Bubble Gum and Freedom

Jesse Alan Gordon, 1993

I get off the plane and look into my bag one last time before customs, to check that the stuff is properly hidden. I call it 'stuff,' even to myself, to ensure that I don't let slip to anyone what I've got. My main stash of stuff is wrapped in plastic at the bottom of my bag; that's supposed to foil any sniffing dogs. I keep a 'sacrificial stash' on top, a small sample of stuff, which I'll 'sacrifice' in case of trouble, to save the rest of the stuff. I figure that if the customs guys ask me, I can claim in half-truth, "Yes, I have some stuff" and then let them assume that I mean the sacrificial stash, so my main stash will remain uninvestigated. I'm just an amateur, after all, smuggling for the first time, so I don't want to lie outright unless I have to.

I duck into the bathroom before customs, to get dressed. I put on my best jacket and a tie, and carefully tuck my tail into my shirt collar. I figure that makes me look like some young businessman, and less like a travel bum who's likely to be smuggling stuff. I wash my face and dust off my knapsack, to further the image, and I check the mirror to make myself look less nervous.

The fine for first offenders converts to about US$6,000, plus up to 12 months in jail. I hear that the 'personal consumption' excuse can convince the customs officers not to arrest you, but it won't keep you out of jail if they don't believe you. I'm not sure what the personal limit is, but I have enough stuff in my main stash to be well over any reasonable definition. All of the stuff is in my knapsack, because I figure that a checked bag is subject to unlimited inspection, and I'm not there to make excuses if they find anything.

I review my options one last time. I can play innocent if I'm caught: "A friend asked me to carry the stuff for him." I think that's every smuggler's first excuse, and I'm pretty sure your passport gets marked if you use that one. I can play dumb: "Oh, I didn't know it was illegal; it's legal in my country." I figure that's too dumb for someone with a passport as full as mine, so that excuse is only if I get so rattled that I can't think of anything else. I can play civil disobedience: "The law is wrong and I hereby protest it." That one will require at least a few days in jail, of course, but I might use it because then an arrest can be justified on grad school applications. No matter what I plan, I'm going to wing it if I get caught, and I don't want to try anything exotic. I'm just going to keep quiet and hope to not get caught, anyway.

Out I go; the customs area has no line. I wonder if that's an advantage or a disadvantage: they have time to scrutinize me more when it's empty, so maybe it's better to wait for another planeload. But when there's a line, maybe they scrutinize more carefully because that's when smugglers think they'll be scrutinized less. It doesn't matter; they've seen me now, and if I turn back it'll be suspicious.

I walk up to the customs guy, as calmly as I can. "Passport," he says. "Where are you coming from. How long are you staying. What's the purpose of your trip. Okay, go ahead." That's it? No sniffing dogs? No body cavity search? No interrogation? They didn't even open my bag! The suit & tie worked! How anti-climatic!

I hop a cab downtown, where I'm meeting my three local friends. "Hello, how are you," they say as I arrive. I respond, "I brought you a present." I did it. I succeeded at smuggling the stuff in. I hand it all over to my friends with a satisfied smile. A dozen jumbo packs of Big Red. A bagful of Bazooka Joe. Three 10-packs of Wrigley's Spearmint. Welcome to Singapore, the land of illegal chewing gum.


Importing, manufacturing, and selling gum are illegal in Singapore. Gum chewing is itself legal, as long as you haven't imported, manufactured, or bought it. Gum is a "perennial nuisance," declares the Ministry of the Environment, which administers the chewing gum ban. Ostensibly, the reason is to keep the streets clean, and because gum could jam up the operations of subway car doors. The ban initially was considered only on the subway system, where smoking, spitting, and all sorts of other activities are already banned. Rumor has it that the real reason gum was banned is because a prominent legislator sat down on a sticky wad on a subway seat in his best suit.

Gum is just the tip of the iceberg of personal restrictions. Jaywalking is illegal, and citizens can receive a $10 ticket for illegally crossing the street (although the police don't bother enforcing this too often). One may not bring durians, a popular local fruit, onto the subways (because of their smell, the government says). "Hawker stands," the local equivalent of hot dog pushcarts, are only allowed at regulated locations (to ensure hygienic conditions, the government says). If you want to buy a car, you must first bid at auction for the right to own an automobile, and then pay a road tax to drive the car. And once you own it, you must pay a fee to drive it into downtown at specified hours (to reduce traffic jams, the government says). In taxis, anytime you drive over 50 mph, a little beeper keeps beeping, to remind you that you're speeding (Trucks have lights that flash to indicate speeding; taxis have the beepers; passenger cars may speed unreminded). Local businesspeople joke that on weekends, they take the half-hour bus ride across the straits to Johor, Malaysia, so that they may spit, curse, chew gum, smoke, etc., and then return to Singapore.

On more serious restrictions, citizens are required to place part of their incomes in savings accounts (the "Central Provident Fund" allows withdrawals for basc needs, and has opt-out options). The foreign press can be limited in how many copies of each publication they may import ("The Economist" this summer was limited to one copy per library, and no other copies in the country, because they disallowed a "right of reply"), and the local press is controlled by the government. I was warned by Singaporean acquaintances that publishing this article could result in restrictions against my future entry into Singapore, as a persona non grata under the Internal Security Act. There is only one serious political party, the PAP, which has been ruling since Singapore's independence in the early 1960s, and the Party has no contest in re-election campaigns. If you vote for the right guy, he'll fix you up on a date: via the SDU, which stands for Social Development Unit, but is referred to as Single, Desperate, and Ugly.

As a result of all the restrictions, Singapore is a very clean and very safe place, especially if one is arriving from neighboring Malaysia or Indonesia, both of which have lots of mud and plenty of danger. The first time I arrived, I said, "Oh, it's so clean!" But after two weeks, I lamented, "Ugh, it's too clean," and hopped the Johor bus. Most of the personal restrictions are to keep the population healthy and safe, like the limits on cars, which reduce traffic congestion and urban pollution. In the US, we would pejoratively label such solutions as "paternalistic" and "intrusive." I'd like to discuss here whether Singapore's system is just based on cultural differences, or if instead it's a necessity of development in the modern world, and then whether a free capitalist economic system is sustainable in an authoritarian political system.


Is Singapore a democracy? Sort of. They're certainly capitalist, that is, economically free. We equate "democracy" with political freedom, but in that realm, Singapore is much closer to the authoritarian regimes that we associate with former Communist countries. We associate democracy and capitalism, political freedom and economic freedom, because they go together in America and Europe. The norm in the Pacific Rim is Singapore's brand of authoritarian capitalism. Japan invented the concept; the Newly Industrialized Countries -- the NICs, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore -- perfected it; the next generation of NICs, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, are all strong-man states with open economies, too. And China is using Singapore as the model for economic development in their "Special Economic Zones," which feature relatively free economies under the usual yoke of Beijing's harsh restrictions on personal freedom.

I omitted the Phillipines -- a sometimes member of the Next NICs List -- from my list, because they are a true democracy, with an elected leader, lots of political opposition, a lack of political restrictions -- and a lack of political stability. The Phillipines is in such a mess politically that they are likely to never make the list of NICs -- that is, the price of their political freedom may be to lose their economic prosperity.

That trade-off is why authoritarian capitalism came to exist in the Pacific Rim, and why the authoritarian leaders remain in power, and popular, too. Singapore is a success story, and the government, restrictions and all, has the support of the people. Thirty years ago, at independence, Singapore was comparable to the rest of Southeast Asia -- meaning, well-entrenched in the Third World economically, and with no guarantees of stability politically. In one generation, Singapore has become prosperous and stable enough to be the model for its neighbors, and more importantly, to be a source of pulling its neighbors out of the Third World as well.

Why is authoritarian capitalism popular in the Pacific Rim and not elsewhere in the Third World? The easy answer is to attribute it to East Asian culture. Compared to Westerners, East Asians are more obedient, less individualistic, more concerned with group acceptance, and have a higher sense of duty, one might say, and an authoritarian system better fits that mentality. That might explain the popularity of a strong state, but it doesn't justify it, nor does it imply that a free political system wouldn't work. Accepting the cultural explanation also implies that the Singaporean model doesn't apply to Africa or Latin America. I think that dismissing it as a "cultural difference" avoids the real issue. But I leave it to cultural analysts to decide this question, or to provide counter-examples in other cultures.


The source of Singapore's prosperity and stability is the authoritarian government. Authoritarianism allows the government to make hard choices and hard reforms, which ensures fast development. Without an authoritarian government, Singapore would not have developed as much as it has, and may not have developed at all. So, is authoritarianism tolerable as a means of alleviating poverty? Given a choice between freedom and prosperity, there's no contest. You eat first, then you think about freedom.

Does it follow that personal freedom has to suffer in order to allow economic development? Why can't the authoritarian control be directed only at things which are directly connected with development? I think it's an impossible task, to separate what an authoritarian regime may control and what it may not. The nature of authoritarianism is to control things, and to spread its controls as far as possible. I think it's a tribute to the benevolence of Singapore's rulers that they have not controlled the economy so much as to destroy it (as the Eastern Europeans did), and that they have not limited personal freedom so much as to require disappearing citizens (as the South Americans did).

Where do we draw the line between an acceptable and an unacceptable level of authoritarianism? I draw the line at killing, disappearing, and torturing citizens, and I draw a harsher line when the government is acting solely to maintain its own power. It's over the line when the government regularly rolls in tanks at political rallies. Arbitrarily killing lots of citizens, I believe, is the necessary outcome of an over-concentration of power. South Korea's annual death toll at political rallies is pretty high, but those deaths are side-effects rather than the purpose of government action, so I'll class Korea on the side of acceptable authoritarianism. Singapore is well onto the acceptable side of the line, by that definition, even with the chewing gum ban in effect. A good libertarian like me would have trouble living there, but I have no qualms about doing business there, nor recommending unencumbered diplomatic relations. I'd have plenty of qualms making the same statements about China, for instance.

As long as authoritarian regimes stay on the acceptable side of the line, we should support them doing whatever they feel is necessary to achieve prosperity. Political freedom will follow economic prosperity -- Japan's LDP fell after prosperity and First World status were achieved; Singapore's PAP, Taiwan's Kuomintang, Indonesia's General, and maybe even China's Communists, will fall when their countries get used to being rich. I think that the best hope of avoiding another Tiananmen is to get China to open up its economy as fast as possible.

But what if the authoritarian regime persists after prosperity is achieved? In other words, is authoritarianism sustainable in a rich country? No, if this summer in Japan is any indication. Last June, I'd've said yes, it's sustainable indefinitely, because Japan had done so for 45 years, including a decade or so while in the First World. The demise of the USSR and all of its friends demonstrated that a non-capitalist economy is unsustainable. China has learned that lesson, and hopes to maintain its authoritarian political system by allowing a capitalist economic system. Once again, the jury is still out -- there aren't enough cases. If Singapore's one-party state follows the route that Japan's did, it should collapse in about ten years, and then I'd say for sure that Taiwan and Korea can expect the same.

So what are Singapore's lessons for the rest of the world? You can be like Africa or Central America, and have Jimmy Carter come and certify that your elections are free and fair, while your people earn $1 a day. Or you can be like Singapore, where bubble gum is illegal, but where their per capita income has surpassed that of Spain, and fewer people every year dispute their claim to be called First World. Political freedom is not a necessary prerequisite for economic freedom. Here in America, we're rich enough to afford democracy -- if we want the rest of the world to get rich enough, too, we have to tolerate some non-democratic interims. When Singapore gets use to being rich, maybe their one-party state will fall, and the restrictions on personal freedom will fall with it. Then we can have our gum and chew it, too.


EJSCK Reprinted from Spectrum (Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University), 1993.
All material copyright 1993 by Spectrum and Jesse Gordon.
Reprinting by permission only.

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Jesse Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630
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