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My Government Waged A War Against Shisha… They Lost.

Before I start this article, I would like to point out that I do not support smoking, or any other kinds of tobacco vice, like shisha. I’m going to be honest here, because it’s pointless trying to sprinkle sugar on bull and call it candy. I think smoking is stupid. Absolutely stupid. I will never have a good first impression of smokers, because let’s be honest here, very few people will. Reasons include plenty, stereotyping present in films, misrepresentation in newspapers, and of course, horrifying descriptions given to us by our parents. The smell and odour probably doesn’t help either. We all speak against discrimination, but our nuances and body language painfully betray us when placed in similar testing positions. I do not expect to gain positive traction by saying what people like to hear, but I believe being clear about my personal take on the subject matter lend credibility to what I’m writing. It is worth noting however, that my issues lie in the act of smoking itself. I do not develop a hatred, or a disliking for a smoker, nor do I think that one’s smoking habits reflect an incumbent personality that’s filled with an abundance of stupidity. Yes, in my humble opinion you might be absolutely stupid to smoke, but I as a decent human being can only respect your decisions, try to understand why you smoke, and still treat you the same like everyone else. Society placed upon us a negative portrayal of smokers, but beneath the stigma and lord-help-me awful stench lies someone that is just the same as I am. I think our hypocritical society has been teaching us wrongly, telling us not to judge books by their covers.  Over time, I did not learn to stop judging. I just learnt how to empathise and understand.
The same cannot be said of my government.

Normally, when government measures are put into place, it’s bound to be met with severe criticism. And they’ll always find a rational way to explain things. It’s just how things work around these parts of the world. Us Singaporeans, we’re an emotional lot. We have the honour of being the most emotionless country in the world, but nothing excites us more than our government or people paying each other in coins, When something is introduced, or removed, we react with our hearts, instead of our brains. The government then issue followup statements and columnists and journalists alike ‘pursue’ the matter a bit further before the entire brouhaha dies down and everybody happily goes back to bickering about our public transport again. It’s true. For many, many instances of policy changes or implementations, we talked shit about our ministers and policymakers, but if we truly put our brains to work and rationalise our thoughts, what the government decides to do do indeed make sense. That’s something I admire about them. They do come up with smart moves and back them up with solid reasoning. They can’t afford to please everyone, so with the powers vested in them, they can only do what they feel is right for everyone of us, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’ll be worried if the government decides to go against everything just because the public outcry is strong. As a small country with no natural resources other than beer, they have to be firm. In Singapore, the phrase “nice guys finish last” cannot ring more soundly.

Unfortunately, their ban on shisha is not one of those “many, many instances”. It has been nearly two weeks since the ban was announced, but I still can’t find a rational reason to back up the government’s actions. Believe me, I’ve tried as hard as I could.

Before the government announced their ban, they published a series of ads in the mainstream media warning about the usage of shisha and how hookah is way more hazardous than smoking normal cigarettes. At that point in time, I’m pretty sure most of us non-smokers weren’t interested in something that’s not related to us. I thought it was cool, but didn’t really give it much thought despite the ad’s daily appearance in the daily I was reading. When the Singapore government warns us about our safety, it’s usually true, although there will always be a group of naysayers who will always try to convince you of the otherwise.

About a week later, the ban was announced, and all the media outlets ran it, including the daily. I didn’t really have an interest in news like that, so my reaction was simply, “there were ads telling me shisha was 200x more deadly than smoking cigars, so the government actions should be heralded. Kudos to them taking action and trying to improve our health. Hooray!” and I moved on to the next page. If you think about it, it’s pretty unprecedented isn’t it? The Singapore government literally gave us a trailer, in a newspaper! Even in hindsight, that, hands down, is brilliant. It’s so WWE (to those who don’t watch wrestling, usually they broadcast promos, or more specifically, vignettes, of upcoming stars who are going to make their main roster (RAW, SmackDown) debut, from developmental territory (e.g. NXT)). And this was awesome. Never have I thought a health ad would literally lead to a ban in the space of days. Which government in the world dishes out trailers for their policies?

At that point in time, I was quite happy that our government was doing the heroic thing. Banning stuff that’s absolutely stupid. But then, my pride was toppled over when I started to realise how nobody was celebrating this supposed health victory. Smokers were understandably pissed, shisha users were understandably more pissed, but wait. Non-smokers were pissed too? That’s odd. Why would non-smokers be pissed about a government policy that not only not affect them, but also aim to eradicate a health hazard?

Then, I realised.

Later than everybody else, sadly.

The government doesn’t care about my health.

They’re just concerned about their money.

Don’t get me wrong, shisha is a nasty piece of work. Fans will try to convince you about the lack of evidence about the supposed health effects, but come on, really? A claim from North Korea stating that its democratic holds more water than your argument. For those who do not know what shisha is, it’s essentially a “tobacco product which is burnt and smoked through a pipe connected to a water vessel”. It’s addicting, alarmingly poisonous, causes a host of sexual issues, allowing the spread of various diseases, and catalysing all the health risks you could possibly think of.

But you see, the only reasoning that the government has came up with is that shisha “is harmful”. That’s it! I have never seen the government give just one core reasoning when they’re implementing a policy before. Just one main reason? That’s not right. Even my English teacher told me I need at least three strong topic sentences to support my thesis when I write an essay.

Heck, there’s so many things that are harmful, so why not be the very best like no one ever was and ban them all?

While shisha is no less harmful than other forms of tobacco use, the Ministry of Health (MOH) intends to prohibit the import, distribution and sale of shisha. According to the parliamentary secretary for MOH, “existing licensed tobacco importers and retailers who import or sell shisha tobacco will be allowed to continue importing and retailing shisha tobacco until Jul 31, 2016 as a transitional measure”.

At this point in time, the debate is begging for two points to be answered.

Firstly, if shisha is, as primary school kids would put it, super duper ultra uber dangerous, why didn’t they just ban it immediately? It’s a bit weird isn’t it? Imagine if Jack Neo launch a trailer for a movie related to lion dance, and then tell us the main part is going to be released much, much later during the end of the movie. Oh wait.

Oh wait.

Secondly, if the reason behind the “transitional measure” is to let stocks deplete and allow shops to integrate into a different modus operandi, then why are the S-League players informed of the new league changes (essentially, the number of teams in the league was cut from 12 to 10, and each squad is only allowed a maximum of five players above the age of 30 in each team) so abruptly and have the rule implemented immediately instead of having a grace period of another season to slowly phase in the new changes, which are, say it with me, absolutely stupid anyway, but that’s another issue for another day. However, in the S-League’s ridiculous handling of their new changes, their intentions, however controversial, do make sense. They are definitely not malicious, and there are definitely more than three valid points on why the new policies should be implemented, even though the way they went about doing their business has raised plenty of eyebrows.

In the shisha case, the government did not even bother to give three points.

They just gave one, and that point wasn’t even valid in the grand scheme of things.

Arab Street is well known for its shisha cafes, and its overpriced food. Shops are set up just  to cater to shisha users. If the government bans shisha, what else are the shisha cafe owners supposed to do? Sell nasi lemak and sambal belachan? The “transitional measure” sweet-nothings are just another way of saying, “Hey, we’re going to take away all the revenue stream from your shop, but we’re going to give you some time to you know, restructure yourself, get yourself off the ground, bulk up in the face of adversity and stay open. Oh, we’re going to take away your entire source of income by the way.”

And here’s the ironic part. Like almost every other ban in Singapore. It seems as though the government is hellbent on banning stuff that many of us has not heard before, and then making sure everyone hears about it. In Singapore, any press is good press. Shisha can be considered something that’s very “niche”, but after this PR storm, everyone just wants to try it before the ban officially kicks in. The mainstream press, as biased as they can be sometimes, have to report both sides of the story, resulting in positive experiences from shisha smokers being included in articles, and this only drums up people’s curiosity and interest in smoking shisha, and the increased exposure will inevitably drive more sales to shisha providers before the new law officially reports to work.

When cigarettes come into play in Singapore, it’s very hard for its digital cousin to not enter the conversation. The benefits of e-cigarettes cannot be anymore distinct and well-documented. Again, I think smoking is absolutely stupid, but I’m not that ignorant to not be able to stare at the blatant benefits of an e-cigarette. It’s cheaper, it’s less harmful (key word: less), and it’s pretty interesting from an outsider’s standpoint, as shown by articles from HowStuffWorks and Market Watch.  Despite all the obvious benefits over its funky paper counterpart, e-cigs are banned in Singapore. Why? Because it doesn’t benefit the government, as they have not found a way to tax the e-cigarettes. Strange isn’t it? The government apparently billed the health of Singaporeans as a top priority, but it refuses to budge and oblige when a healthier option comes along. It’s a bit like the government hiring foreign athletes instead of giving our local athletes a push because we have not found a way to train them. Oh wait.

The truth is, shisha hurt tax revenue generated from cigarettes. They hurt it real bad, and my leaders feel uncomfortable about it. Banning it and only allowing cigarettes will allow our profits, or rather, their profits, to rise again. And to justify their actions, our government does the only other thing that they excel in besides exercising diligence, and that is to sprinkle sugar on bull and call it candy.

To be honest, I didn’t really feel that compelled to write this article. My blog is based in Singapore, but my audience is mostly international, and they would very much rather be reading about something more relevant and relatable. To those who made it this far, I pass on my heartfelt thanks and gratitude for allowing me to share my opinions with you. Anywho, the TODAY (a free daily newspaper in Singapore) website published an article on well, not today, about why the move is justified, and that was when I knew I had to get this off my chest.

The writer, Jerald Soon, shared his opinions on why the ban is logical. Kudos and my respect to that guy, because he actually bothered to list down three reasons. The erm, reasons itself, weren’t that sharp tho.

Firstly, he claimed that:

One could… argue that the Government is indirectly promoting our liberty by banning a harmful product. For example, one’s life expectancy could be increased by abstaining from vices detrimental to our health. This will allow us to further other pursuits in life.

This made me laugh so hard. I shan’t bother explaining what’s wrong with that.

Banning cigarettes would affect a larger portion of the population. In light of a potential backlash from the banning of cigarettes, the Government has opted for the less drastic measure of imposing taxes.

Again, if you’re Singaporean, you’re probably laughing right now.

The tax money can be directed towards raising awareness of the ill effects of smoking cigarettes. Smokers can make their own informed decision to quit smoking.

Yes, he just said that the government is trying to prevent people from smoking by taxing smokers, and then using the money to tell them that smoking is bad and that they should not smoke”.

Your health is of the utmost importance, didn’t you know?

The comments section just made me laugh even more.

The government has indeed follow up the negative reception of the public like usual, they just regurgitated whatever they made pretty clear the first time round. It has not, however, issued a direct response to countless accusations of whether the ban is merely an issue about their tax revenues, and the handling of the entire situation can only be described as odd and uncharacteristic.

If my article has painted a positive image of shisha, I’m here to tell you once again that any form of smoking is…? Yes, absolutely stupid. It’s a pity to see people get bullied by tobacco, have their lives ruined and torn apart by something so small and insignificant. We all have our reasons for enjoying our bad habits, and less than ideal environments for these little actions to thrive and control our lives in. So, as far as I’m concerned, no one is in any place to force someone to stop doing something, but only to make a befitting amount of effort to see things from the perspective of others and seek the purpose of people around us through an open mind that is not always present on top of our sharp sense of judgement. Shisha is a monster, but the failure to identify the root of evil will only develop deep, deep hatred and anger among society, and the choice to remove an unstable beast instead of taking away its smaller parents, or opting for an healthier route which has presented itself for several 365s only galvanises the public’s misunderstanding of the authorities, further tarnishing a dilapidated, battered reputation that is no longer under protection with the advent of the Internet. Multiple platforms allow netizens to direct their fury to like-minded people with limitless multiples of heat, and the painful irony perhaps lie in the very fact that the tech-saavy road the government wants its citizens to travel on is responsible for the gradually obvious, and uglier, blemishes on the face that is representing the government. They waged war on shisha, and the sole victors of that battle will always be them, but unlike countless past instances of dominance, the government, unfortunately, is also the only sole loser of this poorly planned, incompetently executed battle.


Do you think the shisha ban is too drastic? What do you think would be a better alternative? Let me know in the comments below!

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6 Comments

  1. And during all these frenzy do people really forget that underaged kids have been going to JB for their occasional shisha fix.

  2. I am not expert on the topic but just this year, I believe they’ve implemented sin taxes here in the Philippines as well. According to Dept. of Health (DOH), we have the most numbers of smokers in Southeast Asia (data here: http://www.gov.ph/sin-tax/ ). Cigarettes are too cheap in our country. My father was once a smoker. I am proud to say that I was the one who stopped him with this addiction. He ordered me once to buy him 3 sticks of cigarettes. I told him, “Why not make it 3 PACKS, tatay? (father). Since it looks as though you can’t wait to to die of lung disease.” I made it sound sarcastic and quite dramatic, you know. My father responded and apologized. He asked me to buy him candies, instead. Since then, he stopped smoking. He turned to candies. All I’m saying is, change will start from a small group. Family. Or anyone closest to the smoker. We can’t just randomly pick a stranger in the road and tell him, “Cigarette is bad for your health.. ” blah blah blah. The advertisements have told them that, and they ignored it. The same thing with what the government is doing. We should promote telling anyone to encourage smokers who are close to them. That will have much more effect.

    • Hey! Yeap, I heard from media outlets that the statistics for smoking in the Philippines is really scary. Cigarettes are indeed dirt cheap over there, so raising taxes is something I feel the government must do. It’s more of a necessity than a want. As for your comment on stopping your father’s addiction, you made a valid point there. While anti-gambling ads are often heavily linked with the importance of family and all that, other societal problems are not given the same treatment when it comes to, well, treatment. Instead, they choose gore, which is something that is easily desensitised over a period of time. I too believe that instead of telling smokers what they will have if they smoke, they should tell them what they can’t have if they smoke, which is way more effective since we all want what we can’t have. Like you mentioned, getting family members to sort of “motivate” them will tie in nicely with this mindset as well.

      The thing is, our country’s smoking rate isn’t relatively high, and if too much smokers stop smoking after being encouraged by ads and all that, imagine the huge impact on our government’s revenue.

      Thank-you for your insightful comment by the way and for sharing your story on my blog :)

      • I should thank you for your post as well. It’s the longest comment I’ve ever had in WP to any post. It’s even longer than some of my posts. I hope I can have enough strength to post on my blog as you do. You are brave. I am not. Like there’s a wall that prevents me to write this and that. But I’ll practice with the Writing 101 (or 201). So, yeah, thank you for your thought-provoking post. It deserves a reader.

  3. Well argued. I don’t know the English teacher you mentioned, but he or she should be impressed. And as one of your international readers, I am interested, partly because I get to learn a bit about Singapore and partly because I’m interested in the viability of bans in general. I grew up in the U.S. and now live in the U.K., and from what I’ve seen, banning popular substances generally brings more problems than it solves.

    • Hi Ellen! Thank you for your comment. Haha, everyone in Singapore is pretty much taught to give three points in their essays :) Hmm, I’m glad that my blog has provided you with an insight to Singapore. I’ll be posting positive stuff about my country in the near future (cause all my posts about SG in my blog are pretty much entirely negative), so you know, not everything is dark and gloomy here haha. For huge countries like the US and the UK, banning popular substances is definitely not a amicable solution, considering the size of the nation and the people’s strong belief in democracy. In Singapore however, where our population merely crosses 5 million, banning them is probably the most effective way of solving certain societal issues. It just so happens that unlike previous times, the reasons behind the ban on shisha is terribly unjustified, and the “dictator”-sque behavior instead of clear democracy doesn’t bode well for the image of my government, especially when elections are coming up soon.

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