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Singapore should rethink public drinking rules
Publication Date : 15-12-2013
The authorities have implemented "cooling-off measures" in the wake of last Sunday's Little India riot, which include a ban on alcohol sale and consumption in the Serangoon Road area.
So far, these measures are temporary. They are aimed at restoring order and giving affected communities "time and space to recover" from the incident.
Even as the dust settles, however, it is worth thinking about whether there is a need for longer-term measures to control drinking in public.
Singapore may seem to many like a nation of rules, yet the country is relatively tolerant on this issue.
Over the past two decades or so, a plethora of bars and pubs have sprung up in enclaves such as Clarke Quay, Boat Quay, Dempsey Hill and Robertson Quay. Watering holes have also emerged in heartland suburban areas, as well as public parks such as Punggol Park and Bishan Park.
In fact, booze is readily available at any 24-hour convenience store or supermarket, and anyone can buy it and head to the Botanic Gardens or East Coast Park for an afternoon picnic.
As far as imposing controls on drinking in public goes, the regime here is far more liberal than many places abroad, some with long-established drinking cultures.
In 2001, Britain amended its Police and Criminal Justice Act to give local councils power to address alcohol-related crime and disorder.
This is done through what is known as Designated Public Place Orders (DPPO), which give police officers discretionary powers to require a person to stop drinking and confiscate alcohol or containers of alcohol in certain public zones.
Once a DPPO zone is in place, police can seize alcohol from anyone who is not on licensed premises, even if the bottles or cans are unopened.
Although drinking is not banned in the zones, police can ask anyone to stop drinking and it is an offence to refuse, punishable by a maximum 500 pounds (US$815) fine. No explanation or suspicion that the person could be a public nuisance is required.
According to an article in The Times newspaper in 2009, more than 700 "controlled drinking zones" have been set up across England, and the local authorities were introducing the zones at a rate of 100 yearly.
Some zones even cover an entire city, such as Coventry and Brighton, encompassing even the quiet suburban streets.
The DPPO system has been criticised by many who see it as excessive regulation. Some have claimed that the police have applied the laws too aggressively, confiscating wine from families having outdoor picnics.
Meanwhile, in most parts of the United States, it is illegal to possess or consume an open container of alcohol in a public space such as on a street.
Drinking in a moving car is also not allowed, even if the person drinking is just a passenger.
Exceptions to the rule are rare but drinking is allowed on certain occasions, such as at a sporting event or tailgate party - a session organised around the open tailgate of a truck.
In order to get around the strict rules in the US, many famously drink alcohol out of bottles in brown paper bags. This is done because if law enforcers cannot actually see the alcohol, they cannot prove a crime was committed.
Finally, most states in Australia have laws where it is an offence to drink alcohol in public without a permit.
In Melbourne, the consumption of alcohol is banned in public places in the Central Business District and major events held on nearby streets and reserves are declared alcohol-free.
In Perth, the same ban covers areas such as the streets, parks and beaches and those caught flouting the law face a A$200 (US$179) fine.
People generally abide by the laws and it is a rare sight to see anyone on the streets with a booze bottle in hand.
In the same city, it also is an offence for staff of licensed premises to sell or supply alcohol to drunken people.
Entry to such venues, which may include bars and nightclubs, can also be refused if someone is deemed to be drunk.
There are no such laws affecting nightspots here but the Health Promotion Board (HPB) last year started a workshop to train staff of drinking establishments to identify signs of excessive drinking.
During each 4 1/2-hour-long "Responsible Service of Alcohol" workshop, participants are taught to delay, handle or stop serving alcohol to drunk patrons.
So far, HPB has trained 281 people, including wait staff, bartenders and floor managers from 18 entertainment outlets, including restaurants and hotels.
There are public drinking rules in many other countries too, including Canada, Hungary, Finland, Norway, Poland and Spain.
Some are blanket bans while others impose restrictions on certain built-up areas.
At a time when the government is looking at proposals on a ban on alcohol consumption at common areas, it may be worth looking more closely at where countries have been successful and where they have not, in imposing such restrictions.
What are some of the takeaways from this overseas experience?
One is that the police should be given special powers to stop people from drinking or to confiscate alcohol if necessary. But care needs to be taken in the actual enforcement of the law on the ground.
In the Singapore context, a blanket nationwide ban on public consumption of alcohol is probably excessive and unnecessary.
After all, for most public places like void decks and parks, the odd jaunt by individuals with a few beers rarely turns into a melee.
But while the authorities could consider imposing "no-alcohol zones" initially at certain problem pockets, the areas should not be based on stereotypes.
The emphasis must be on the safety of the general public - and that message needs to be made clear to all.
Let's stay rational, realistic and responsible in plotting the way forward and not let one bad incident pave the way for even more discontent.