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Chew on this, but not in Singapore

It’s been a slow week for stupidity worldwide, with the usual assortment of dumb stories having been shoved from the headlines by earthquakes in Chile and Taiwan, killer waves in the Mediterranean and the never-ending debate on health care reform. Actually, check that. Health care reform and the nothing being done about it may be the stupidest story of them all, but it’s just not funny.

Don’t get me wrong; there were people doing stupid things this week — 63 worshippers were killed in India when a stampede broke out at a temple giving away free food — but poking fun at dead people could be considered distasteful, even for a columnist of questionable morals such as myself. Besides, at least 63 people die in India anytime anything happens, so that story isn’t particularly newsworthy.

Then there was the strange tale of the Desarmes family, who survived the devastating earthquake in Haiti but left that ill-fated country two weeks later to join their eldest son in Chile … just in time to experience one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded. This, however, would fall under the category of bad luck rather than stupidity and is thus not a suitable subject for a column like mine.

(The good news for the Desarmes is that they all survived both quakes. The bad news is that if they ever want to move somewhere else, I’m guessing no country will take them in. I’m not saying the Desarmes are carting around some kind of bad earthquake voodoo with them; I’m just saying that if I were a government official in Taipei, I’d check to see if any members of the Desarmes family were on vacation in Taiwan this week.)

So, given that light-hearted idiocy has apparently taken the week off, I have decided to write a serious column and tackle one of the most pressing issues facing the world today: Should Singapore relax the ban on chewing gum that it vowed to maintain earlier this week?

Before we answer that question, let’s take a look at some of the history of the Asian city-state’s landmark ordinance. First instituted in 1992, the chewing gum ban is necessary to reduce gum-related litter and vandalism, according to Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, parliamentary secretary of the national development ministry.

Bin Osman did not go into detail about how, exactly, chewing gum contributes to vandalism, but I think it’s safe to assume that before 1992, store windows in Singapore were routinely being smashed by pieces of Juicy Fruit. The parliamentary secretary did note, however, that before the ban was imposed, wads of discarded gum had stopped subway doors from closing, resulting in delays. No word on whether the offending gum was caned for inconveniencing the local populace.

With the ban firmly in place throughout the 1990s, Singapore’s reputation as a squeaky-clean, semi-fascist island where fun of any sort was punishable by public humiliation grew by leaps and bounds. By the dawn of the new century, people around the globe who had no idea where Singapore was were nonetheless aware of its attitude toward chewing gum.

Things changed slightly in 2004 when it became apparent to Singaporean officials that many people were becoming physically ill from not being able to chew gum. Faced with this reality, the officials modified the ban to allow sales of gum that have medicinal value. This, unfortunately, has led to thousands of young Singaporeans taking up smoking just so they can quit and get a prescription for nicotine-laced gum.

With this sort of abuse of the system going on, it’s easy to say that perhaps it’s time for Singapore to revisit its hard-line stance on chewing gum. As parliament member Denise Phua Lay Peng said recently, “Let Singaporeans be accountable for the consequences, and not let our behavior be shaped by so many sticks.” I would argue, though, that this is exactly the wrong attitude to take.

Gum, as we all know, is what experts call a “gateway chew.” Once a child tries chewing gum, it’s a virtual certainty that he or she will then move on to bubble gum, sunflower seeds and tobacco. Ultimately, that child will end up living in a box in an alley chewing heroin. Is that the fate Singapore wants for its youth? I think not.

Oddly enough, a week ago, liberal that I am, I might have disagreed with Singapore’s ban, but I stepped on some gum the other day, and I’m still ticked off about it.

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Todd Hartley

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