What are the 'laws of the land'?
Do you know what laws apply to you in the country you’re about to travel to?
Let’s start with a quick exercise. Imagine you going to Singapore next week. What laws will apply to you there? What laws will you follow?
If you answer that you don’t know or the same laws as at home then you’re in good company. A surprising amount of people don’t realise that the laws they follow at home won’t be the same or apply when they’re somewhere else. Something which could be perfectly acceptable and legal in your home country could be illegal abroad. You need to consciously think about how you’ll behave and follow the laws of another country.
Let’s continue with Singapore example. A lot of Westerners love to go to Singapore. It’s a great base for exploring Southeast Asia. It’s small but clean, friendly, safe, well developed and well ordered. But, because it looks a lot like their home country people don’t realise that the laws are different. Laws are even different between most countries - even the U.S. and UK.
Chewing gum, jaywalking, drugs (use and possession), vandalism and littering are all illegal in Singapore. Smoking is very confined to specific areas. You might think it's silly to ban chewing gum but flouting, or disobeying, them can get you into trouble.
Singapore's laws actually aren't all that unusual. Some of them probably exist for you at home but aren’t prosecuted or enforced very rigorously. So, if you jaywalk – walk across the street against the lights or at a place other than the intersection - it’s likely to be ignored. Even if a police officer spots or stops you you might get a warning. In Singapore, these rules are enforced much more vigorously.
The law about vandalism in Singapore became well known in 1994 when an 18-year old American student, Michael Fay was sentenced to four months in jail, a fine of around $2,000 and six strokes with a cane. His sentence was marginally reduced later but he was still caned before returning to the U.S. A Swiss IT consultant in 2004 was also prosecuted for defacing a train.
People got very upset about this saying that the punishments didn’t fit the crime and that it’s silly to prosecute such minor offenses but this is beside the point. Laws in other countries apply to you. You have no special dispensation or immunity because you are from another country. If you break a law you can be fined, arrested, prosecuted and put serve a jail sentence in that country.
Now, Singapore is a great example because it has some well-known and strictly enforced laws related to things we might consider minor offenses. But other countries have laws with very strict punishments related to:
Drug possession and use
Blasphemy or insulting a religious figure
Insulting or defaming the government, military or monarchy
Taking pictures of ‘sensitive objects’ like police, military installations, bridges, airports and dams
Homosexuality and different sexual acts
Skateboarding, biking and roller blading
Indecency – or being scantily clad.
These are just some of the well known ones but there are likely others. Laws related to how you drive, how you travel or other behaviours. It’s really irrelevant if you find them too strict, difficult to follow or even downright silly. They still apply to you.
Your passport and nationality are not a magic wand that you can wave to get yourself out of trouble. Perhaps you’ve heard about diplomats from embassies going to prisons to help people who have been arrested. Yes, embassies do that and you should know if there’s an embassy of your home country in the country to which you’re traveling. But, most of the time they will only be able to help you better understand the legal process, or get a lawyer, or contact your family. Except in exceptional circumstances the embassy is not able to get you released because you’re British or American or Canadian.
So, before you leave home find out if there are any laws in the country you’re headed to that you need to know about. The best place to start is the Foreign & Commonwealth’s Office in the UK or the State Department in the US’s pages. They deal with people getting into trouble abroad all the time so know the main ways people break the law. But, you can also do an internet search as there will be lots of people sharing their experiences about brushes with the law in the countries you’re headed to and their warnings can be informative as you prepare.