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Want Your City-State to Become a Capitalist Success Story? Ban Spitting.

The governing philosophy of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew contained multitudes: a belief in the enriching power of the free market; a development agenda implemented by a strong central government at the expense of personal freedoms. Alongside these well-known themes, however, there was also this: Absolutely never, under any circumstances, would there be public ...

singapore

The governing philosophy of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew contained multitudes: a belief in the enriching power of the free market; a development agenda implemented by a strong central government at the expense of personal freedoms. Alongside these well-known themes, however, there was also this: Absolutely never, under any circumstances, would there be public spitting in the Lion City.

In Singapore, anyone caught expectorating can be hit with a hefty fine of up to $1,000 and $5,000 for repeat offenders. That law is part of a raft of legislation that Lee put in place -- on gum chewing, bird feeding, and flushing public toilets -- that reached deep into citizens’ daily lives and that remain a part of Singapore’s legal code today.

Lee’s strictures on spitting were designed to curb a habit fairly thoroughly ingrained in traditional Chinese culture. Here, for example, Deng Xiaoping meets with Margaret Thatcher with a spittoon in the foreground. The Chinese reformer was a lifelong spitter.

The governing philosophy of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew contained multitudes: a belief in the enriching power of the free market; a development agenda implemented by a strong central government at the expense of personal freedoms. Alongside these well-known themes, however, there was also this: Absolutely never, under any circumstances, would there be public spitting in the Lion City.

In Singapore, anyone caught expectorating can be hit with a hefty fine of up to $1,000 and $5,000 for repeat offenders. That law is part of a raft of legislation that Lee put in place — on gum chewing, bird feeding, and flushing public toilets — that reached deep into citizens’ daily lives and that remain a part of Singapore’s legal code today.

Lee’s strictures on spitting were designed to curb a habit fairly thoroughly ingrained in traditional Chinese culture. Here, for example, Deng Xiaoping meets with Margaret Thatcher with a spittoon in the foreground. The Chinese reformer was a lifelong spitter.

Photo dated 19 December 1984 shows senior Chinese

In the West, Singapore’s laws on personal behavior are seen as quirky eccentricities at best (that happen to be great listicle fodder: “If You Think the Soda Ban Is Bad, Check Out all the Things That Are Illegal In Singapore”) and the mark of an invasive nanny state at worst. These laws, however, are rarely considered as a component of Singapore’s much admired economic growth — but maybe they should be.

Spitting has long been against the law in Singapore, a vestige from the days when, as the New York Times put it in 2003, “British colonialists tried in vain to quell what the port’s Chinese immigrants once considered as natural as breathing.” The city-state didn’t begin enforcing laws on the behavior until 1984. But when Singapore did decide to crack down, it meant it: The government fined 128 people for spitting that first year and another 139 in 1985.

The spitting crackdown came just as the Lion City’s economy was on the brink of the massive growth that would make it one of the richest countries in the world. In 1980, Singapore’s GDP per capita was a relatively lowly $5,000, according to the World Bank. In 1985, it was $6,781. By 1995, it was $24,937. Foreign direct investment, in particular, was also about to see a big jump, increasing by more than five times in the years between 1985 and 1990.

Rather than drawing a straight line between anti-spitting laws and Singapore’s economic development, Richard Vietor, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of How Countries Compete, sees such measures as “part of a package of policies that together added up to a development strategy.”

“They added up to a strategy of making Singapore a ‘first world oasis in the third world,’” Vietor said — and turned Singapore into the most attractive place to do business in Southeast Asia, which it remains today. The city-state retains the number one slot on the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings.

Many of the biggest admirers of Singapore’s rise have since followed in its footsteps and stepped up anti-spitting measures. In 2003, in the wake of the regional SARS outbreak, Hong Kong announced a “no-tolerance” policy, tripling the penalty for spitting to $300. Shenzhen, home of China’s first Special Economic Zone, launched after Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Singapore in 1978, is once again taking cues from the city state: In 2013, it announced that spitters would be fined 200 RMB, or a bit more than $30.

The Shenzhen ban comes at a time when the politics of spitting as a dividing line between the “civilized” and “uncivilized” world have grown increasingly fraught, given the growing clout of mainland China, a country of rampant spitters. For residents of Hong Kong and Taiwan, for instance, spitting is among the most frustrating displays of uncouthness that could be committed by their mainland brethren. A 2005 survey found that spitting topped the list of bad habits deemed most annoying in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and, as it turns out, Singapore.

In explaining his widely mocked decisions to crack down on seemingly trivial bad habits, Lee writes in the second volume of his memoirs, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000,” that he “was confident that we would have the last laugh. We would have been a grosser, ruder, cruder society had we not made these efforts.”

Lee wanted to be thought of above all as a pragmatist: someone who pursued policies based solely on whether they helped in Singapore’s development, without any emotional attachments to ideology or tradition. It may be hard to measure just how much Singapore’s famed spitting crackdown helped — but it certainly didn’t hurt.

Flickr/mzagerp

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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