How I was fined $500 for sipping water in the subway

I grew up moving to a different country every two years, but no experience stands out more drastically than my time living in Singapore. On my first week, I remember I was taking a subway from my house to the financial district downtown. Casually, I took a sip out of the bottle of water I had bought earlier, and before I knew it, I was getting an embarrassing public scolding from the station manager, along with a $500 fine. This was no isolated incident—according to the national metro website, water is not permitted on board because it “could spill and wet seats” or “cause a fellow commuter to slip and fall.”

Metro sign.jpg

This is hardly the most draconian or bizarre of laws enforced by the Singaporean government. Others include the prohibition of chewing gum, and a $700 fine for spitting it out on the streets. Not flushing a toilet is a crime, and if you thought about urinating an elevator, think again—elevators are equipped with urine detectors that will set alarms and trap you inside until the police find you. Public assemblies and protests are illegal without permits. Government criticism of any form is flagged. If you are caught with drug possession, you can receive “canings” (where authorities tie you down and whip you intensely) or even worse, face the death penalty.

 

As per Schedule 2 of the Act, the death penalty may be prescribed if you are convicted of possessing any of the following:

·       Heroin – 15 grams or more
·       Cocaine – 30 grams or more
·       Morphine – 30 grams or more
·       Hashish – 200 grams or more
·       Methamphetamine – 250 grams
·       Cannabis – 500 grams or more
·       Opium – 1,200 grams or more
Caning.png

Singapore Caning

As a result of such strict governing, Singapore is one of the cleanest and safest countries in the world. But how are these laws enforced?

First, through the ubiquitous presence of cameras. Cameras are literally everywhere. What is perhaps more frightening than constant visual surveillance however, is constant digital surveillance—especially when it is legitimized and openly admitted to by the government through programs such as the RAHS.

RAHS

The Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) was originally designed as an anti-terrorism tool, established in 2003 by the Singaporean government with the help of former US National Security Advisor, John Poindexter. The idea was simple—to gather and record every civilian’s internet searches, phone logs, e-mails, airline and hotel bookings, and financial transactions and alert law enforcement if any suspicious behavior or possible terrorist plot was detected.

Another key rationale for its implementation was the anticipation of any form of “potential future shocks” that could negatively impact Singapore socially or economically. For instance, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 caused a death toll of 33 and significantly decelerated the Singaporean economy. However, Peter Ho, then Singapore’s Secretary of Defense, believed that if a big data analysis system like the RAHS had existed before the outbreak, it could have been prevented. Apparently, there were a large number of unusual reports of lung infections in China leading up to the arrival of SARS in Singapore, and if scrutinized in tandem, could have warned officials about the imminent crisis. Thus, the selling point to civilians was that RAHS would play a large role in ensuring public safety for all.

RAHS Logo.png

As you can probably imagine, the government was never going to stop there once it had its hands on this wonderfully powerful beast. To be fair, most of its use have been for the genuine betterment of the nation—it is used to make economic forecasts, study housing markets, develop education plans, and develop immigration policies. But officials admitted to the fact that a significant portion of the material RAHS focuses on today are blog posts (thank goodness I’m here and not there), Facebook statuses, and tweets. Primarily, the program kept a vigilant eye on two things—pornography and racially offensive statements. It also looked for signs of discontent or ungratefulness for the programs offered by the government, or the direction of advancements in policies. Any one of these things could result in the police knocking on your front door.

Some of you may be thinking, “come on. How realistic is it that the government can surveil your every action in the digital world and accurately single you out as an enemy of the state?” Well, consider this. When I first got my SIM card for my smartphone in a Seven Eleven, I had to hand them my passport. This means that the telecommunications provider links the card to me, and in turn, the government knows who I am calling and can tie the content of the text messages directly to me. To make data collection even easier for the government, setting up an internet account and obtaining access to the web is impossible without presenting the service providers with a valid, national ID card. And it has been reported that these provides hands over information on users to government officials on a regular basis.

Singapore.jpg

What about the U.S.?

Throughout the semester, we have had numerous discussions about the advancements in digital technology, data collection by tech giants, and the implications on privacy. If this post was able to provide a sneak peek into what the realization of our largest fears may look like, you can rest assured that American citizens will never have it as bad as the Singaporeans do. I think the sheer size of the United States, along with the foundations on which it was built, ensures that this government cannot go as far as the Singaporean one has, at least not so openly. The RAHS works effectively in Singapore because it is a strange mix of democracy and autocracy, and because it is a very small country that does not see civil liberties as a priority.

I, for one, am grateful that I am able to post this blog without thinking twice about the consequences—I could have been in some real deep trouble if I had to write this blogpost for an ISYS class in Singapore.

 

Sources:

10 comments

  1. Really interesting post! I’ve heard from my friends who have visited Singapore that the country is very clean and safe. While I knew about their strict laws, I didn’t know about their surveillance efforts! It almost reminds me of the book “1984” by George Orwell and the concept of “big brother” watching over our every moves. Although I agree with your points that the U.S. will probably never get to the same point as Singapore, I think that the government could have more control over our activities just because of the sheer transparency of our digital activities. Big companies like Amazon and Facebook have so much data about our online behaviors. With heightened regulations, this data can be increasingly accessible to the U.S. government in the future. In addition, with the recent tragic acts of terror and violence in the U.S., I wonder if the government will take more action in this area in the future. What do you think?

  2. Nice post! My uncle is Singaporean and some of the strict habits that he developed carried over when he came to the states (ie: I would get beat for littering when I was younger). They have similar policies in Hong Kong albeit less strict and I think the reason it works well in those countries is because they know their economy is still developing and this may very well create a form of discipline that carries over to their professional life. Although I would say that the surveillance policy is a mixed bag because I value the rights of the US democracy, after yesterday’s Texas shooting and the shootings of the past months I’m starting to think that it may be a good idea to have heightened surveillance in the US. It’ll be interesting to see how the government responds at the very least, right?

  3. Really great post. I do think the interplay between technology and the governmental environment is a huge issue that doesn’t get enough attention. These technology platforms are VERY different depending on the environment in which they are implemented.

  4. This is a very interesting post! It doesn’t surprise me that the Singaporean government has such strict policies for its citizens. While I think the United States would be interested in implementing a similar technology to the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning used in the Singapore, I agree that it would extremely difficult to implement and would be met with a lot of resistance. The United States’ Government would have to be very careful with the way they went about increasing surveillance. I almost think they would be better off going through third party sources to carry out a similar protocol. Instead of collecting the data from a user’s search history, like you mentioned in the blogpost, maybe the US could extract information regarding airline and hotel bookings, financial transactions, and the like by purchasing the data through the website itself (since as Sherri mentioned, big companies like Amazon already have so much data on us.) I believe many Americans wouldn’t mine this, especially with all of the recent tragic events that have taken place in the US. I definitely think that this is something our government is already looking into, and wouldn’t be surprised if the government already has a version of said practices in place.

  5. This is insane! I had no idea this was going on. I can’t even imagine that this would happen in the U.S. I agree with @alyssacasale4 that there would be a TON of resistance against this. I wonder how successful this is in preventing terrorism. Thinking a little further, couldn’t a tourist go to Singapore, have an international data plan, yet still commit acts of terror? It sounds like there is no way that an act of crime, especially to the extent of terrorism, would go unpunished, but couldn’t they still perform the act? This also makes me think of the differences between how people act when they know they’re being watched, and when they don’t. According to a family friend who is a police officer, most of the cameras at intersections aren’t even turned on, but they are installed as a scare tactic to make people think they are being watched so they don’t make that turn when they’re not supposed to. Maybe if the U.S. implemented more things like this, the rates of terror would decrease? It also makes me question the mental health of people in Singapore. I feel like I would consistently be living in fear that I was being watched and tracked that I wouldn’t be very happy. It would be interesting to implement something like this in one of the “happiest” countries in the world and see the effect. Either way, I will be sure to never drink water in the subway in Singapore.

  6. I had no idea how involved the government is in civilians lives in Singapore. It’s crazy to do the comparisons, $500 fine vs. $0 fine for drinking on a subway. Your post provides great insight into a government other than the U.S. Although I do not see the U.S. becoming this extreme in collecting data on every citizen, your blog post does pose the question of whether some data they are collecting is/can be used to detect signs of terrorism.

  7. This is one of my favorite posts I have read this year! After complaining so much about how Facebook is spying on us, I should be more thankful of how most of our data is used JUST to target us for product/service advertisements. In light of many domestic terror attacks, most especially yesterday’s in Texas, I would be comfortable with the United States increasing security measures, but the extent of which will probably never be settled upon–it’s a very touchy subject to all Americans. I would also have to agree with @geraldckane, in a country less built upon individual freedoms and the importance of privacy, these technologies probably could work well, but for now many people would agree that these tactics in Singapore, especially the constant surveillance, would inhibit their rights as US citizens if implemented in this country.

  8. I have been in Singapore and its amazing what you say. I had to be careful of even walking or breathing…. Its amazing how there are cameras everywhere and if you think you can get away with thing you do… think twice. Another great point if how the Government in probably all countries is surveilling citizens. Its not only with their technology but probably Tech companies share information to the government or with other big tech companies?

  9. This reminds me of when some of the Snowden leaks came out and it was found out that the NSA and such could surveil us without us knowing. I know one side of the argument is why should we care if the government knows what we’re doing if we’re not doing anything wrong? That just doesn’t feel right though. It still feels like an invasion of privacy. Every country has to deal with that fine line between privacy and safety, I just hope it doesn’t get much worse.

  10. Awesome post! I had no idea that Singapore was a real life Big Brother state. What I’d love to hear more about is how do they enforce these fines. For example, I don’t think the average person in the US would be able to pay $500 if they brought water onto the subway. I understand that this large cost does a great job of deterring people from doing so, but, as in your case, it still happens. I’d have to imagine that the incarceration rate there is very high. Did you wind up paying your fine, or just use the fact that you weren’t going to be there for long in order to avoid it? Could you even get on a plane out of there if you had an unpaid fine?

    Even though this seems crazy to us as US citizens, we too have seen the government use our fear of terrorism in order to monitor society more (take for example the Patriot Act). I totally agree with your point that the level of extremeness in Singapore likely won’t happen here, but at what point will we step up and say “no” to our government? And, even if we reach that point, do we actually have enough power to stop them?

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