Smokers: Singapore’s most persecuted minority

Nov 22 — A friend stepped out for a smoke during lunch the other day and when he returned, we got talking about the shrinking habitat left available to smokers in our garden city. 

An MP for my local GRC (Group Representative Committee — basically, electoral district) has been applauded for her revolutionary initiative — confining smokers to set-apart modified cages from blocks, parks, pavements and civilisation in general.

The “smoking corners” aren’t yet island-wide but smoking is now restricted in virtually all public places, including an ever-growing number of parks and beaches. Any space that’s covered, even if it’s open on all sides — so covered walkways, underpasses, shop-awnings are off limits as are all restaurants, bars, malls and the like.

Stepping out for a fag/short smoke is now more an exercise in dodging legislation than a moment to calm your nerves.

I know a man who crouches behind a bush at the bottom of his flat on rainy days to avoid being spotted by neighbours who believe his smoking in proximity to the void deck is illegal and have threatened to photograph him and report him to national (state-sponsored) busy-body website STOMP.

Smoking might be a filthy habit but within any community there needs to be tolerance and compromise... not more intolerance against a certain group. — Picture by AFP
Smoking might be a filthy habit but within any community there needs to be tolerance and compromise... not more intolerance against a certain group. — Picture by AFP

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On a more macro scale, I recently wandered through a rather desolate Arab Street, once Singapore’s sheesha hub – now free of both sheesha and any modicum of atmosphere. Singapore is in the process of rolling out the most severe sheesha ban in the world — including banning the importation of pipes and tobacco even for use at home. So I think we can see which way the smoke-free wind is blowing and I can’t say I like it.

Now I’m not a cigarette lobbyist. I don’t smoke, I never have and I’m a cancer survivor so I’m totally inclined to agree that it’s a nasty, smelly dangerous and undesirable habit.

However, I am someone who believes in individual rights and that means ​the right of consenting adults to do dirty, smelly and at times broadly undesirable things to themselves. I also believe that within a community, individual rights don’t mean my getting what I want all the time.

While I’m personally much happier in spaces without smoke, I don’t believe I have the right to aggressively demand an utterly smoke-free life.

Other people within the community I inhabit smoke — it is, to a certain extent, a  conscious choice made by these individuals and as such they are entitled to their space — albeit a reduced space and one that, as far as possible keeps children away from harmful smoke.

Basically within any community there needs to be tolerance and compromise — but Singapore seems to be actively empowering intolerance with busy-bodies actively going out of their way to report puffers who step out of the clearly demarcated lines of their designated areas.

The pitiless zeal with which I’ve seen new arrivals threaten ancient under-the-block uncles who’ve smoked in a particular spot for decades is terrifying.

It’s becoming another form of intolerance unleashed against a minority.

I don’t really believe there is strong evidence to suggest passive smoking in parks or open spaces constitutes a true and deep threat to third party health, so why are we restricting it? And at the point where smokers are sitting in little cages or cowering in bushes — we might as well just go the whole hog and ban it entirely.

This is quite viable at this point — while people talk about the government’s need for cigarette tax revenue, Singapore’s government has plenty of revenue channels. The $700 million (RM2,140 million) it raises from cigarette taxes annually hardly hits its bottom line and with just 20 per cent of a passive population smoking, it is unlikely there’ll be any major rebellion.  And, of course, our healthcare system would even save some money.

In fact, a ban would probably win considerable public plaudits — bans in Singapore invariably do.

So why shouldn’t we go ahead?

Well, because to me at least it sets a rather terrifying precedent.

Banning something because it’s unhealthy and socially undesirable is a slippery slope. Alcohol, gambling, sugar, fat, Coca-Cola, promiscuous sex, burning paper for Chinese New Year or sticking spikes through oneself for Thaipusam — none of these things are healthy.

But is that that a reason to put an end to them?

Is individual health risk a reason to empower a state that already restricts us so much?  I really think not, which is why I won’t be chasing smokers off my void deck on rainy days and I suggest you give it some thought too.