Yawning Bread. January 2007

We are all collaborators now




"Why isn't the police enforcing the smoking ban?" ask quite a few Singaporeans, particularly with respect to our coffee shops and hawker centres.  

The Straits Times' Stomp portal said they have received "more than 30 e-mail, MMS and SMS messages from irate coffeeshop and hawker centre patrons" [1]. There have even been pictures of "smokers caught lighting up right next to 'No Smoking' signs," said the report. [2]

In response, the National Environment Agency (NEA) told the Straits Times that they have "taken enforcement action" against 335 offenders since the smoking ban on coffee shops and hawker centres went into effect in July 2006.

(You'll notice that it's not the police, but the NEA which seems to be responsible for the matter. Does this mean that if policemen see people smoking in 'no smoking' areas, they will ignore the flouting of the law?)

Under the new rules, proprietors can set aside only 20% of their outdoor dining area (and no part of the indoor area) as a smoking zone. The area is either marked with a line drawn on the floor, or the tables within the area are marked "Smoking". If anyone is caught smoking outside the permitted area, both the offender and the proprietor risk prosecution.

And that's where the trick lies.

You see, it is unlikely that the authorities would have put aside any manpower or time to enforce the smoking ban. Certainly, no one that I know has seen any specific police or NEA patrols in this regard. At most, it may be an incidental catch when the agency's officers go about their normal rounds -- which I have never seen. I don't even know what NEA officers look like (Do they wear uniforms?). 


"Coffee shop" in Singapore means a cheap eating place with a master proprietor who sublets parts of his shop to food vendors.

"Hawker centre" is a similarly cheap eating place it looks like a big shed where the master proprietor is often a government agency.


What the government is relying upon is for the private proprietor to enforce the ban within his own premises, which accounts for the fact that the law penalises the proprietor as much as the smoker.

In a sense, this is completely reasonable. As taxpayers, we would hardly want the cost of an expanded police force if we can avoid it.

Many precedents

Relying on proprietors is a solution that follows many precedents. When the government wanted to make it harder for migrant workers to overstay their visas, they passed a law making landlords responsible for checking the immigration status of their tenants, the aim being to deny illegal migrants accommodation. If an overstayer is caught and on interrogation reveals where he has been staying, the landlord is liable for a jail sentence for "harbouring" him. If I remember correctly, soon after the law was passed, a old granny was sent to jail because she had leased her flat to an overstayer. Her plea that she wasn't familiar with things like work permits nor could she read English was ruled irrelevant.

Another example would be the onus placed on webmasters to police the chatrooms, forums and comment trails of their websites. While the government does have a small crew that trawls through the internet for what they deem as offensive content, mostly they depend on complaints from the public. If any posting has breached any of our numerous laws that proscribe racial and religious hate speech, sexual language and images, defamation (very low threshold here when it comes to political leaders' egos) or "election advertising", then unless the webmaster has taken prompt action to remove such postings, he will be just as guilty as the original offender. If the offender is anonymous and untraceable, then the webmaster alone will have to face the music.

Of course, this is not unique to Singapore. Many other countries rely on similar mechanisms of getting the proprietors to police their own turf, and holding them accountable under the law. Nor is it unreasonable.

However, what we should be watchful about is the abuse of this mechanism that arises from Singapore's democratic deficit. While the ban on smoking is well-justified in the public health interest, what if other laws serve partisan or illiberal purposes? Private citizens would then be compelled by law to act as agents for these aims.

Compelled to serve the government's interest

I mentioned "election advertising" above. This is the law that forbids anyone from using the internet to promote any candidate or political party during an election campaign [3]. Singaporeans know full well that while the law may in theory be party-neutral, in practice, it favours the incumbent People's Action Party. Since all our mainstream media are government-controlled, barring the digital media from being a channel for opposing views handicaps the opposition. Thus, when webmasters are expected to implement the law, the government is, in an indirect way, making party helpers of us all.


How it's supposed to work in a hawker centre when the proprietor is a government agency, and who is physically absent from the place itself, is a mystery to me. Who in a hawker centre is responsible for asking the smoker who smokes outside the marked zone, to either stop or move?


I also mentioned the possibility of laws serving illiberal purposes. One example would be how all employers of foreign domestic workers have to put up a S$5,000 bond. If the maid gets pregnant, the employer must seek to cancel her work permit immediately and ensure that she is deported, otherwise the bond is forfeited. Even if the maid has run away, the onus is on the employer to find her (bounty hunters, anyone?) and deport her. The effect of this, as others have noted, is to cause employers to get intrusive about the private lives of their employees even if some of us consider it distasteful to do so.

Another example would be with respect to speech critical of religions, which the controversy over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons in 2006 highlighted. All liberal democracies stood by the principle of free speech. While some governments expressed the view that publishing those cartoons a mix of serious criticism and taunt might have been unwise, they nevertheless respected the right of commentators to express their opinion, and editors to make their own decision.

Singapore on the other hand, made it quite clear, through the prior example of the "racist bloggers" [4] that such speech might very well be criminal. But what if there is a serious point to be made about the social and political dangers of present-day uses of Islam, or any other religion for that matter? Are webmasters supposed to act as agents of the government in silencing such criticism, even provocative ones, hence molly-coddling various religious agenda? [5]

The use of laws that shift responsibility for enforcement to private citizens for legitimate purposes is not in itself an objectionable solution, but if left unchecked, governments may attempt to use similar mechanisms for illegitimate aims. In countries where there is a healthy respect for civil rights, where there are effective ways to bring governments to court for infringement of rights and a robust political debate, the risk of them getting away with it is lower. However, we in Singapore have a democratic deficit, and by that term, I mean more than just the lack of truly free and fair elections; it includes the attenuated condition of many supporting institutions essential to a mature liberal democracy.

The absence of checks results in a tendency to reach for a fix every time we see a problem without genuinely thinking about issues of fairness and freedom, and sometimes without even asking whether the "problem" is a partisan or public interest one. Opportunities for dissent are few. And when private citizens get roped in to be part of the fix, what are we but, willingly or unwillingly, collaborators?

Slippery slope

This illustrates a well-known axiom: that totalitarianism destroys our sense of humanity. People end up, whether for reward or self-preservation, as tools and agents of the state, doing things they might not, in good conscience, want to do, or equally often, refraining from doing what they rightfully feel they ought to do. 

Singapore, of course, is not a totalitarian state; we're better termed as a soft-authoritarian one (though for those at the receiving end of the authoritarianism, it's by no means soft). Nonetheless, the significant feature which we should all be mindful of, is that the very fact that we're a soft-authoritarian state means that the gates to the slippery slope are open. We are one step down that slope and we don't have a lot of grappling hooks, in the form of a fiercely independent judiciary, a free press or an alternative government in the wings, to pull ourselves back up.

If we couldn't stop the blatantly partisan creation of Group Representation Constituencies by law, if we couldn't stop the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and the Broadcasting Act that put all print and broadcast media under the thumb of the government -- and foreign media too [6]  -- what's to stop another law another day to make censors, informers and enforcers of us all? 

Yawning Bread 


Telling on your neighbours

An extreme example would be in totalitarian countries where citizens are obliged by law to inform on or discriminate against other citizens.

For example, neighbours may be required to report on couples who have more than one child, or employers required to deny women jobs involving the late-night shift -- on the grounds that it is immoral for women to be out alone at night.



  1. Straits Times, 29 Dec 2006, ' 335 fined since smoking ban started in eateries'
    Return to where you left off

  2. Yawning Bread has seen such incidents too, but each time, I didn't have my camera with me. I could have taken a picture with my cellphone, except that it only has a very wide-angle lens. I'd have to walk right up to the offender to snap his picture, and that might have led to a brawl.
    Return to where you left off

  3. See the articles Blogging during elections, Blogging during elections 2, and Blogging during elections 3
    Return to where you left off

  4. See the article The Sedition Act
    Return to where you left off

  5. I mentioned an example of how some people use the cover of religion to target gays and lesbians with their hate campaigns - such speech would not be criminal in Singapore. But if gays and lesbians reply with forceful criticism, and similar tactics of placards, leaflets and demonstrations against religious groups, they may well be prosecuted under the law. See the article Hate speech law badly drafted.
    Return to where you left off

  6. See the article Singapore government takes hostages from foreign press
    Return to where you left off