What is the bill about?
A liquor control bill was passed in the parliament on Friday last week supporting the ban of alcohol consumption in public areas from 10.30pm to 7am in Singapore. The public places are the ones where public can have free access to ranging from open parks to pavements. Retail sale hours for take-away liquor will also be ending at 10.30pm across the island. Offenders shall be penalized with a fine leading up to 2000 dollars and an imprisonment of up to six months. Considering the operational assessment of the police, specified areas in Little India and Geylang will be designated as Liquor Control Zones. These are the areas where there is a significant risk of public mayhem owing to excessive alcohol consumption and stricter restrictions and penalties shall thus be imposed there. The parties need to apply for a permit to organize events involving alcohol in public areas, such as barbeque and countdown beach parties.
The December 2013 Little India Riot and its impact…
Although the Ministry of Home Affairs has conducted two public consultation exercises and has stated that it has been reviewing the alcohol laws since September 2012 after it received complaints regarding drunkenness in public areas, we cannot ignore the fact that the riots have played a crucial role in the laws making. It has favored the MHA’s decision in proposing and passing the liquor bill since alcohol was a contributing factor in the riots. However, the point here worth mentioning is how one particular incident has not only tarnished the image of a particular country/community involved but also pushed the government of the host country to pass a bill which might not be favored by all its citizens. Let us look at the issue and consider its pros and cons.
The Citizen vs. the Country…
Most of the community events in Singapore end by 10.30pm in residential estates. One of the primary reasons behind the bill is to ensure minimal disturbance to the fellow residents of the country. Drunkenness not only leads to loud behavior in most cases but also causes a lot of pollution as people hardly bother to clean up the mess in a drunken state of mind. One of the residents did complain when he was making his way through cans and bottles lying around on Robertson Quay while on his routine morning walk. There have been a few cases of eve-teasing on the Clarke Quay Bridge. If safety is a major concern, isn’t Singapore one of the safest nation in the world already? Aren’t there sufficient laws in place to maintain a safe environment on the island country? Also if getting drunk and causing a disturbance is a concern, can it be assured that people won’t continue doing so after drinking from restaurants, pubs and bars which are licensed premises allowed to sell alcohol within the restricted time frame of the bill? Can it be assured that a ban will not lead to opening of illegal gateways pertaining to the sale of alcohol after 10.30pm?
A ban seems reasonable if the safety of the resident is compromised. This has been the case in some American and Australian cities. But does Singapore absolutely need one at the moment? After an increase in taxes on alcohol in Singapore last year, drinking in the restaurants and pubs has hardly been affordable for the middle class Singaporean. Not everyone who drinks gets drunk and there is a fair share of responsible drinkers out there. Let us think about the ordinary office guy who works 40 hours a week within the confines of his work place and wishes to unwind with his friends in the open while enjoying the vibrant night life of Holland Village or the Clarke-Quay Bridge or the worker who works hard on a construction site (which have late shifts most of the time) and wishes to grab a beer and enjoy the cool outdoor breeze? Are we going to direct these people to the high-end pubs and bars on Orchard road? We also have students who prefer buying alcohol from convenient stores since it is affordable. Let us not invade the private sphere of the adults who are responsible enough to make conscious decisions. What if these adults wish to purchase alcohol after 10.30pm and consume it at home? Won’t they be unduly penalized now that the ban is in place? The government of Singapore has been viewed as overprotective and imposing the ban has further validated the country’s image as a nanny state.
Good governance involves a fair balance in supporting the citizen on an individual level and the country as a whole. The ministry needs to consider the impact Singapore will face in terms of the revenue that it generates from alcohol post the implementation of the bill. This not only involves revenue of the country as a whole but also the income of the shopkeeper who makes a living by selling alcohol. Also when people buy alcohol, they tend to buy snacks as well. The revenue impact will thus be multiplied due to the ban.
The government also needs to consider the alternatives and not just rely on one riot or a couple of surveys from the residents of the country. It needs to conduct extensive public consultations. After the riot, the parliament did impose a law in Little India allowing the policemen to bar drunk people from the area and it has favored the well-being of its residents. If the issue is merely about keeping the public areas clean, then impose relevant laws targeting cleanliness. Singapore has created a niche for itself in the domains of safety and security of its residents. The government knows when and where to press the button and the citizens somewhere fear and follow the government and its style of governance. This healthy relationship has played a crucial role in Singapore’s development and its maintenance as a safe first world country. As a result, priority needs to be given to this country’s needs first and whether these needs outweigh the absence of a law/regulation that has been passed to be implemented. Texas, for example, allows public consumption of alcohol with restrictions in place for the problematic areas. Why can’t the same apply to areas in Little India and Geylang? Designate the target areas as liquor free zones and monitor them instead of applying the rule across the nation and worrying about the displacement of problems from one area to another. Also do we have sufficient evidence to show that crime has resulted from these areas or are we profiling a community of workers a little too harshly?
The new bill also creates a legislation that empowers the police to direct a drunk to leave the public place, dispose of his booze and create strip searches for suspicious cases. The police will also have the power to temporarily close the licensed premises. Why not start with empowering the policemen across Singapore first on an experimental basis and check if a ban is actually needed. The Singaporean government has been capable of keeping a tab on the offenders and can continue doing so in the future as well. Let us collect sufficient data till then which records the public nuisance incidents occurring owing to excessive alcohol consumption.
The alcohol retailers collectively hold a view of ‘following a responsible culture in the sale of alcohol through voluntary action which involves proper training and certification of the store managers and working with the police to identify problem hotspots.’ Adoption of this effort from the retailers, coupled with constant monitoring by policemen, should be sufficient in keeping the situation under control. Implementation of a ban will only seem valid should such milder alternative policies fail. As one politician puts it, we do not need a sledgehammer to kill a fly.