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singapore "myths"

"No, you don't go to jail for chewing gum in Singapore." Time and again, I have found

myself explaining to curious foreigners I meet abroad, such is the strength of this misconception about Singapore. Almost without fail, I then go on to draw the critical difference between illegal smuggling of a huge quantity of chewing gum into the country for selling, and innocent possession of a few packets for personal consumption.

When Hong Kong was on the verge of being returned to China, wide eyes of interest greeted me when I declared my nationality, followed by a polite question as to when the Singapore handover would be. Needless to say, my initial pride that my small country was well known turned to disappointment, before I went on to dispel the fiction that Singapore was ever going to be returned to China, as well as the underlying notion that it was ever part of China in the first place!

Singaporeans who have travelled or lived abroad would have encountered such "myths" about Singapore at one time or another. It is a bane sometimes.

Of course, there are foreigners who are better informed. These are usually people who have visited Singapore before. They offer kind comments like how clean and safe Singapore is, how modern and efficient everything is, and how delightful it is to eat in hawker centres. One even mentioned that he saw a documentary which described Singapore as a Utopian state, although he went on to ask whether our penalties for drug-related offences were too harsh. At least he didn't mention Michael Fay.

Then there are those who have not heard of the country before and I have had to resort to naming countries in the region to strike a chord. This is not such a bad thing as it means I get the chance to draw the right impression from the start.

If there is a lesson to be learned from all these episodes, it is humility.

Too often perhaps, we read of our world-class airport or world-class airline winning international awards here and there, or that Singapore is ranked among the best in the world for this and that. While such news may be good for forging national pride, they can result in us not realizing that the world out there does not necessarily think the world of Singapore (pardon the pun), that is, if they have even heard of the country.

Stinging as the remark that calls Singapore a little red dot may be, it is true geographically.

I remember an instance when I met a British girl in a youth hostel in Canada. She excitedly pointed to this map of the world on the wall, and asked if Borneo was Singapore. Flattered that she was quite close and that she actually thought Singapore was so big, I proceeded to point out modestly the word "SINGAPORE" which all but covered up the location of the island.

Then there was this joke going round in Cold War days, that if a button for nuclear warfare were to be accidentally triggered in our direction, school teachers the world over would tell their students the next day, to open their geography books and erase that little dot at the tip of Malaysia.

It is an undeniable fact that Singapore is tiny physically, and vulnerable too, as we have learned from the recent economic crisis. While we have prided ourselves for getting where we are despite our lack of size and resources, we should be wary of letting this to get into our heads and allowing the ugly Singaporean to rear its head.

With more and more Singaporeans spending time abroad, hopefully our outlook will become more mature and cosmopolitan. Likewise, with the Internet breaking communication barriers across national boundaries, maybe foreigners will also learn more about Singapore.

"Myths" about Singapore there probably always will be, as will stereotypes of people. No longer do I get surprised or annoyed when confronted with them. Instead they present excellent opportunities to replace the "myths" with the "truths". I am chewing gum as I write this - a perfectly legal act in Singapore.

Ong Hwee Yen 1999

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Our daughter was in Singapore and very impressed ...


Read your article on Singapore myth. Love it. 100% agree to your points.

Paula Howard

... I think that if you want to prevent people believing that you can be arrested for possessing chewing gum the best approach would be to stop your local guides telling the tourists that this is what happens as we were told this by our guide on our first trip. However I would agree that the overwhelming memory of Singapore is the cleanliness. My Father was there in 1948 and he says that it was not very clean then.


Could u have real Myths?