Throughout history and across the world, people have indulged in activities and substances that while stimulating and pleasurable also have detrimental effects upon the participant or user, especially if done to excess. These activities and substances include commonplace habits such as gambling, smoking, and drinking alcohol; they are often addictive and in the West are collectively grouped together as ‘vices’. Given their potential for harm, governments often seek to control and regulate these activities, particularly when they are done in highly visible public spaces. Similarly, most religions have injunctions against some or all of these ‘sinful’ pleasures. However, secular attitudes towards these activities are diverse and often contradictory; ranging from acceptance and encouragement to condemnation and criminalisation. In turn, these differing responses are conditioned by political, economic and cultural factors that change over time. Crucially, because of the potential for contradictory attitudes, vices frequently become areas of contestation between, for example, the state and its citizens or the colonisers and the colonised. As such, the management of these controversial pleasures, and the spaces in which they are conducted, provides vivid examples of how power is exerted, challenged and subverted.
We will explore this interplay of power, space and pleasure through examining how attitudes and policies towards vices have evolved in Singapore since the colonial period, when the British tolerated and taxed opium but sought to prohibit gambling, through to the present day, when the government draws revenue from gambling and alcohol but has banned various narcotics. To do this, we will examine a variety of archival sources and other types of primary sources such as contemporary poster campaigns.