When preparing for my travels to Singapore I encountered the same piece of advice from everyone: DO NOT CHEW GUM. And it's true, every Singaporean is aware of the law and follows it obediently. But I wanted to know...
Why is chewing gum illegal in Singapore?
It has to do with Singapore's history as a new country and an instance where the sticky substance brought the new MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) to a grinding halt. You see, Singapore is a relatively young country and only became independent in 1965 under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew. The country soon became renown for its political stability, economic growth, and harmonious social order (hang in there, we're getting to the gum).
In 1987, as a part of this leap into the future, Singapore invested S$5 billion (CAD$958 million) to build the largest public project ever implemented in the budding country's history. Ong Teng Cheong took the lead on the MRT and pressure was high for it to be perfect.
Enter chewing gum.
It wasn't long before vandalism started causing major delays on the MRT - hooligans were placing gum on the train door sensors, leading to malfunction. According to Singapore's Housing and Development Board, the total cost of these disruptions combined with litter clean up amounted to S$150,000 (CAD$144,000) annually. Although incidents were rare, culprits were difficult to apprehend and bring to justice.
Enough was enough, in January 1992, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong enacted Statute Chapter 57, the Control of Manufacture Act. This effectively banned all import and sale of chewing gum in Singapore. Personally I find this quite interesting, as gum now shared the same laws governing heroin and cocaine. In response to outside criticisms on how taking away chewing gum could negatively harm people's creativity, Lee Kuan Yew had this to say to a BBC reporter:
What if I'm caught chewing gum?
Let's clear a common misconception right now: there is NO death penalty and NO caning for chewing on a piece of gum. Let's be even clearer: it's only punishable to sell or import gum, as nothing in the law prohibits an individual from chewing it (I confirmed this with multiple Singaporeans). For first-time convictions, the penalty for importing/selling can reach upwards of S$100,000 (CAD$96,000), a prison sentence of up to 2 years, or both. Punishment worsens for repeat offenders.
In March 2004, a revision was made allowing chewing gum for therapeutic, medicinal, and dental purposes. From a dental standpoint, using gum to stimulate salivary flow is necessary to reduce caries risk, especially in patients suffering from xerostomia (dry mouth). However, importing and selling of regular gum in Singapore remains illegal.
So if you ever find yourself wondering, "Why can't I chew gum in Singapore?" The answer is simple: to keep the trains running on time.