When one can't hold one's drink

With much mention lately of Liquor Control Zones, fines, arrests and alcohol curfews in public places, those who see such measures as "draconian" may need some assurance that Singapore is not headed towards a Prohibition era - a temperance movement in the United States during the 1920s. It is not, of course.

What is being targeted by proposed laws to regulate public drinking is the appearance of disorderly conduct fuelled by alcohol. In certain spots, outdoor consumption of alcohol has led to the soiling of well-used spaces with discarded bottles and vomit, which has upset people living nearby. But Singapore has so far been spared the belligerence and violence that has plagued some cities with a distinct drinking culture. So only calibrated steps are called for here.

Essentially, those drinking peaceably in congenial public places outside the "happy hours" will be asked by the police to dispose of their liquor and be left to enjoy the public amenities available to all. Event organisers may apply for rules to be relaxed; while those drinking in licensed premises, like coffee shops and pubs, can continue to do so until these close for the night. Such a cultural dispensation would be in keeping with what one would expect of a cosmopolitan city.

Indeed, "moderate, unproblematic drinking is the norm in most cultures" and "societies with generally positive beliefs and expectancies about alcohol... experience significantly fewer alcohol-related problems" than uptight communities, as the independent, Britain-based Social Issues Research Centre has noted.

There's no denying that alcohol has been part of a wide range of cultures from time immemorial. It is synonymous with celebrations and, for some, linked to the everyday switching from work to play; while drinking spots are associated with sociability that is generally benign, inclusive and relaxing.

Still, it would be foolhardy to continue a cart blanche approach to alcohol, given its destructive effects when taken to excess and the grievous harm it can cause to certain groups, in particular, the young. Hence the need for more emphasis to be placed on nurturing social rules related to alcohol use and on the self-regulation of drinking habits. There is sufficient evidence that these can exert a greater influence than official controls.

Additionally, certain precautions are needed to ensure drinking does not lead to unruliness. Given the various factors shaping the effects of alcohol on behaviour, special provisions are justified for its consumption in public spots frequented by foreign workers. The aim, after all, is to help all unwind safely.