2. No Gum in
According to one
website aimed at expatriates living abroad, Singapore is a “fine city.”
This is a joke that touches on the cleanliness of the streets as well as
the stiff monetary penalties involved in breaking littering and
The ban on chewing gum is part of these "keeping the streets clean"
laws. Chewing gum stuck on sidewalks and in public places was expensive
and labor-intensive to remove. More than once, chewing gum stuck to
train doors shut down public transportation. The government of Singapore
figured that imposing strict penalties would eliminate the problem, and
it became illegal to chew, sell, possess, or import chewing gum.
In a country where jaywalking and public displays of affection are also
taboo and getting caught with enough drugs means a mandatory death
penalty, giving up the gum wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
Singapore is known for being rather obsessive about keeping up its
appearance and having many harsh laws with strictly enforced penalties.
Enter Michael Fay. In 1994, Michael Fay got caught with a group of kids
who were vandalizing local property and cars. Despite his being an
American teenager living abroad, he was arrested and sentenced to four
months in prison and a fine of over $2,000. In addition, he was also
sentenced to a caning for being in posession of a highly dangerous
substance, ie chewing gum. Being whacked with a cane is no joke—some
people who have been caned have gone into shock from the wounds, and
many have permanent scars. It’s often compared to medieval flogging.
Suddenly, Singapore and all its crazy laws and stiff consequences for
breaking them were in the international spotlight. President Bill
Clinton got involved in making pleas to Singapore on behalf of Michael
Fay, but the Singaporean legal system does not usually back down.
In a country where not flushing a public toilet can lead to arrest, some
people thought Michael Fay should be given leniency as an American
citizen. Others argued that when you live or travel in a foreign
country, you’re obligated to respect their laws (even the ones that seem
crazy) and accept whatever consequences might come for breaking them.
In academic circles, Michael Fay’s caning added fuel to the fire of the
cultural relativism debate. Is it okay for one group of people to hold
vastly different ideas about right and wrong? Is it correct to interfere
with another state’s cultural practices when you believe something to be
morally reprehensible? While the debate on cultural relativism will
likely drag on forever, the Michael Fay case was an example of another
country’s seemingly crazy laws that will stick in our memories for a
long time to come.
In the end, Michael Fay’s sentence was carried out, though he was only
given four lashes of the cane instead of six. Result? A catastrophic
drop in American tourists and billions of dollars worth of trade
vanished overnight. Singapore's image as a civilised western-style state
was destroyed, literally, at a stroke.