Smoking has been banned in public facilities and venues in Singapore for years.
Recently, however, a lawmaker has proposed that the government also ban cigarette smoking in all public housing units, also known as “HDB flats” because they were developed by the Housing and Development Board.
Although officials have made it very clear that they won’t consider doing so at this point, the suggestion has sparked a heated debate on social media.
Those who are in favor of the suggestion have argued that if the rationale behind banning smoking in public places is to prevent “innocent” people from being exposed to second-hand smoke, then it should also apply to private places such as homes as well.
They say that if someone smokes inside their own flat, the harmful smoke from their burning cigarette is likely to spread over to public areas and affect others.
Those who are against the proposal warn that banning smoking in people’s homes could encourage the government to ban a whole bunch of other activities in private places, thereby taking a heavy toll on civil liberties.
There is also a view that banning smoking in HDB flats but not in private luxury flats could constitute “class discrimination”.
Besides, as some people have pointed out, every society needs to provide certain “safety valves” for its citizens through which they can let off steam in order to maintain social harmony.
To be honest, this kind of debate, because of its highly polarizing nature, will always come to nothing. And the authorities will always steer a middle course in order to put an end to the controversy.
Singapore, which has been widely regarded as an authoritarian society for decades, is getting increasingly democratic in recent years, and as such, the rise of populist sentiments is inevitable.
When the late Lee Kuan Yew was still in office, he knew exactly what to do to strike a balance in public governance in order to facilitate social harmony.
And that explains why Lee, as an Asian-style paternalistic ruler, was ruthlessly tough on drugs and strictly enforced “rule by law”, but allowed the presence of red light districts in his country and went easy on homosexuals at the same time.
As for his successors, having the same kind of political wisdom is certainly a challenge.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 13
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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