21 September 2010
A couple stood side-by-side as their cigarettes were counted one-by-one. Their shirts were wet with sweat and sticking to their backs. A woman with a shiny face sat on a folding chair nervously watching while clutching her bag of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The air-conditioning must have been broken because I was perspiring, too. My heart had been pounding since I heard the three words that stop hearts while crossing international borders, “Come with me.”
It was just a simple getaway to Malaysia. We booked a weekend at a no-nonsense resort on an island in the South China Sea – about a three hour drive and thirty minute ferry from Singapore. J & I each packed a small duffel bag for the three day stay in a rustic hut on a white sandy beach facing the clear blue sea . Along with my bikini, sarong, sundress and sunscreen, I packed travel Scrabble and a bottle of wine. We enjoyed a weekend of sun, surf and sand then repacked our gear and headed back to reality. Simple enough until I discovered that my bag was legal one way yet considered contraband the other.
Crossing the Malaysian/Singapore border is a drag. Both sides do not make it easy. Everyone must disembark their vehicles and go through immigration on the departure side. Then drive about a minute to the arrival country, disembark and go through immigration again. Malaysia's customs isn’t as taxing as Singapore’s. In the fine city- state dutiable goods include alcohol, tobacco, and motor spirit (whatever that is). It is prohibited to import cigarette lighters, chewing tobacco and treasonable materials.
So there I was, shuffling along in the line of long faced people waiting for my turn to pass under the security detector. Beeeep! A customs official asked me, “Is this your bag? Show me your passport.” I said yes and opened the bag. He looked inside and took my passport. I followed him behind a door marked "Customs and Immigration".
The room was small and windowless. A young female in uniform sat behind a table counting cigarettes. J & I sat down on the two chairs next to the table and across the room from the woman with the KFC. My eyes kept drifting to the barred cell in the corner. After minutes that felt like hours a man in his mid-sixties wearing a disheveled uniform but looking cool and in control appeared from behind another closed door and motioned me inside. The bathroom-sized anteroom had two walls of CTV monitors and another with a one-way mirror looking out to the people passing through immigration. An enormous Asian man with his back to me sat watching the screens. A desk was in the middle. My “interrogator” pulled a chair out for me. I removed my hat and sat down. The old agent held my passport and said, “You have committed a major crime by trying to smuggle a bottle of wine into the country.”
Please let me explain. I live in Singapore. I bought the bottle in Singapore, took it with me to Malaysia. I didn’t drink it so I returned with it.
It is unlawful. Didn’t you read the signs?
No, I didn’t pay attention. I bought the bottle in Singapore.
How did you pack it?
It’s just a small duffel bag.
Bring it in.
He inspects the bag and contents, having me open travel Scrabble. Then he asks me to pack it exactly how it was with the bottle of wine. He turns the bottle round and round while he continues questioning me.
Did you know smuggling a bottle of wine is punishable by a fine and additional duty?
I wasn’t trying to hide it – it was right on top.
Do you have a receipt for the bottle?
No. All I have is S$50, my passport and green card.
How are you going to prove that this bottle was purchased in Singapore?
I do not know.
How was I going to prove it? The old agent was sternly staring at me seeming to enjoy the tension of the silence. The bottle of wine was in his hands. I was wide-eyed searching my brain for a solution. Then I spotted it. Little tax stamps are found on all dutiable goods in Singapore. My proof was the bottle! The old agent accepted the evidence and said, “I won’t charge you a fine, but I will have to charge you a tax. How much did it cost?” I quickly replied $20. The big agent pounded some figures in a computer, turned to me and told me I owed S$8. I handed them the cash and they printed me a receipt.
I repacked the bottle of wine in my duffel bag and walked back to where J was sitting. The female agent completed her count of cigarettes and was now counting chicken nuggets.