KUALA LUMPUR, July 10 – A mural of a Chinese woman holding a cigarette in Singapore has stirred public debate, with concerns over its aleged normalisation of smoking.

Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Ministry of Health (MOH) said today they have decided to retain the mural without any modifications, since it is not a tobacco advertisement.

“Had prior approval been sought, MOH would have raised concerns about the depiction of smoking to be featured in a prominent mural like this, and requested modification,” they said in a joint statement.

“We will therefore work with the building owner to find appropriate ways to mitigate any impact that the mural may have in promoting smoking, without modifying the mural itself.”

The mural depicted a “Samsui” woman – referring to Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore and Malaysia in the early 20th century, primarily from the district now called Sanshui in China's Guangdong province. These women were known for their hard work in construction and other labour-intensive jobs, and were easily recognisable by their distinctive red headgear.

The mural was produced by American multidisciplinary artist Sean Dunston, who has been based in Singapore since 2009.

It is located on the exterior of a conserved shophouse in Singapore’s Chinatown, and has been up for nearly two months.

Besides concern over the smoking depiction, critics of the mural has also accused it of depicting the woman as “cheap” or glamourising sex work.

URA however said that the building owner did not comply with its requirements on the conservation and protection of Singapore’s built heritage, and proceeded with the mural without obtaining prior approval.

It said it requires all owners of conserved buildings to submit their mural proposals for approval to ensure the artwork aligns with community values and cultural sensitivities.

The owner has since been fined S$2,000 for failing to obtain conservation permission before starting the mural, contravening Section 12 of the Planning Act 1998.

Dunston on his Instagram post last week, had said that he previously did two five-storey front-facing facades but never had to obtain any permission.