The heart of Singapore’s Muslim quarter loses its beat as shisha ban comes into force

From Monday, the import, distribution and sale of shisha will be completely banned in Singapore, including in the city state's Arab Street area where once the sweet scent of shisha mingled with loud music and lively dancing.

 Shisha smokers outside the Derwish Turkish restaurant on Bussorah Street in the Arab Street-Kampong Glam precinct of Singapore’s famed Muslim quarter on July 29, 2016. Courtesy Lee Yong Wei
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SINGAPORE // Ram took a long drag of his shisha, savouring the flavoured smoke from the gurgling water pipe as he sat outside a restaurant in the Arab Street precinct, the heart of Singapore's Muslim quarter.
It was one of his last shisha sessions at the Derwish Turkish restaurant, the 34-year-old Indian expat lamented.
From Monday, the import, distribution and sale of shisha will be completely banned in Singapore.
The government introduced the law more than 20 months ago on November 24, 2014. But retailers were given until Sunday to deplete their stocks and restructure their businesses to focus on other areas instead of shisha.
Anyone caught breaking the law will face fines of up to 10,000 Singapore dollars (Dh 27,400) or up to six months in jail – or both. And repeat offenders will be fined up to S$20,000 or jailed up to a year, or both.
According to local media, the law also prohibits people from bringing shisha from overseas to Singapore for personal consumption.
Ram, who gave only his first name, moved from Dubai to Singapore five years ago to work in the banking industry.
"I'm quitting shisha after the ban," he told The National on Friday, explaining that a throat infection related to smoking had forced him to stop smoking shisha for three months. However, Ram said, he had decided to allow himself a few last shisha sessions before the ban took effect.
While he agreed that smoking shisha is "obviously bad for health", he was not convinced the ban would help young people to quit.
"If you ban [shisha], people will go to JB [Johor Bahru] or Malaysia [to smoke], which is cheaper," Ram said.
"The ban is a good thing but I personally feel that when change has to come, it has to come from within us. Not through banning and stuff."
Shisha smoking has become a popular social activity in Singapore in recent years, especially among young people. That, together with the misconception that shisha is less addictive and less harmful than cigarettes, prompted the health ministry to introduce the ban "to prevent it from becoming entrenched in Singapore".
According to the Student Health Survey, which is conducted by Singapore's Health Promotion Board every three years to track health trends among adolescents, the proportion of students who used alternative tobacco products, including shisha, jumped from 2 per cent in 2009 to 9 per cent in 2012.
Meanwhile, the National Health Survey, which is conducted every six years, showed in 2010 that 7.8 per cent of people between the ages of 18-29 smoked shisha at least occasionally, compared to one per cent among those older.
The ministry of health also decided to ban shisha over concerns it "may serve as a gateway to cigarette smoking", parliamentary secretary for health Dr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim told parliament on November 4, 2014.
Two weeks later, a law undergraduate launched a petition against the ban on Isabelle Yeo asked the ministry to reconsider in view of shisha's importance to the Arab Street area, a popular tourist attraction that draws visitors from Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries in particular.
"Shisha is integral to the Middle Eastern culture, and lends a very special quality to the Arab Street area. Here is one of the last worthwhile bastions in Singapore that properly combines soul, heritage and leisure," Ms Yeo said in her petition, which garnered 1,097 supporters before closing on December 5, 2014.
"Removing what we already have with a sweeping move is at best uncalled for; and at worst, destructive," she added.
Singapore counted its highest number of shisha cafes in 2010 when there were 47 in the city state. This compared to only one in 2002.
But with the impending ban, the Derwish Turkish restaurant was one of the last remaining licensed retailers allowed to sell shisha until Sunday, and managed to enjoy a monopoly in the final days.
Mehmet Gul, 33, one of the partners in the restaurant, is bracing for harder times ahead. He said 30 per cent of the restaurant's business came from shisha, and the remainder from food and drinks.
"It will affect some of our staff too because we need to cut costs," he said, admitting there will be job losses when they stop selling shisha.
Banning shisha is one thing, he said, but watching the spirit of the once-vibrant street fade away was quite another.
"Arab Street generally was more lively when there was shisha," Mr Gul said. But "after restaurants started closing one by one, slowly, Arab Street got more and more quiet".
He misses the days when people used to dance in the streets, drawn out by the loud music and sweet fragrance of shisha in the air.
Just two streets away in a refurbished shophouse, Oliver Pang, the 42-year-old owner of the Going Om cafe, is also missing the community spirit that his restaurant used to foster when friends came together to share a shisha.
"When you have shisha, people want to sit and chill. They don't care if the drinks are coming a bit later, or the food is coming late."
Customers used to be willing to wait up to 40 minutes for their food, he said.
"Now if you take that time, they will just go, because before, they could smoke shisha and have a drink and then have the food later. Now, they just want to have the food and go."
His western-Asian fusion restaurant was on the brink of collapse when he stopped selling shisha in 2013 due to increasing government regulations on shisha. Since then, he has had to introduce a new menu that meets his new customers' needs.
"When we had shisha we were making [money], then we lost when we stopped shisha because of the changeover, the transition. But now, people are coming for the ambience and it's picked up again and business is actually better than when we had shisha on some nights," said Mr Pang.
However, the culture is very different now, and the sense of community and sharing is gone, he said.
With shisha gone and part of the essence of Arab Street disappearing with it, restaurant owners like Mr Pang and Mr Gul hope that the government will step in to bring back the tourists and locals who used to flock there. They want the authorities to allow buskers to stay longer and to bring back the music and life that Arab Street was once famous for.
"[When] people come, they bring life on the streets ... it gets lively and touristy," said Mr Gul longingly. "I hope the government will do something about it."