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The Reality of Fines and “Strange Laws” in Singapore

It seems as if you can be fined for almost anything in Singapore, but is this really how things are there?

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“Singapore is a fine city,” a Singaporean women informed me. The pun was intended. This seems to be the city-states’s favorite joke. In my week there I was told it by no less than five people. I suppose it’s kind of their national mantra. Though it is also a very true statement.

Singapore is a fine city. It is probably the cleanest and most orderly place with the best behaving populous on the planet — or at least that I’ve seen in 15+ years of travel through over 50 countries. Litter is nil. Traffic follows the laws. Street crime is almost nonexistent. The organizational structure of everything, from how sidewalks are kept up to the public transport system, is impeccable. Imagine that: a place where there are not only rules, but where people generally follow them.

Needless to say, Singapore is also a rather totalitarian city. In point, places are not kept this nice without more than a little judicial force. A virtual army of fine collectors roam the streets of the city, finding people breaking the rules and slapping them with rather hefty penalties. These fine collectors are like undercover agents, they wear plain clothes so nobody knows who they are or where they will strike next. To ensure they do a really good job, they work on commission: the more people they fine, the more money they make. Singapore didn’t only legislate myriad public harmony mandates, but rolled out a system to ensure that they will be followed.

In Singapore, you can be fined for:

[1 SGD = .80 USD, Nov. 2014]

Jaywalking: $500 SGD

Spitting out gum (which in and of itself is technically illegal to sell): $1,000 SGD

Eating to drinking on public transport: $500 SGD

Smoking on public transport: $500 SGD

“Stealing” WIFI: $5,000 SGD

Feeding birds: $500

Not flushing the toilet: $150 SGD

Spitting: $200 SGD

In Singapore, you can get busted for walking around in your home naked with the windows open — apparently, it’s considered a form of pornography, which is illegal. Some elevators are reported to be equipped with urine detection devices, which set off an alarm at the first scent of piss. There are parking monitors who bust you for leaving your vehicle in an improper location for even a few seconds. The fine laws in Singapore are so extensive that it lead to the creation of a popular tourist t-shirt highlighting all of the things that you can’t do here . . . Though you can saunter down to Geylang and use the services of a brothel fine free.

I went around Singapore asking people about their experiences with being fined. Most people that I talked with had been fined at one point or another. They always admitted this rather sheepishly, with a guilty grin on their face like a former class clown recounting his antics.

“Yes, I was fined once,” a twenty year old Indian guy told me. “It was for throwing a cigarette butt on the ground. I had to pay 300 dollars for that. It was the most expensive cigarette I ever smoked!”

He was laughing as he spoke. The fine happy nature of the government has produce a rather sardonic response in the populous. Those who get fined seem to get teased about it by their friends and families, kind of like someone who gets shat on by a bird where I come from. Getting fined is just a periodic annoyance of life in Singapore, and the people tend to take it with an exasperated sense of humor rather than outrage.

“You get fined for everything now,” an older guy told me at a hawker center on Joo Chiat Road. “If I smoke here I get fined. I have to go so many meters away from here. The people who fine you wear plain clothes, they don’t wear uniforms, and they come up to you and charge you 300 dollars and you have to pay it right there. The first offense is 300, the second is 500, and if you do it again you go to jail. I’ve seen it happen with people right here. Two times.”

Though you still see people jaywalking, tossing out their cigarette butts on the ground, and doing the entire array of things that they can be fined for all through Singapore. There are black splotches of spit-out gum covering the sidewalks in residential areas, I once looked up into a wide open window and saw a naked man contently laying in bed watching TV, and most of the public toilets in the city flush themselves, so there’s no worry about being fined for such a ridiculous oversight.

I have to say that it seems rare for any given person to be fined frequently, and everyone that I’d spoken with had only been ticketed once or twice in their lifetimes. Though you can be fined for an incredible amount of things in Singapore this isn’t an absolute, and, except for not being allowed to smoke in open air cafes, the impact that this has had on the day to day life of the population seems surprisingly slight — most of the laws are for things that most people are conditioned to not do anyway. To put it bluntly, these are not people who are moving like robots in lock step with the law, life is rather relaxed here, even with all the fines.

[Image from AsiaOne]


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Filed under: Singapore

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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