'As a result of my upbringing, I am properly clothed at all times': When S'pore made nudity in own home illegal (in public view)

Home is where the potential to get spotted naked is.

Nyi Nyi Thet | November 02, 2020, 10:27 AM

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In season three (1996) of hit U.S. TV show Friends, an oft-mentioned, but so far unseen, character made his first appearance.

He was usually off-screen, for obvious TV guideline reasons, and was almost always naked in his apartment. More an observation one of the Friends made when a conversational lull had crept up during the show's runtime, rather than a character itself.

Ugly Naked Guy, their neighbour who lived in the block next to Monica and Rachel's apartment, was observed as being unusually sedentary in that particular episode.

The Friends, after 20-ish minutes of good-natured joshing and hijinks, decided to fashion a "giant poking device" to reach his flat and see if he was actually dead, or merely in slumber.

After Joey made a couple of penis jokes (i.e. poking device), they successfully managed to rouse the man from his slumber. The poked man, still naked, was rightfully apoplectic, leading the Friends to hastily withdraw their poking device.

"Now he's showing us his poking device" Rachel remarked as Joey slipped in another quick observation about how the man's "poking device" couldn't make it all the way to them. It of course would have been an extraordinary feat if it could indeed make it across, but the audience laughed anyway and the Friends appeared to face no further consequence from their wanton disregard for common decency, and basically assaulting an innocent man.

28.9 million people in America tuned in for that particular episode. In the same year the episode aired, a country of less than 4 million people were having their very own tussle with the concept of neighbours au naturel.

How the sausage is made

During a 1996 February parliamentary session, then-Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Home Affairs (Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee), proposed three amendments to the law.

1. making nuisance or silent calls on public emergency telephone lines, ie, 999 or 995 calls;

2. using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards a person to provoke violence, cause fear, harassment, alarm or distress; and

3. appearing nude in public or exposed to public view.

The third amendment would eventually become Section 27A of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act.

It would also give the police the power to "use such force as may be necessary to enter the private place".

But just what prompted this particular amendment?

Among other things, an incident in Yishun:

"Members of the House may recall the strong public sentiments over a case of a couple who was seen nude in their Yishun Town flat. Although one has a right to privacy in one's home, this should not, however, be at the expense of public decency such as nude exposure."

Ho was referring to a 1993 case when a couple was spotted walking naked around their Yishun flat late at night. The first English article on this particular case being dubbed "A Room With R(A) View in Yishun".

This lead to quite a bit of coverage in the papers.

Nuts and bolts

Nearly 30 years after the nude couple strutted around in their Yishun flats, an MP for the same area, Louis Ng, brought up the issue of nudity in one's home again in relation to a proposed bill on second-hand smoking.

Perhaps if a nude neighbour is particularly attractive, and lives in a resale flat, the offence could also be colloquially referred to as second-hand smoking. Less harmful as well.

While 27A was just a tangent in Ng's broader point about second-hand smoking rules, and the perceived difficulty of enforcement. He did make this rather nifty point:

"Being naked in your own home doesn’t kill your neighbour but secondhand smoke could."

So if potentially lethal exposure to genitalia wasn't what the amendment was hoping to prevent, what exactly was the case made to clamp down on these free-wheeling residents?

In Ho's speech on the amending the bills, he pointed out the need to "maintain a certain level of public morality and behaviour" and that the crux of the bill was to protect the "morality and dignity of neighbouring residents and passers-by".

One of the few arrests based on the law came in 2009, when a 56-year-old man was spotted naked twice in his own house over a three-day period.

The first instance was when his neighbour's daughter spotted him eating through the common corridor window, he was sitting completely nude at the dining table.

The second instance occurred two days later, this time it was the mother herself who saw the man standing naked through the common corridor window. She subsequently made a police report.

The 56-year-old man, who had reacted rather poorly when later confronted by his neighbours, was fined S$2,600 for "being naked in a private place and using criminal force to annoy his neighbour".

The seeming novelty of the law has led itself to being part of plenty of listicles proclaiming the weird, unknown rules in Singapore you have to look out for.

But as you might have guessed, the law doesn't seem to be implemented all that much, or at least in any heavily publicised manner.

Perhaps people are naturally reticent to bring in the police for something that could be avoided by looking in another direction. Instances of showing privates in private were therefore funnelled mainly through media reports and citizen tipoffs.

Bottom more

A myriad of reports about naked neighbours have appeared in the papers over the years.

These include a Japanese family in Sengkang that walked around naked after a bath, a family of four in Jurong that walked around naked, and two separate residents in Mei Ling Street that cleaned their bodies in the kitchen.

According to Stomp, via an AsiaOne article, the incident in Mei Ling involved two separate residents in different flats towelling off and showering.

The pictures, which was taken in the evening, in the article appears to show the two residents wholly unaware of anyone taking photos of them.

There was also a bizarre report in The New Paper, with a prior report in Shin Min, about three women walking around topless in their flat.

The neighbour was scandalised by the fact that the three, while having nothing on, were going about their daily activities like brushing hair, teeth, and chatting.

Reporters who staked out the flat also noted that one of the residents was topless in the kitchen

Which brings up the question, were some of these cases really undermining public morality?

Most of the reports appear to show families or individuals going about their day, just without clothes. Rather than purposely going full monty to get back at the conservative values that heartland Singaporeans hold so dear.

In other words, what is the intent?

Pitching an intent

The issue of intent was brought up during the 1996 parliamentary session as well.

No less than then-nominated member of parliament, and future Attorney General, Walter Woon brought up the issue.

Woon said that in the times Singaporeans were in (1996 of course), whether just the sight of a nude body was "so disgusting" that Singapore had to criminalise it becomes a contentious issue.

He then warned of potential future private prosecutions by "prudish prim busybodies". Thus, Woon argued, with the inclusion of the word "intentionally" in the first line of section 27A, many of those woes could be deterred.

Now, if you're reading about this in 2020, you would most likely know that the word "intentionally" was not in fact placed in the first line, or at all.

We'll get back to the rather interesting exchange later, but intent and nudity in your private property is an issue not just in Singapore.

In Wales, Lynette Burgess, then 55, was charged with indecent exposure after she was filmed walking naked along a shared driveway.

According to BBC, her neighbour was "extremely shaken" by this, and expressed his wish not to bring up his children in "such an environment".

The case was ultimately dismissed, with the magistrate finding that Burgess had not "intended to cause harm or distress".

The New York Times assured a concerned reader in 2018 that walking naked in your own house, "even if your neighbour spots you", is not breaking New York law.

Although just like with other countries, they did hedge it by saying the intent of the nude person matters as well.

Interestingly enough, a real estate lawyer they cited had this to say when talking about the issue of nudity in another person's home:

“Nudity is, for better or worse, something that pretty much has to be tolerated when you live in a city as densely populated as New York,”

Perhaps that explains why the cast of Friends kept Ugly Naked Guy as a character on the show for over five seasons.

To them the man wasn't a moral hazard that had to be reported, like three topless women in a flat, but rather just another part of the skyline.

Taiwan also has a somewhat similar law in their books.

"2. Wantonly exposing one’s naked body or presenting lascivious posture in a public place or publicly accessible place that has constituted a violation of moral code despite having been dissuaded."

So intent is not an unheard of modifier to any private nudity laws that might come up.

May I ask Mr Choo whether he baths fully clothed?

Woon's call to add a word to the law was therefore definitely not plucked out from thin air.

Ho's reasoning for not putting "intentionally" was so nudists could not hide behind technicalities, he also assured the House that the police would not take a "blunderbuss approach".

"He (Woon) may think it is an overkill, but given my assurances in this House and given the practical need to ensure that the situation in Yishun does not repeat itself, I hope that this Bill, as it is, will be passed."

Basically, the Police will exercise discretion and caution when carrying out this law, if it needs to be carried out at all.

Woon's comments were also met with disconcertion by then-PAP MP for Jalan Besar GRC, Choo Wee Khiang.

Choo found Woon's call for the word "intentional" to be placed before "appears nude" in the first line quite "problematic".

His reasoning for it was there was no such thing as unintentional nudity:

"Sir, I cannot understand how a person can unintentionally appear nude. Can a person take off his clothes when he has no intention to do so? Not unless this person is sleepwalking or is unconscious and being stripped off by someone."

Woon countered that if Choo could not think of any instance where nudity could be accidental, then he must be a man "a man of very limited imagination". Woon then gave a few examples where nudity could be rightfully be counted as accidental.

You can read the entire exchange here but the two spent some time exchanging blows on whether nudity at home was understandable.

Woon asserted that being seen naked would be embarrassing enough, without the possibility of a "police officer knocking on your door", or the entire kerfuffle turning into a police case.

Woon also gave a very succinct piece of advice for those who offended by the sight of a neighbour's nudity:

"Stop looking into your neighbour's windows!"

Choo took umbrage at Woon's remarks, asking him if he was on the side of the public, or the side of the nudists.

To that Woon directly asked Choo if he bathed fully clothed, or if he ever disrobed completely.

But when your only two parameters are "the public" or "the nudists", perhaps grey areas are hard to come by.

Choo, rounding up the exchange, gave a passionate defence on his moral stance:

"Since Prof. Woon asked about my private life, I think I ought to reply. As a result of my upbringing, I am properly clothed at all times."

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