About half of the shisha cafes in Kampong Glam have had their outdoor smoking corner licences revoked this year, as the authorities clamped down harder on the establishments after they repeatedly flouted licensing rules.
A National Environment Agency (NEA) spokesman said that 12 "recalcitrant" shisha operators out of 23 in the Malay heritage quarter faced the action for allowing shisha smoking outside designated areas.
In contrast, only two establishments in the area were sanctioned last year. It is unclear how long the revocation applies to the 12 establishments but one cafe showed a letter from NEA, which indicated it is effective for three years. In previous years, the NEA had mostly issued only warnings and fines.
In shisha smoking, the smoke from fruit-flavoured tobacco is passed through water and inhaled using a pipe.
The Health Promotion Board (HPB) has in recent years raised awareness about its health risks. It estimates that a person smoking a shisha for 45 minutes inhales as much smoke as from 100 cigarettes.
There are nine other shisha outlets in places such as Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. In 2009, a public consultation on anti-smoking laws led to talk of a ban on shisha smoking but that did not materialise.
NEA's licensing rules state that only 20 per cent of an establishment's outdoor refreshment area may be used as a smoking corner, but many flout the rules because the trade is lucrative, attracting thousands of customers every week.
A one- to three-hour session of shisha smoking typically costs $20 to $35.
All five shisha cafes in Haji Lane have had their outdoor smoking licences revoked: Cafe Le Caire, Going Om Cafe, Narmai Cafe, Merdandy Bar & Cafe and Al Tazzag Restaurant. The street - home to chic clothing stores and bars - has for many years been seen as a shisha hot spot.
The fate of shisha cafes in Kampong Glam now appears dire as customers who have enjoyed lounging at these establishments smoking shisha over food and drinks are staying away.
Some cafes told The Straits Times that they have lost most of their earnings since NEA's move, and may close within months.
"After this month, if business doesn't pick up, we will be gone," said Going Om Cafe owner Oliver Pang, 39, who lost his licence last month. Up to 1,000 people visited his cafe each week, he estimated, compared with 300 now.
Removing shisha smoking from Kampong Glam would erode the unique identity of the place, he added, leaving it to become "another Bugis Street".
The owner of Narmai Cafe, who wanted to be known only as Mr Ali , 50, called for the Government to make clear its long-term vision for the quarter.
"We don't know what direction it is looking for," said Mr Ali.
But newer establishments, such as gourmet burger restaurant Bergs, said the area can still thrive without shisha smoking. A Bergs spokesman said: "It will transition from a place for younger kids to a place like Holland Village. This area has already changed enormously in the past two years. There are now more higher-end restaurants and bars."
Mr Mohamed Iqbal, 41, who runs a store selling medicated oil, said: "Shisha is just a new trend. It's not connected to Kampong Glam's identity and history."
National University of Singapore architectural historian Lai Chee Kien agreed. "In the 1980s, I remember it had spices, fabrics, eateries, even tomb-makers," he said. "It never really was a place for shisha till recently."