Thursday, October 16, 2008

Society: Ridiculous Rules!

Man fined $200 for sleeping on bench 'I didn't know it was an offence'
on The Electric New Paper.

The above article reflects some of the ugliest aspects of our "nanny" state in Singapore. I left a comment (which I had earlier "promised" I would not, hehe) on the Young Pay-And-Pay Blog but I would like to elaborate here on my own blog.

Here's a quote describing what happened to the poor man:

On 1 Sep this year, Mr Kassim was cycling near the park in Tampines when it began to drizzle. He decided to wait out the rain in a shelter at the park.

It was pouring heavily by the time he reached the shelter, so he lay down on one of the wooden benches, and dozed off after about five minutes.

This could have happened to *anyone*!

What's wrong with our National Parks system? Here are some comments I'd like to make:

1) The way I see it, this rule is meant as a cudgel against the homeless squatting in national parks on a permanent/semi-permanent basis. The question I'd then ask is: Is this the right attitude to take? If we find homeless people forced to seek shelter in our public parks, shouldn't we be trying to find decent alternative free state accommodation for these people instead of fining them S$200 (which they cannot afford anyways?). At the same time, if we have old schools which have been left empty and could be converted into dormitories for foreign workers, shouldn't one or two be converted into homeless shelters for our destitute citizens?

2) Here's the official response according to the newspaper article:

The NParks spokesman said: 'We try to create the conditions that make visitors feel at ease when they come to our parks. When people abuse our parks by overstaying or squatting, they make genuine park users feel uncomfortable.

My comment? If "genuine" park users are uncomfortable, they could complain about it. Why set up a blanket rule on the assumption that park users *may* (rightly or wrongly) feel uncomfortable? What if I feel "uncomfortable" about half-naked joggers in parks (purely hypothetical, but I can imagine some people will take offense at even that)? This is one aspect of how the Singapore bureaucracy has functioned that has bugged me the most all these years. Laws, rules etc ... seem to be based on what ministers believe our citizens *may* feel and never based on how people *actually* feel. Did someone do a survey of park users? Do they do periodic surveys to see if people's feelings have changed over the years?

In the US, public parks are places where people can come and relax. One of these (common) relaxation choices happen to be taking a nap, whether under the shade or under the sun. This was so the last time I visited Norway and the UK as well. This is an *expected* behavior in public parks! What is so "dirty" about taking a nap or sleeping in Singapore society that it is forbidden in our public parks?

3) Further evidence of this bureaucratic thinking can be found in this quote:

'Others sleep on benches or in shelters in an inconsiderate manner and deny park users from using these facilities.

How is it a "denial" of facilities? If it is merely inconsideration at play, why not just wake them up and tell them to do it more considerately? (By considerate, I assume the napper was taking up too much space and others had wanted to use that space but could not). Again, this should have been easy for people to resolve in a public park. Only if one party causes a ruckus by being hostile and truly inconsiderate, I think, should park authorities step in.

Again, this rationale is based on the assumption that an active contention for resources is present at all times. If no one else wants to use the bench, why is it a "crime" for someone to sleep on it?

4) Finally, this takes the cake:

But Mr Kassim pointed out that if sleeping on park benches was an offence, there should be signs to tell people.

On the NParks website, there is a list of 'Dos' and 'Don'ts' for visiting parks.

Sleeping on a park bench was not among the 'Don'ts', though there is a disclaimer which said the list was 'not exhaustive or intended to be a complete list of the prohibitions or regulations governing our parks'.

It also stated that 'any omission does not constitute a waiver of any offence'.

Another classic symptom of the nature of our bureaucracy: "If we did not tell you an action was permitted, you may assume it is not permitted!". Of course, there are pros and cons to this approach. It is "safe". Nothing "bad" would happen if authorities "covered their butts" by never saying it was permitted. It is politically convenient. If people complained enough, the authorities could be seen to be "gracious" by adding a new "you can do this now!" rule and expect people to feel grateful for it. The con? Well, in such a restricted environment, people are bound to want to exploit loopholes. Yes, loopholes exist even in a "permit-based" rule system. This mentality is, frankly, uniquely Singapore. Most economically developed societies work on rules that grants people freedom to do as they wish unless it is of obvious detriment to others.

Finally, the fact that the rules appear to show up only (or mostly) on the internet is, to me, just obnoxious. From my experience in US parks, if rules or information are complex enough that they cannot summarize them onto a sign board, they would be published in a free booklet or pamphlet for people to acquire at convenient park locations. By taking this approach, it sure makes me feel like our authorities only want to bust the "riff-raff" who have no access to the internet. Of course, their blanket 'non-exhaustive' statement makes it possible for them to bust just about anyone ...


Kaffein said...

Sorry it's another case of 'burn the whole forest to get the fox' policy.

Makes no sense. But then so does a lot of policies, HDB, CPF, etc...

Maybe see broken liao.


Luke said...

"If we did not tell you an action was permitted, you may assume it is not permitted!".

Guess that they told the MPS that it's fine to sleep during Parliamentary proceedings. A PHYSICAL count of bodies ensures that quorum is met.