Curb public drinking judiciously

The reservations Singaporeans have over the public consumption of alcohol were made amply clear during a consultation exercise carried out by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and government feedback portal Reach earlier. Support for two measures proposed was overwhelming, with 83 per cent agreeing with the idea of no-alcohol zones in some public places and 76 per cent with that of shorter retail sale hours.

MHA and Reach now have launched the second phase of public consultations with a choice of ways of restricting alcohol consumption based on practices abroad. These models range from partial restriction with selective enforcement, where the police act against people who create a nuisance when consuming alcohol, to restrictions applied in all places and at all times. In between are options to partially restrict consumption by place or by time. The consultation exercise provides Singaporeans with an opportunity to suggest practical and viable solutions to the sporadic problems of public order and safety associated with unbridled consumption. No doubt, the role of alcohol which featured in discussions of the Little India riots in December last year might influence people as they ponder solutions.

However, it is important to avoid going to the other extreme and acting against even the moderate public consumption of alcohol. Entertainment and tourist areas depend heavily on the ambience that social drinking adds to the buzz of a city. Iconic establishments such as Zouk might not have taken off at all if restrictions on drinking had been excessive and punitive.

Overly strict and paternalistic rules can drain the life of entertainment areas that cater to a wide spectrum of locals and foreigners alike. In contrast, responsible access to popular nightlife and the usual range of alcohol helps to make Singapore attractive as a destination and sets it off from places marked by a cultural bias against drinking.

In the circumstances, zoning and selective restrictions might provide a middle way between laxity and excessive regulations. Dry zones in public spaces associated with rowdy behaviour could be a possible solution. There also is merit in examining how to create a socially congenial atmosphere in congregation hot spots and common areas in the neighbourhood, such as playgrounds, void decks and areas around MRT stations.

In giving their views on ways to contain disorderly or inconsiderate behaviour caused by the public consumption of alcohol, Singaporeans would wish to preserve the freedom to drink with the freedom of people not to be subjected to the perils of public drunkenness.

In the final analysis, the solution must fit Singapore's realities.