Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Letter Of The Law Rules

Law enforcers in Singapore have it easy, they simply go by the letter of the law. Not for them the headaches of solving the idiomatic antithesis of pitting the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law.

Under the Casino Controls Act, no local residents, except "casino employees and authorities carrying out their duties", are exempt from paying the levy to enter the casino premises, an offence that attracts a fine of up to $1,000 plus the levy quantum. Should the casino operator fail to collect the levies, it is deemed to have contravened Section 116 of the Casino Control Act, and thus liable to disciplinary action, which can be cancellation or suspension of the casino licence, a letter of censure, or a fine up to $1 million. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was proud to shell out the 100 bucks when he and some grassroots followers visited Resorts World Sentosa "to take a look" a few weeks after it opened, declaring, "No choice, all Singaporeans must buy!"  No legal mind in the land dared venture that the prime minister could qualify as one of the "authorities carrying their duties", such as making an impromptu audit of the facilities, and ensuring terrorists were not on site to laundry their dirty money.

The 15 diners who "waltzed through Marina Bay Sands' casino without paying the levy" will surely face the consequences. Never mind if that route was the only exit after one of many MBS opening glitches that left them trapped in a high rise building. The diners had just patronised one of the spanking new MBS' restaurants, Imperial Treasure, on May 4, when they discovered that the two lifts were out of order. MBS staff blocked their egress and insisted on collecting the levy first. The profit motivated staff would probably have stood their ground even if the restaurant was on fire. The Singapore law was the law. See their determined faces here and here.

Playwright William Shakespeare wrote numerous works dealing with the letter versus spirit issue, almost always coming down on the side of "spirit", and forcing villains (who usually sided with the letter) to make concessions and remedy. Intentionally following the letter of the law but not the spirit has always been a useful tool of choice for oppressive authoritarian governments.  It is easily accomplished through exploiting technicalities, loopholes, and ambiguous language like "at the Minister's pleasure". Member of Parliament Alvin Yeo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law weighs in on the strict interpretation, "If you use language that's so general, it doesn't help the person on the spot because they won't know if it qualifies as an extenuating circumstance."


  1. You said "The profit motivated staff would probably have stood their ground even if the restaurant was on fire."

    Erm, you do know that the S$100 levy goes to the gahmen and not MBS right?!

    I think the staff there are more afraid of breaking the law, which unfortunately is also the usual excuse that service staff always use - it's policy, it's the law blah blah blah

    Then again, can we blame them in some instances when our "laws" are framed in such a way that offers no leeway or exceptions?

  2. I always maintained that the $100 levy is no deterrent, it's just another variant of the GST. Anyone who walks into the casino hall is carrying at least $1,000 in gambling money. What's 10%? Restaurants charge higher.