Sticker Lady: Is Singapore changing?

You can find a big headlines in international press like  – Sticker Lady tests Singapore leaders.

Question:

We tend to see Singapore as the state obsesses with order. How significant is this story in your opinion for the society in Singapore?

Answer:

Terence Lee, Associate Professor, Academic Chair, Communication and Media Studies & Deputy Dean School of Media Communication & Culture, Murdoch University

This is an interesting story indeed.

The perception that Singapore is a state obsessed with order is largely a deliberate perception that the government has sought to create globally, so it’s both deliberate as well as incidental to the broader political aims of the founding leaders (namely, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew). What has happened over the years is that Singapore has nurtured the next generation of leaders with an inability to tolerate social, cultural and political dissent. The vast majority of PAP leaders/ministers are either technocrats, career bureaucrats or ivory-tower high achievers who have a strong inclination to abide strictly by rules. After all, that is the way they have ‘succeeded’ in the Singapore system.

Every now and then, someone comes along to challenge the status quo, and the response has always been “hitting a tiny bug with a sledgehammer” with over the top penalty. If the sticker lady is indeed taken to task, she could be fined up to S$2000 or jailed for up to 3 years. Thankfully, she’s a female, which means she will escape the cane (corporal punishment).

The Fricker case is the most recent public case, but perhaps not the best example. There’s another case dating back to 2005 that comes closer to the current situation – I’ve extracted bits of the “White Elephant Incident” from Wikipedia here, and filled in extra details:

“On 27 August 2005, during Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s visit to Punggol South, a resident, displeased with Buangkok’s newly built but disused train station (apparently for political reasons because it was adjacent to the opposition electorate of Hougang), erected a series of white paper cut-outs of white-coloured elephants, which were drawn in a cartoon-like style, symbolically calling the unopened Buangkok station a ‘white elephant’. Soon after, police started an investigation on it as a case of a public display without permit, on the grounds that a complaint was received and that they may have been in violation of the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act, for which the maximum penalty is a fine not exceeding $10,000. It raised controversy because many people saw it as a harmless, trivial case not worthy of investigation; and it was also laden with humour. It also highlighted the general displeasure over the non-operation of the MRT station after it was built with public funds. It also raised questions on how much freedom of expression the government is willing to tolerate. A month later, police closed the investigation without pressing charges but issued a stern warning to the offender. This led Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng to comment to the media, “We cannot apply the law to some and turn a blind eye to others. If we do, then the law becomes the real white elephant.”

The difference this time with the sticker lady, believed to be young artist Samantha Lo, is that netizens in the blogosphere and the cultural community have started to couch this as a debate over street art, vandalism and the limits of artistic licence. These are valid, but my opinion is that the issue runs deeper into the very politicized nature of Singapore society. If the sticker lady is charged, it may mean a moral victory for the rule of law (which a slight majority of Singaporeans would support), but it would also erase a decade-long attempt by the Singapore authorities to brand Singapore as creative, fun-loving and global city (think about the move to liberalise the city-scape with 24/7 events, bar-top dancing at city pubs, two new mega-casinos and integrated resorts, F1 racing, etc.). For the average Singaporean, this story is an also-ran: “What’s the big deal?”, they would say. They may murmur briefly at the audacity of the sticker lady and laugh about the taglines on her stickers (which carries grassroots-level humour), but not much else. A decision to let her off with a “stern warning” would make a mockery about how the law is selective and can be turned into a “white elephant” on political whims. The Singapore government is faced with a conundrum indeed.

Bridget Welsh, Associate Professor in Political Science, Singapore Management University

Singapore is changing politically, opening up, and this case is an illustration of the contestation over the changes. The government has charged her for vandalism, in part due to the painting of roads and use of stickers on public property, but also for the hidden anti-Lee Kuan Yew messages some are interpreting her messages. The test here is whether the state can “let go” or continue its “control” model, which is has yet to give up, and whether society will support the measures. Increasingly the actions against an artist are seen as too excessive and limiting Singaporean’s potential to channel their creativity. The case is about this democratic crossroads, toward a new politics or one curtailed in the image of LKY.

Garry Rodan, Australian Professorial Fellow of the Australian Research Council, Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University

The controversy over Samantha Lo’s street art and arrest has given expression to an evolving confidence among the more liberal minded to make the case for greater space and tolerance for social and political pluralism. Significantly, though, the issue centres around what constitutes art and the form it can legitimately take in public. This is not as overtly a political issue as controls over the media, public assemblies or the Internal Security Act. Consequently, more Singaporeans seem comfortable challenging or questioning authorities on the matter.

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