Environmental Laws to Combat Social Behaviours and Health Concerns

This article examines the development of laws relating to spitting in Singapore and the role legislation plays in increasing public awareness towards unhygienic and unacceptable social behaviour.

Spitting laws have been in the Singapore law books since the early 1900s but have only recently seen stepped up enforcement. The last available data on stepped up enforcement appears to be in the early to mid-1980s, when presumably the spread of tuberculosis and of course simple improving of social standards caused the Singapore government to balk at the average Singaporean’s attitude and to take steps to ensure compliance. Given the concerns with the reach that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (‘SARS’) has had, a number of blinds were pulled tight to reduce the spread of it. One of these included the heightened enforcement of spitting and littering laws.

Now what does this have to do with environmental laws as the practice of environmental law is commonly understood? Very little save that spitting laws have everything to do with the prevention of pollution, clean hygiene and the prohibition against the same is contained in the Environmental Public Health Act (Cap 95). The prevention of pollution and maintenance of clean hygiene so as to improve overall health is part of the practice known as Environmental Health and Safety.

What this article seeks to do is provide an overview of the development of the spitting laws in Singapore, do a broad quick comparison with some of the regional countries and highlight the importance that the local government places on combating the same. In the process, it is hoped that the wider arena of environmental laws as a whole is highlighted.

The Key Legislation in Singapore

Environmental Public Health Act

Section 17(1)(g) of the Environmental Public Health Act prohibits any person from spitting any substance or expelling mucus from the nose upon or onto any street or any public place. It would seem that this law on spitting was introduced into the Environmental Public Health Act only in 1987 — being passed by Parliament on 20 May 1987. This enactment seems to have been motivated by the campaign against spitting which started in the early 1980s. The penalty for non-compliance was a fine not exceeding S$1,000 for a first offence. There was a subsequent amendment in 1989 to increase the fine to provide that for a second offence, the maximum fine payable was S$2,000 and for the third and subsequent offences, the maximum fine was S$5,000.

Whilst the provision on spitting was introduced into the Environmental Public Health Act in 1987, that was not the first time that laws on spitting had found their way into Singapore law books. The provisions on spitting had already been included in the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Nuisances and Order) Act (Cap 184) (‘Miscellaneous Offences Act’). However, in the discussions in Parliament on the introduction of the spitting provisions into the Environmental Public Health Act, there was no express mention of the Miscellaneous Offences Act.

Miscellaneous Offences Act

The origins of the Miscellaneous Offences Act can be traced back to 1906. It was then known as the Minor Offences Act.

The provision on spitting, labelled as part of a collection of offences known as nuisances, was introduced in 1926 as s 12(g), which provided for a fine of S$20 for any person caught spitting on the floor of any school house, theatre, public building, or other place of public entertainment or assembly, or in any licensed public vehicle, or in any tram or railway car, or any wharf or jetty, or on any five-foot way or side walk of a public street.

Over the years, the language of the provision has been mordernised — although it would seem that the provision in s 11(f) as at 1955 is also in the current Act, which was enacted only in 1970. The 1955 Act is in like terms with the 1955 Malaysian Minor Offences Act. Under the Malaysian provision, however, the penalty prescribed is RM100. The penalty prescribed in the 1955 Act in Singapore was a maximum of S$50 for a first offence and a maximum of S$100 for a second offence.

The current prohibition on spitting in the Miscellaneous Offences Act provides as follows: ‘Any person who commits the offence of ... spit[ting] in any coffee shop, market, eating house, school house, theatre or public building, or in any omnibus, railway carriage or other public conveyance, or on any wharf or jetty, or in any public road, or on any five-foot way or sidewalk of any public road, or in any other place to which the public has or may have access.’ The penalties were increased in 1989 in tandum with the amendments to the Environmental Public Health Act to increase the fine to a maximum of S$1,000 for a first offence and a maximum of S$2,000 for subsequent offences. The anomaly here is that unlike the Environmental Public Health Act which prescribes a penalty for third or subsequent offences at S$5,000, no similar penalty is prescribed under the Minor Offences Act.

The offence of spitting in the Miscellaneous Offences Act at first flush seems to be much more comprehensively stated than that contained in the Environmental Public Health Act. However, note that the offence contained in the Environmental Public Health Act is wider as it catches offences involving the discharge off mucus from the nose as well, which strictly speaking is not an offence of spitting.

Republic of Singapore Independence Act

Although the spitting laws were introduced into Singapore pre-independence, the Miscellaneous Offences Act as we know it now was first enacted in independent Singapore only in 1970. During the interim between Singapore gaining independence in 1965 and 1970 when the Miscellaneous Offences Act was enacted, the Minor Offences Act would have continued to apply by virtue of s 13 of the Republic of Singapore Independence Act. This s 13 gives continuity to the application of all laws, whether written or otherwise, in existence prior to independence.

Applicability of other laws

Whilst the prohibition on spitting expressly provided for in the Environmental Public Health Act and in the Miscellaneous Offences Act, one can question whether the obligation placed on factory operators and on employers to provide a clean and safe working environment by the Factories Act (Cap 104) and the Employment Act (Cap 91) respectively are also wide enough to require steps to be put in place to ensure no spitting takes place. Spitting detracts from the maintenance of a clean and hygienic environment, and if that further gives rise to possible incubation locales giving rise to, inter alia, diseases, the employer or factory operator may be found to have breached a duty.

Why a Sudden Surge in Enforcement?

As observed, whilst the laws have been around since the turn of the last century, its enforcement has never been consistent as such. As observed in the introduction, the last round of heightened enforcement appears to have taken place in the early to mid-1980s. However, merely because there has been a lack of enforcement does not detract from the fact that the law prohibits the act of spitting and that a violation can subject the offender to penal consequences.

Recent reports in the local newspapers highlight a larger number of people who have been fined for spitting. It was noted that since 17 May 2003, the National Environment Agency officers in Singapore have caught at least 60 spitters. None were prosecuted in court, but had their fines compounded, thus paying fairly low fines.

The heightened enforcement is not just a facet of Singapore laws, but also some of the regional countries. In an article dated 15 May 2003, the New Straits Times (Malaysia) reported that in China, in a fight against the deadly SARS virus, some 1,000 Chinese public health workers were deployed to fine locals who violate anti-spitting by-laws.

It may be said that enforcement is not always intense given that spitting relates to a social behaviour. Literature is scarce, but it is arguable that it was first introduced in Singapore to improve social hygiene and to combat against various diseases that could be spread through sputum.

On diseases, when the law was first introduced, it was concerned with the spread of tuberculosis, small pox, malaria and other similar infectious diseases. Most recently, the concern turned to SARS given highlights that poor hygiene reportedly contributed significantly to the spread of the SARS virus in countries such as China and Hong Kong. The coronavirus behind SARS can survive for up to six hours in the air and even longer in sputum. Researchers have shown the coronavirus surviving more than 24 hours on a plastic surface at room temperature, and longer in the cold. This has serious implications if public places are not kept as sterile as possible.

Since changing social habits are not easy, the more effective way was to use legislation already in existence to try and control social behaviour.

Cultural Concerns

It is without doubt that spitting is a heritage of many Asian cultures, and the only way to combat the same would have been through the enactment of laws and effective enforcement. In China, for example, spitting and coughing out phlegm is common, especially in polluted areas. In India, given that many chew pann and tobacco leaves, it is not unusual for them to spit the contents out indiscriminately. The underlying problem comes from a lack of civic mindedness and proper etiquette.

Given such cultural habits, the authorities have recognised that the first step towards eliminating the problem is to introduce laws. In this regard, various states in India have in the recent past introduced laws to combat, inter alia, spitting. One example includes the West Bengal Prohibition of Smoking and Spitting and Protection of Health of Non-smokers and Minors Act 2001. Goa appears to have been the first Indian state to introduce prohibitory laws against spitting in 1999.

However, laws themselves are insufficient. Testimony to this is the fact that although the prohibition against spitting has been around for almost 100 years in Singapore and almost as long in Malaysia, the problem has never been arrested. It would seem that only heightened enforcement can reduce the indiscriminate acts and ensure the maintenance of the highest standards of cleanliness. Yet, for how long? In the words of one individual recently fined for littering as reported by The Straits Times, ‘You do feel the pinch when you pay the fine, but after a few days you’ll forget about it. I’ll just be sure to keep an eye out for enforcement officers the next time.’ If this is the attitude of the majority, then it would seem that our enforcers cannot let off.


At the end of the day, a combination of laws, the consistent enforcement of the same and changing cultural norms will form the pinnacle of ensuring a cleaner environment. Apart from public enforcement, employers and factory operators should also take steps to ensure that hygiene and cleanliness are made part of work and operation manuals at the offices and factory premises. In this regard, health safety manuals may have to be revisited.

Kala Anandarajah
Rajah & Tann
E-mail: kala.anandarajah@rajahtann.com