Thursday, 10 September 2009

How Chewing Gum Almost Scuttled the Singapore – US Free Trade Agreement

While waiting in line at a 7/11 recently, I overheard a gentleman ask the sales girl where the store keeps its chewing gum.
Misguided souls come in many forms. Some turn to crime, others lead a life of debauchery. Surely no soul is more misguided than he who tries to purchase chewing gum in Singapore?
If Singapore is known for anything internationally, it is for caning American boys called Michael Fay and for banning gum within the confines of this pristine 700 square kilometre island.
It is not important that Singapore is the third most competitive economy in the world nor that its per capita income is higher than most developed nations.
Clean public toilets, outlawing chewing gum and caning vandals define modern Singapore for the rest of the world.
Is it that some authoritarian figure within the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) had an epiphany one day? A vision guiding him to herald Singapore into a New Age defined by the notable absence of that most immoral and wicked substance - gum.  
Let's give Singapore and its meritocratic system a little bit more credit please.
The majority of Singapore's population live in government subsidized housing estates developed by the Housing Development Board (HDB). The routine maintenance and cleaning of these estates is a necessary and costly exercise undertaken by local Town Councils.
Gum first started becoming a visible menace to the public in the 1980s. Chewing gum was stuck on elevator doors, elevator buttons, stuck inside mailboxes and generally contaminating common areas.
Singapore prides itself on being a (almost) litter free and clean environment.
Anyone who has removed gum from any surface can appreciate that it is a lengthy and laborious process. Still, Singapore's humble public cleaners continued to struggle with the gum problem until the 1990s.
The turning point came with the establishment of Singapore's subway system, the MRT in 1987. The subway system employed the latest technology, including sensors to monitor the closing of doors.
Vandals quickly learnt to use gum to cover the subway door sensors. This act caused serious delays and disruptions to an otherwise efficient system.
After much governmental debate and analysis, it was resolved that apprehending the culprits was too costly an exercise. Consequently, in January 1992, the then Prime Minister Mr. Goh Chok Tong decided to completely ban all forms of chewing gum for the general public good.
For today's regular users of the MRT the only inconvenience is possible random checking by security staff. The door sensors work just fine.
After a short lived 'civil disobedience movement' the issue died, until 2003.
Singaporeans just learnt to live without gum and found other ways to exercise their jaws.
All credit to the Singapore police who averted the establishment of a black market in the illicit substance. Neither organized crime nor Chinese secret societies stepped into the otherwise (possibly) lucrative gum smuggling business!
Like ice cream, gum is much too important a matter to stay quiet for too long.
Free trade agreements (FTA) are not abandoned over tariffs and duties. Nor do Trade Ministers lose sleep over allegations of unfair dumping.
Only gum has that sort of power and influence.
Negotiations between Singapore and the US over a bilateral FTA soured due to gum. Philip Crane, a Chicago Congressman, spearhead an aggressive 'legalize gum in Singapore or no FTA campaign.' 
A face saving compromise granting gum producers like Wrigley (a Chicago based company) some access to Singapore's lucrative chewing gum market was ultimately agreed. The FTA came into effect in January 2004.
With a doctor's prescription these can be yours - legally!
Singaporeans remain eternally grateful to Mr. Crane for restoring their inalienable and God granted right to chew gum.
Nevertheless, Singapore is no pushover in trade negotiations. The relaxation came with restrictions. Only nicotine substitute gum can be purchased at authorized pharmacies and a doctor's prescription for the purpose is required.
Notwithstanding the procurement process, it is still easier to buy gum in Singapore than it is to remove it from public places.
Passengers landing at Singapore's Changi airport are routinely warned about the imposition of the death penalty for importing prohibited drugs into the country. To the best of my knowledge, Wrigley's Spearmint gum sticks are not classified as drugs so you might just get away with a fine – if the quantity qualifies as being for personal use!

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