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Expats Behaving Badly : By Monica Pitrelli

4 min read

GLORIA JAMES-CIVETTA from the law firm of Gloria James-Civetta & Co talks about expats who break the rules and pay the price.

Q: From drunken fights to road rage and vandalising MRT trains, there have been some high profile cases of “expats behaving badly” in the news lately. Are these incidents happening with more frequency now, or does the press just pounce when these incidents occur?

A: Yes, these incidents do seem to be happening more often, especially situations at pubs, bars and clubs. We are seeing more instances of disorderly behaviour, public drunkenness, fighting and outrage of modesty cases. On any given day, there are at least ten cases involving expats in the court system. And once these cases hit the courts, the press reports on them and the details end up in Singapore’s Tamil, Malay, Chinese and English newspapers.

Q: What is causing people to act out?

A: I’ve handled cases where people get caught up in the moment or fail to realise how serious the laws in Singapore are. Expats sometimes learn the hard way that what they will be punished for acts that they would likely get away with back in Australia, the UK or the US. Of course, there are other instances where someone is simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Q: What is one thing that would surprise us about Singapore’s criminal court system?

A: Most people don’t realise that Singapore has no jury system. It closely follows the Indian Penal Code.

Q: I once saw a tourist casually flip the bird to a cabbie in the CBD. The cabbie got out and gave the guy a huge verbal thrashing, embarrassing the tourist quite a bit. Is giving the middle finger illegal here?

A: No, but it is highly offensive. However, other actions are, such as spitting on the street. This can result in a fine or being placed under a corrective work order, or CWO, which requires you to wear a bright green vest that says “Corrective Work Order” and clean up a specified location in town – the point is to shame the offender while deterring others from committing the same offence. Also, it is illegal to smoke in public areas, eat and drink on the MRT, jaywalk, possess pornography and walk naked in one’s house within the view of a neighbour.

Q: And chewing gum?

A: No, though there is a lot of confusion on this issue, chewing gum is not illegal. You can only buy so-called medicinal, or smokers’ nicotine gum from pharmacies, but you are not allowed to import it – not even a single pack.

Q: Even without breaking any laws, bad behaviour can show up on blogs or Stomp’s “Singapore Seen” website, as some expats have learned. Is there any recourse for having your image spread across the Internet in this way?

A: It depends on whether the depictions are defamatory.
Expecting a slap on the wrist? Not so fast. Here are some real life criminal cases that Gloria has handled – all involving expats.

  • Outrage of modesty
    Where a victim is groped only on the buttocks, and not on the breasts, the case is usually settled by paying the victim a sum of money and tendering a written apology. This is what happened to an Australian male charged for molesting a girl at a bar at Chijmes. When more than one victim is involved, there can be a custodial sentence of at least a week. That happened in a case where we acted for a Canadian-Australian tennis coach who was charged for molesting three girls in Clarke Quay.
  • Road rage
    A Korean man received two months in jail for hitting another vehicle that cut into his path when driving towards the Woodlands Causeway.
  • Drunken behaviour
    A Mynamar expat attended a company event and drank so much that he had to be assisted by friends to get home. On the way, a bystander thought that the two men were assaulting him and called the police. When the police came, the man got very agitated because he was so drunk, put up a struggle and in the process assaulted a police officer. He was sentenced to two months in jail.
    An American expat was charged for dangerous driving when he was caught driving under the influence on the wrong side of the road. He received a short jail term and a fine.
  • Drug use or possession
    Expat clients have faced jail terms varying from a few weeks up to a year, depending on whether they were charged with a Class A, B or C offense.
  • Shop theft
    An expat in a top executive job was caught for shop theft. A medical report was provided to the court, and she/he was let off with a stern warning. Another female client from the UK was caught with shop theft and faced a hefty fine.

What can we do for you?

Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact our criminal representation lawyers at 6337 0469 or email us at

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