I was quite struck by this letter to the Straits Times Forum on July 18, 2017. The writer, like me, has suffered from the effects of secondhand smoke drifting into her HDB flat (public housing flat in Singapore, for the benefit of my international readers) from her neighbours’ units. Below is her letter, followed by my response.
Crack down on inconsiderate smoking neighbours
Published Jul 18, 2017, 5:00 am SGT
I am one of the HDB dwellers who have been exposed to second-hand smoke from neighbours living in the flat below.
In my case, the family of three are all chain smokers and, on weekends, they would invite their friends, who are also smokers.
They smoke in the balcony, bedrooms, kitchen and toilets with the doors and windows wide open. Ceiling fans and exhaust fans expel cigarette smoke from their flat.
Though I had been suffering from chronic respiratory infections since moving into the flat five years ago, I was unaware of the harmfulness of the second-hand smoke until a chest X-ray during a medical check up last year showed that I had a growth in my lower right lung.
Read the full letter here.
The problem is complex and requires both very frank discussion and a strong will to resolve.
On the one hand, everyone has the right not to be harmed physically by others. On the other hand, society widely acknowledges that smokers have the right to smoke. Now that smoking is banned in all common areas of HDB estates, it is difficult for smokers to find a place to smoke except for their own home. But when they do so, smoke wafts outside and affects their neighbours. As a society, we need to have a dialogue and negotiate our rights when they come into conflict. Does a smoker have the right to smoke in such a way that he significantly harms the health of others? I think most would say no. In that case, how do we define “significantly harm”?
Usually when one’s neighbours smoke, the toxins come in through one window and you can just close that window. But Ms Kong’s is an extreme case where you have multiple people smoking in different parts of one flat. You can’t reasonably expect her to close all her windows.
Yes, you can have legislation to ban smoking in apartments (if any MP has the concern and gumption to push for it) but that cannot be the whole solution. Because enforcement can never be everywhere. In my old block, people were smoking everywhere – void deck, common corridor, staircase. All that a selfish, thoughtless person needed to do was glance around, make sure there was no NEA officer around, and light up.
It’s like the littering problem. We have stiff fines for littering, but we still have plenty of litter around Singapore.
Thus we need to also build a society whose behaviour is driven not only by financial carrot and stick, but love and consideration for fellow human beings.
This will require a fundamental rethinking and soul-searching in Singapore society.
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