Elaine Ee-Meyers: It’s time to legalize chewing gum in Singapore

Elaine Ee-Meyers: It’s time to legalize chewing gum in Singapore

Lift this absurd ban: For want of nothing else, think about the money

We're faced with rising inflation, increased cost of living, and economic uncertainty.  The government’s recent budget included S$6.6 billion of handouts for hard-up Singaporeans. So here's a thought on how to generate more income for our country’s coffers, without quadrupling rents or erecting yet another Electronic Road Pricing gantry.

Tap into the huge economic potential of legalizing an illegal substance.

I’m not talking about soft drugs, such as cannabis. I’m talking about the sugary, sticky, sometimes colorful stuff called chewing gum.

Don’t laugh. Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit and Chiclets minty gum squares are the center of serious debate here.

Chewing gum was first banned in 1992 under the slightly-hard-to-take-seriously “Regulation of Imports and Exports (Chewing Gum) Regulations,” which prohibited the import of chewing gum, even for personal use.

As recently as 2010, the government reaffirmed this act.

But to draw a connection between the -- um -- Two Cs is not without premise.

There are similarities between the effects of criminalizing a substance like cannabis or chewing gum, and the arguments for legalization.

When a substance falls under government control -- whether it's Moroccan skunk or Hubba Bubba Bubble Gum -- several things happen.

People start to finds ways to obtain it illegally; in our case, smuggling it in by the stick-load from Johor and Batam, or wherever Singaporeans happened to have traveled.

Police money then has to be spent tracking these smugglers down and dealing with them. A black market emerges where trade is unregulated, untaxed and therefore potentially wasteful.

There could be some serious chewing gum dealing going on here, for all we know.

Proponents for legalization have argued that it would save the police force a ton of money because they suddenly have fewer criminals to pursue. A 2002 study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in Britain concluded that legalizing cannabis could save the police force £38 million (S$76.79 million) a year. No doubt police funds could be saved in Singapore if chewing gum were legalized, and put towards something like the new Middle Class But Homeless Fund.

Another point in the argument for legalization is that you can then tax the substance and contribute towards raising our country’s GDP (ministers, are you listening?).

Dr Alex Wodak, a director at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, said in an article on legalization in Australia’s Daily Telegraph in Feb 2010, that prohibition only leads to a big black market, and that “having a black market of [that] size is no good for anybody.”

The city of Oakland, California, actually implemented a tax on medical marijuana in 2009 and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has since reported that this has helped significantly in reducing his state’s vacuum of a budget deficit.

In each problem lies a hidden opportunity, right?

After all, in 2004, grueling negotiations between Wrigley Co. and the Singapore government left Wrigley’s representative Philip Crane gob-smacked at the toughness of our local politicians over this issue. But it lead to the inclusion of a clause in the Free Trade Agreement between Singapore and the United States allowing the sale of medicinal gum.

So we’ve already taken a step towards legalization.

Let’s be pragmatic about this like true Singaporeans. We’re not heeding the cries of anguish that erupted when chewing gum first became a controlled substance, and we're not complaining about a paternalistic government treating its citizens like five-year-olds, or about infringements of people’s personal habits, or anything ideological like that.

We’re just saying, hey, why don’t we make this work for us?

Co-opt the “enemy,” so to speak. And maybe, finally, stop making such a disproportionate fuss over a benign substance that shouldn’t be a political issue at all.