SINGAPORE - A migrant worker on painting duty in Marine Parade at the weekend took a break that ended with a $500 fine - almost his salary for a month - after he was caught smoking a duty-unpaid cigarette.
The Bangladeshi national, 33, had hidden his pack of illegal cigarettes within an empty duty-paid one when Customs officers caught him smoking one at an Housing Board block.
"One packet of cigarettes here is very expensive for my salary. The ones I buy from the dormitory are only $5," he said, referring to duty-unpaid cigarettes. A 20-stick pack of duty-paid cigarettes costs $12 to $14 here.
He added that he will not be going for illegal cigarettes again, as it is not worth doing so.
The worker was among 33 men aged between 32 and 70 who were caught smoking duty-unpaid cigarettes in an operation last Saturday by Singapore Customs that covered areas such as Chinatown and Geylang.
Nine of them were Singaporeans, while the rest were foreigners of various nationalities.
Of the 33 offenders, 25 were issued composition sums between $500 and $1,300 for possession of contraband cigarettes, two were issued advisories and another six are currently being investigated for offences under the Customs Act.
Customs officers seized 380 sticks of duty-unpaid cigarettes in total during the operation, which was covered by The Straits Times and other media.
Those tempted by "cheaper" duty-unpaid cigarettes may end up paying a high price for it, said Mr Chua Teck Hui, head of Singapore Customs' suppression and community engagement branch.
Customs officers conduct daily patrols and checks on smokers to suppress demand for contraband, with stiff penalties involved, he added.
"If caught smoking or in possession of duty-unpaid cigarettes, the offenders may be issued with a composition sum or be prosecuted in court," he said.
In Geylang, a 67-year-old man, one of the 33 caught, said he was shopping for groceries in the area when he felt the urge to have a smoke.
"I was so surprised when the plainclothes officers approached me. I really didn't expect to get caught," the security officer said in Malay.
During questioning by two Customs officers, he said he bought the cigarettes from a friend, adding that he usually rolls his own.
He was fined $800 after the officers found he had a previous record for possession of illegal cigarettes in 2020.
Just outside the nearby Paya Lebar Square, another team of officers found a 36-year-old Chinese national with two sticks of duty-unpaid cigarettes.
A follow-up search of his residence in Sims Avenue revealed another eight packets of contraband, with officers seizing 162 sticks in total.
The man sat on a wooden chair with his mask on in the living room of the sparsely furnished three-room HDB flat as Customs officers laid out the stash of cigarettes on the dining table.
He was eventually issued a composition sum of $1,300.
Customs said that buying, selling, conveying, delivering, storing, keeping, having in possession or dealing with duty-unpaid goods are serious offences under the Customs Act and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Act.
Offenders can be fined up to 40 times the amount of duty and GST evaded, jailed for up to six years, or both. Vehicles used in committing such offences can be seized.