"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
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
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
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
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
"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