term financial sense but was the right thing to do in a philosophical or long-term sense,’ said Christopher Perille, Wrigley’s senior director of corporate communications.

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