"Breasts, Otters, Creativity and Greed"
a Critique of Singaporean Society.


Many people have heard of Singapore, the tiny island-nation on the tip of the Malay Peninsula that struggled from third-world to first over the course of the past 40 years. Plenty of people have heard of Singapore the 'fine' city: where chewing gum is a controlled substance and not flushing a public toilet lands you a $500 fine. There is also talk of Singapore being the closest thing to a meritocracy, a place where people of all races and genders live in harmony and are judged by only their skills. The history of Singapore and criticisms of its Draconian laws can be found in many places, and covering those topics is not the aim of this writeup.

This writeup was written with the intent of dispelling some of the misconceptions that surround Singapore, as well as to point out some of the more notable flaws present in Singaporean society without deteriorating into too much of a rant. This is a critique of Singaporean society like no other. My topics include breasts, otters, lions and Singaporean creativity (or lack thereof) and greed. My unique perspective on Singapore society is that of one of very few foreigners of European descent (Singlish: ang-moh) who has lived in Singapore for my entire life, I am also very critical -- that should sum up my perspective quite adequately for the purposes of this article. I mean no offense, much of this is based on generalizations and may not apply to specific individuals.


Breasts
The Issue
Next time you come to Singapore, it should be extremely easy for you to get a hold of a copy of 'The Straits Times' - after all it is the national daily newspaper. Most Singaporeans, having not lived overseas or been there for a very long period of time, may not have noticed a kind of scourge that has slowly crept into the Singaporean newspapers as the society itself becomes more tolerant in general. What is this scourge, this infection spreading rampant through the society and manifests itself in its newspapers everyday? Breasts. Lots of breasts, breasts all over the pages of the newspaper - the sign of a society that is rejecting its conservative roots and trying to become more progressive without actually knowing how.

Now don't get me wrong, I have absolutely no problem with breasts in general. I could take this entire paragraph and devote it to how much I love breasts, but my problem lies with opening the paper up and seeing breast enlargement ads on every second page. This isn't the a page three girl. There are dozens of them in every issue, full page advertisements for 'natural bust enhancement' in the middle of what would claim to be a reputable newspaper. Singapore is one of the most developed nations in the region -- yet the locals don't seem to realize that having so many such advertisements in the national daily newspaper doesn't help Singaporeans' international reputation or lend an air of authority to the paper itself.

Take today's (2nd August) issue of the Straits Times for an example. The 'Life!' section of the paper consists of more than 10% breast enlargement and slimming advertisements by page coverage, not by a percentage of total advertisements. Boosting those boobs and trimming those thighs has never been so laughable, and the content of the ads are simply absurd - a small number of weeks ago there was a full page ad taken out to promote a new breast-enlargement clinic: "Buy One Get One Free!" it proclaimed. Or, possibly the most absurd yet, the company that claimed it could naturally enlarge your breasts by having you listen to audio tapes. Needless to say, the ads wouldn't be there if it weren't for a large demand for such services - and you can imagine what it must do for young Singaporean ladies. People complain that models give people a bad self-image, would anyone claim that this isn't far worse?

A friend of mine operates a small marketing and public relations firm, she too is a foreigner who has lived in Singapore for about 20 years. It was her that first brought the breasts issue to my attention in the first place, saying something approximately resembling:
        “What if I say to a client that I have managed to secure them an interview with the Straits Times. They fly to Singapore for an interview with the national daily newspaper, which they believe must therefore be a paper of good repute. They arrive, and they open up the newspaper to find that it is plastered with breast enlargement ads. What does that do to my reputation for having earned them an interview with the major local newspaper?”

The Implications
The breast enlargement and slimming advertisements, with their busty, slim, good-looking models, are not the issue themselves. These advertisements are merely a sign of the real issue, an issue which lies at the heart of Singaporean society in general. Many "civilized" countries have got the same preoccupations with breast size and looking slim and healthy, despite the fact that the advertisements are totally inappropriate for the medium in which they are published, one can understand the fact that there exists demand for such services because of people wanting to attain the image found on television and magazines.

Singapore also claims to be a meritocracy, where people are judged by nothing but their skills and abilities. Open up the same newspaper, but this time skip to the classified ads. Here you will find dozens of ads which specifically ask for females. If that weren't enough, notice that some of these ads also specify "good-looking," "attractive" young women with "good skin." No wonder I am unemployed! I wonder if they have any of those audio tapes left? What about everyone, who, like me do not fit into those categories? Is Singapore truly the meritocracy they claim it to be?

The fact is that the image that these companies offer to their potential customers (specifically the breast enlargement companies) is not by far an "Asian" image. Asian women in general simply do not have "big breasts" by Western standards, that is as simple as it gets. Singaporean society is rapidly losing the last vestiges of the rich culture that it once had, aiming instead to emulate Western society. You can see this in how people here dress, the brands they buy, and the image they want to attain. There seems to be no pride in the rich cultural heritage that Singapore has, and it dwindles away because of it. Even "Singlish" has been the target of government campaigns aimed at eradicating this curious local blend of English, Malay and various Chinese dialects.

Otters

The Issue
You are probably wondering what otters could possibly have to do with Singaporean society. I honestly wouldn't blame you. So let me introduce you to Oscar, a link to find Oscar at home on the Singapore Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) website is provided down at the bottom of this writeup. Oscar is an otter, a type of aquatic mammal of which there are normally considered to be 13 different varieties. Oscar is the 14th variety, Oscar is a "Food Safety" Otter. He is also one of the family Propaegandi to which also belongs Singa the courtesy lion.

These two are typically found promoting government sponsored initiatives; (in my own words) "learn to not contaminate your food and take up space in our hospitals" and "stop being rude to tourists and grow some common decency." They are typical of the manner in which Singaporeans in general are led around by the hand by the government in order for them to do practically anything. There are simply dozens of campaigns which tell the Singaporean populace what to do. "Speak Good English" and "Sports for Life" are other examples, the former being the government trying to stamp out Singlish and have everyone speak English that the tourists can understand, and the latter has the government encouraging people to go outside and do something healthy once in a while.

Oscar the Otter was created by the AVA in order to teach people how to ensure that the food that they cook and eat is not going to be contaminated with anything that might cause them to be poisoned. Out of all the campaigns his is probably one of the most recent. An otter was chosen because it behaves in a human-like way when it is eating and because it is "a very resilient animal, eating a wide variety of food, and observes good food safety habits such as washing its food before eating." I understand the message, but I hadn't realized that it was such an issue that the government had to try and stamp it out. Like the American war on terrorism, the government has imbued its citizens with a fear of an unseen enemy who can strike at any moment if we are not vigilant.

Singa the lion is probably one of the oldest campaigns, pretty much heralding all the other campaigns featuring a silly personified animal. The courtesy campaign, or "Singapore Kindness Movement", was initiated in 1979 by Singapore's then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. In his words, "to create a pleasant social environment with Singaporeans considerate to each other and thoughtful of each other's needs." At this point, you might be able to draw some parallels between the two campaigns. One aims to promote what could be called 'common sense,' the other to promote 'common decency.' In many Singaporeans however, these have not been so common for a long time.

The Implications
My problem with these campaigns is this: should any society need their government to lead them around by the hand like this. Note that I said 'need' not 'want' or 'have.' The fact is that if it weren't for these campaigns then Singaporeans probably would be a lot worse as a whole then they are now. Singlish for instance, I don't have a problem with Singlish, I find that it is fascinating and is one of the few things that Singapore has that is unique anymore, but when the Singaporeans can only speak Singlish it becomes an issue. There are people who can only really speak Singlish well, their English is incomprehensible and (from what I have heard) their Chinese also leaves much to be desired. However, the Singaporeans wont change anything until the government tells them to do so with a cute mascot and slogan.

All this no doubt seems ridiculous, but do not doubt the power of the Singapore government. During the time when SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) had become an issue in Singapore, the full extent of the government's ability to control its people became frighteningly apparent. SARS was spreading and the government used its resources to tell the population not to go to crowded areas, Orchard Road (the normally jam-packed shopping district) was deserted - you could have walked along the middle of the road and you would hardly have had to fear normal things like, say, traffic.

After SARS was not really an issue but the population was still paranoid after the government's propaganda round, people weren't returning to Orchard Road – the businesses were complaining to the government about the lack of customers. The government announced “Eat with your family day” and encouraged people to let their employees off early so they could go to a nice restaurant and have dinner – and they did. Then they put the “Great Singapore Sale” on a couple of weeks early, and you could barely move on Orchard Road. Huge amounts of advertising in the paper and on television were used for this, people turned up on Orchard Rd in record numbers to celebrate Singapore being SARS-free just because the government wanted them to. Do not underestimate the power of the Straits Times – it isn't a newspaper, it is Corporate Singapore's company newsletter.

Sometimes someone else has put it better than you. To quote alex.tan in his writeup Singapore; "The real administrative state. They want to know what you think. They tell you what you should think. Everyone exists for the advancement of the nation." This is demonstrated by so many things that you will find in Singapore - the government campaigns, "Clean Green Singapore," "National Harmony Day," and the ads that come on television every now and then reminding us that Singapore is a nation united under one flag. If anyone says otherwise... well, did we mention that Singapore had some draconian laws?

Creativity and Greed

This is more of a general discussion of the nature of Singaporeans themselves - less specific than the ones above which focused on very particular aspects of Singaporean society and then expanded the implications. When you analyze Singaporean society in general, specifically the nature of Singaporeans, the one thing which stands out the most is greed. Greed and a lack of creativity. There are a number of reasons why this is so, and it is impossible to explain precisely what the cause of this issue is. However, some of the basic reasons for this are outlined below.

The cost of living in Singapore is one of the highest in the world and unlike many developed countries, Singapore does not have any minimum wage requirements. Basic retail sales positions will net you approximately $4-6 per hour, depending on how reputable the shop is and how much they think you are worth. Cleaning and building is done mainly by immigrant workers from Bangladesh, who are paid ridiculously small amounts.

The fact is, the vast majority of Singaporeans are unhappy with their way of life. Despite this however, the People's Action Party (PAP) remains in control of the nation - just like it has done since Singapore became independent. The majority of Singaporeans barely know that there is an opposition party as the way in which they are allowed to advertise their existence is heavily controlled by the governing party. To top it off, many of the constituencies do not even have elections – the PAP simply is not contested in some areas. The opposition will never gain control, they are merely a formality so that the government can declare the country a democracy. Singapore has become incredibly successful, but this is not without its costs.

Between the high cost of living and the low wages, the average Singaporean is constantly struggling to earn enough money to support his family. Singaporean taxi drivers for instance work incredibly long hours, and a great number of them have a second job - is that what living is supposed to be? The government wants to try to encourage people to play sports? Who knows where the average Singaporean is supposed to get this time from.

Not only sports, recently has been yet another government campaign, trying to position Singapore as not only a shipping and technology hub, but also one for the arts. A massive theater on the waterside was built, the 'Esplanade' (dubbed the giant durian by locals due to its odd architecture.) Looking around the island you can also see a number of statues of lions - all the same basic lion, but each painted by students in a different way. Somehow I don't think that this particular government initiative ("Lets inject some life into our citizens so we don't bore the tourists!") is going to catch on too quickly. The most creative thing to come out of Singapore? The budding young entrepreneur who made his name by setting up a school training people to become entrepreneurs!

The blame for the lack of creativity can be attributed to the school system for the most part - drama and the arts are subjects which are not considered to be an important part of one's education. Part of the blame could be attributed to the fact that Singaporeans don't really need to think for themselves, few jobs exist where creativity is requisite. Once finishing high school, Singaporean males are enlisted into National Service(NS) where thinking for oneself is drilled out of them - at least it certainly is not encouraged.

It seems that the current state of affairs has been going on for so long that the population doesn't realize that it doesn't have to be this way. The opposition party, while not perfect, has a number of things which they have going for them - they want to implement a minimum wage, and they want to implement retrenchment benefits. This won't happen as long as the PAP stays in control, without the low wage requirements the cost of setting up a business in Singapore would be far higher. Someone has to build it, someone has to staff it - if we have to be paid a reasonable amount of money we may as well go to China instead. However, that is the nature of business and how the PAP feels they want to position Singapore.

Somewhere along the line the People's Action Party stopped representing the will of the people. Singapore is no democracy - there is no way any other party will ever be in control. Singaporean ministers are the highest paid "elected" government ministers of any country in the world, and this will not change. Don't get me wrong, Lee Kuan Yew did a fantastic job in transforming Singapore into a country where all people are (reasonably) united and the country is reasonably prosperous.

It is time for a change. Time for a government who cares more about the Singapore people than protecting the assets of overseas investors. Want to own a home? Not much luck in finding anything nice you can afford, the government keeps all the prices artificially high so that property investments in Singapore remain lucrative. Lee Kuan Yew and his family still hold all the cards, like they have done for 40 years. Lee Kuan Yew is the Senior Minister, exerting tremendous influence. One son, Lee Hsien Yang, controls Singtel - the government telecommunications company. The other, Lee Hsien Loong, is about to become Prime Minister. Lee Hsien Loong's wife controls Temasek Holdings. Again, is Singapore the meritocracy it claims to be?

Singaporeans simply don't have time, for anything. Life is a constant rush and it will continue to be until working and living standards are raised. Singaporeans don't have time for creativity, they don't have time for anyone but themselves. That is why you will find them so greedy and self-centered. Like everything, there are exceptions, but for the most part you wont find a Singaporean giving up his seat on the MRT for anyone - not even, despite the many signs with the cute lion asking you to do so, to the blind or pregnant. Just like everything I have said, this may be an over-generalization, this is just an opinion of someone who has observed Singaporean Society. Everything revolves around them, and when the average life of a average Singaporean is filled with such desperation, can you really blame them?

"The city-state of Singapore represents an unprecedented feat of physical, social and political engineering, orchestrated over five decades by Lee Kuan Yew and the ruling People's Action Party. But Singapore's prosperity has been purchased at a steep price: the erosion of human rights, the rise of the 'nanny state,' and the creation of a political system in wihch individual freedoms are subordinated to the greater good - as defined by the government."

--Chris Lydgate, "Lee's Law," 2003.


A kind of conclusion to this writeup can be found under August 3, 2004.



Sources and Recommended Reading

  • Oscar: http://www.ava.gov.sg/JAVASCRIPT/mascot.htm
  • Singapore Kindness Movement: http://www.mita.gov.sg/skm/c-aboutSKM.htm
  • http://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/brandhk/1129162.htm
  • http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/ge/story/0,1870,80702,00.html
  • Chris Lydgate, Lee's Law, Scribe Publications: Melbourne, 2003