If you’ve been near the vicinity of Pasir Panjang recently, you’d be astounded by the tranquillity of the place. The Labrador Park boardwalk takes you into a mangrove of lush greenery and rich biodiversity, and the seaside is a fantastic spot to watch the sun set. Walk further down the road and you could enjoy the satay at Pasir Panjang Food Center, which offers its patrons lovely hawker fair of some renown. All in all, a wonderful place. How jarring it is to remember that a few decades ago, it wasn’t the scent of cooking meat, but the tang of gunpowder and hot lead which inhabited the air. 37 years ago, Detective Davy Chan found himself in a shootout in Labrador off Pasir Panjang with a gun-toting criminal. Despite being shot in the neck, Detective Chan managed to wound his adversary by shooting him from the hip. The police managed to apprehend the criminal, winning Singapore a bit of peace in a time where such shootouts were far from a one-off occurrence.
In 2019, it’s hard to imagine a Singapore menaced by gun violence. The island nation’s high levels of safety and security is frequently touted as a point of pride by citizens and politician alike. Singapore’s safety can be attributed – in no small part – to the strict gun laws on firearms which govern it. Arms traffickers and armed robbers could receive the death penalty for their transgressions. Rigorous checks are conducted after every military live firing exercise to prevent servicemen from smuggling firearm components out of camp. It would not be unfair to say that Singapore has some of the strictest gun laws in the world – and yet, exposure to firearms is a ubiquitous experience for most of its citizens. This article attempts to shed some light on the evolution of Singapore’s relationship with firearms.
A Brief History of Guns in Singapore
It is almost unthinkable that the idyllic Clemenceau Avenue was the venue of what the newspapers then described as a running gun battle, where the notorious gang member Chow Ah Kow was gunned down by local police forces. The same report noted that Chow had been on the lam for four years before that fateful day, and had been cornered in Clemenceau Avenue by the police. After exchanging gunfire, Chow was shot in the chest by the lawmen, and collapsed to the ground. But the bullets did not kill him. Instead, rather than allowing himself to be taken alive, the gangbuster shot himself in the head.
In those years, such a battle was not an anomaly.
Licenced private firearms were first made legal in Singapore under the Explosives Ordinance of 1913. While a well-regulated and enforced licensing system might have mitigated gun crime, there were also many cases of illegal smuggling and possession of fire arms. So much so that in 1937, an amendment was passed to the original ordinance to make it harder to import guns to Singapore.
During the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), demand for firearms increased massively in Singapore. Presumably, the guns were used by the British to protect upstate farmland and estates from communist guerrilla attacks. In fact, the government actively encouraged the buying of guns by using price control mechanisms — making them more affordable. As soon as the emergency was declared to be over, gun regulations were stepped up again. In 1960, the price of a firearms license was increased by almost 12 times (from $5 to $60).
Even with these stricter regulations, by the time Singapore gained its independence, her citizens had more than 6,000 guns. Gun battles had become such a concern to local lawmen that they began to take cues from their American counterparts, training a third of their forces to shoot from the hip – a technique characterized as the Federal Bureau of Investigation style. This training was credited with helping police take down criminals during shootouts, such as during Detective Davy Chan’s battle in Labrador off Pasir Panjang.
1972 marked a series of victories struck against these violent criminal syndicates, culminating in almost a dozen arrests and caches of contraband and weaponry being seized. Yet the prevalence of such criminal activity seemed to prove that the original ordinance alone was insufficient to tackle the scourge of gun crime.
Understandably, legislative change was a-coming. The following year marked the introduction of the 1973 Arms Offences Act, which imposed strict penalties on those who unlawfully possess or carry firearms (apparently to prevent the decline of wildlife through hunting), marking the beginning of the end for mainstream civilian firearm ownership and the supremacy of a new role for firearms in Singapore. All ownership was to be banned except in cases where guns were kept at private shooting ranges, or where landowners satisfy the police of a need to protect their orchards from flying foxes.
Instead of being a tool employed by lawmakers and lawbreakers alike, the 1973 Arms Offences Act shifted the purpose of guns to one primarily dedicated to defending national security and public order.
The Institutional Role of Firearms in Singapore
The complex issue of firearm regulation has historically plagued most nations in the world – and given the contemporary tragedy of American school shootings, gun control debates in America have received the lion’s share of recent international coverage. To an outward observer, pro-gun control advocates seem to be fighting a battle not of Herculean proportion, but of Sisyphean nature. Just as the tragic Greek figure is eternally doomed to push his rock up the slopes of the Greek underworld, all attempts to pass gun control legislation are met with tremendous and oftentimes crushing opposition from their opponents in political parties, corporations and Second Amendment lobbying groups. There have been concessions and there have been victories. But any attempt at stricter firearm regulation have been – and likely will continue to be – met with dedicated resistance from large segments of the American people. One of the most reliable arguments employed by the pro-gun lobby is that the Second Amendment confers the right to bear arms upon its citizens for a crucial purpose: protection against potentially fascistic institutions.
For a sizable portion of Americans, it is imperative that citizens be allowed to bear arms so that they may protect themselves from the threats of a tyrannical government. In other words, private ownership of firearms serves to combat the rise of potentially corrupt and fascistic institutions.
No such narrative seems to have taken root in the Singaporean national consciousness. In the Lion City, firearms serve almost exclusively as tools of the nation’s institutions. With minor exceptions (such as private gun ranges), nearly all firearms in Singapore are employed by members of the police and military forces as instruments for upholding peace and security. Unlike in America, the Singaporean citizenry’s trust in military and police institutions seems firm enough to dissuade them against taking up arms to protect themselves against oppression. This might be attributed to the fact that the bulk of the Singaporean military and police forces comprises of civilian conscripts instead of regular staff. As such, there is a direct link between the institutions of power and the people — ensuring more trust.
Also, while most civilians do not own guns, a large population of male citizens have held arms in service of their nation. Other civilians who have attended local military parades have seen the locally minted SAR21 rifle wielded by rows of men in green. Severe as firearms regulations are in Singapore, exposure to guns appears to be a rather ubiquitous experience amongst most of the population.
Looking to the Future
It is said that the effectiveness of a governing body lies in its ability to adapt according to the prevailing social needs and issues. In its early years, the Singaporean populace was concerned with the prominence of gun violence and (though it is barely discussed in this article) animal conservation. The implementation of additional firearm legislation directly responded to its people’s concerns and today, only a small percentage of the national population possess the prerequisite licenses to own and use firearms.
Most forms of firearm activity occur either within the confines of gun ranges or in the line of military and police duty, much to the relief of its citizens. For the younger generation of Singaporeans, it’s hard to imagine a Singapore that was any different.
With the advent of new threats to safety and security, it remains unknown whether the Singapore Government will be able to adapt its laws to effectively address the concerns of its citizenry. What we do know, however, is that on this front we can take comfort in the fact that they’ve succeeded before; who’s to say that they won’t succeed again?