08 December 2007

Chewing gum diplomacy

You can now buy chewing gum in Singapore.

This may not seem particularly newsworthy, but, see, you haven't always been able to. Singapore has a veritable horde of oft-quoted, eyebrow-raising statutes: drug trafficking, for example, famously warrants the death penalty. You're also liable to be slapped with a hefty fine for not flushing a public toilet, and don't even think about importing "gun-shaped cigarette lighters" (drat!).

And then there was Michael Fay...but he might very well have deserved it.

Given this cultural milieu, the chewing gum thing isn't all that surprising. Gum was banned in this country a decade and a half ago, reportedly in response to miscreants sticking their masticated mementos on the sensors of the nascent Mass Rapid Transit system's train doors, causing crippling, nation-wide delays. As with all things Singaporean, though, the ban had been bandied about in discussions for nine years prior. Let me tell you—those among us who lived in this country in those mastic-free days were forced to make do with Mentos, and massive amounts of hawker food.

Beginning in 1999, things began to change. That year, the US and Singapore entered into negotiations for a free-trade agreement (aptly named the "US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement"—or USSFTA—which doesn't roll off the tongue nearly as well as NAFTA once did). The negotiations, however, ground to a halt in 2003 over two very weighty, globally important issues.

1. The War in Iraq, and
2. Chewing gum.

I'm not making this up.

Somehow, the William Wrigley Company had finagled the chewing gum issue into the political and economic discussions of two sovereign countries. It's that important.

The sad thing is, it turns out that expressing support for the invasion of a third country not party to the discussions on—shall we say—tenuous intelligence grounds was the easier of the two decisions.

The chewing gum thing, though...that was a different story. Unfortunately, thanks to Wrigley, a few lobbyists plying the ear of our Executive Branch, and some well-paid (er, well-placed...sorry) Congressmen, unless these two countries could bring themselves to see eye-to-eye on this sticky subject, free trade just wasn't going to be possible. Chewing gum, it seems, is a matter of national security for our President.

Singapore knew that getting into an unrestricted free-trade agreement with the US would be a huge boon to its economy. But, having gained the island nation's support for wholesale destruction of a country, King George the Elastic wasn't bending on the chewing gum issue (Now really. How will he go down in history? He was willing to scrap an entire free-trade agreement, thwarting the economic advancement of an all-around pretty impressive country, all over some edible elastic. Brilliant). This left Singapore in a bind. So, they compromised.

After nearly fifteen years of drought, you can now buy medicinal chewing gum in Singapore! And wouldn't you know it? Wrigley's Orbit gum happens to have "medicinal" properties (surprised?). How amazingly forward-looking of the company!

Unfortunately, the gum has to be sold by a pharmacist or a dentist, who is required to take down your name, thereby tracking your arabica intake. For all their trouble, though, Wrigley's hasn't gained much. We've yet to see a single Singaporean chewing gum. Mentos still reign.

So there you have it. That's how we found ourselves spitting out a piece of gum (into a trash can, of course) in Singapore. And not getting fined.

A satisfied halt
Ah, but Singapore. We inexpressibly love it here, chewing gum diplomacy aside. After a final, overwhelming, scam-ridden day in Mumbai, we've ground to a satisfied halt in this country. Yes, it's a bit of a nanny state, but hey, we're from New York, so we're used to having our trans-fats fondled at the hands of legislators.

We're simply basking in the cleanliness, the broad avenues, the mélange of cultures, the pristine architecture, the tropical climate, and the food (oh, the food!) of this amazing country. We could stay here for a long time.

Which means that we might be relatively quiet for a bit. If things happen in Liberia, we'll write. And when we finally get our pictures uploaded, we'll do the same. Otherwise, though, the next few weeks have us visiting friends and relatives in Southeast Asia and Micronesia, so, if we don't post, it's because we're pretty sure no one wants to hear about Uncle Liverwort's lumbago or Aunt Clothilde's colic.

You don't, do you?

1 comment:

Chris said...

Colic? I thought that was just a baby thing. Shows you how much I know...

If you happen to see KT, AT, or LT in Singapore, please give them our best!