Singapore must learn to be itself

Today, Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng (left) gave a speech in Parliament that’s right after my own heart.

His speech is reproduced in full below. The words I’ve set in bold font I endorse entirely.

I’ve often thought it ridiculous that we aspire to be the Switzerland of Asia, Paris of the East and more recently, Las Vegas of Asia.

Why can’t we aspire and work for the day when the United States, the United Kingdom and other Caucasian strongholds will be proud to have one of their cities nick-named the Singapore of the US or Singapore of Europe?

Also, while it might not be ridiculous for the Heineken ad to feature male and female Caucasians  going orgasmic over cupboard space, it is beyond me that the Tiger beer ad should also feature a blonde, when Tiger beer is as Singaporean as the Merlion and has been around even longer!

Still, who can blame the ad agencies and their clients for thinking Western means best and thought leaders when everywhere in the public sector and even Singaporean-private sector biggies, there is a white man or two or even a whole posse ruling the roost!

For this we gained independence from Britain? 😀

Mr Calvin Cheng’s speech follows:

Sir, MICA is the successor ministry to the former Ministry of Culture, which was dissolved and renamed in 1985. Although the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts is a name that is technically detailed and accurate, it nowhere as emotionally evocative as the Ministry of Culture.

Sir,in order for a nation to be world class, it not only needs to have a high GDP, world‐class infrastructure and be advanced technologically, it also needs to have a strong culture.

Hard power makes for an economically developed country, but it is soft power that makes a nation truly great. It is through culture that a nation, a country, a state elevates itself from the rank‐and‐file; and it is through media, the arts and how information is communicated that a country weaves for itself a unique culture, influences its people and the world beyond.

Sir, I am concerned with the cultural identity that Singapore will assume as it seeks to be a global city. As Singapore aims to be a global city, it is imperative that Singapore and Singaporeans are aware of what this means, and the cultural identity it will adopt as it takes the world stage alongside cities such as London, New York and Tokyo.

It is my opinion that first and foremost, Singapore needs to recognise that being a Global City does not mean being a Western City; Globalisation also does not mean Westernisation.

Singapore must understand that no matter how globalised or modernised it may be, it is still an Asian city. International recognition will also not come from aping the West – I strongly believe that it would be futile to try to be the New York of the East, or the Las Vegas of Asia, or build a Harvard of the East. In this globalised world, people are highly mobile – if the original is so easily reachable, there is no attraction in the replica. If one can hop on a plane and visit the real Paris, why visit the Paris of the East?

This is I think a common misconception that many Singaporeans still have, that West is best, and that imitation of the West is the same as being global and modern.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in my industry. Media, the Arts, Fashion, Advertising are the windows through which a country projects its culture.

First, fashion. Every year at every fashion week, we hear declarations of the objective of Singapore becoming a fashion capital, and being a Paris of the East.

At every Fashion Festival, Fashion Week or indeed, any fashion show, most if not all of the models used are Caucasians.

I think this is ludicrous – we are an Asian city and there is absolutely no reason why in order to look international, the majority of models have to be Western.

Again, I re‐iterate – international is not Western.

One of the objectives of creating a fashion event is to bring tourists to Singapore. Yet, do we not realise that if tourists want to see fashion shows with Western brands on Western models, Milan, New York or Paris are just a plane ride away? Why would tourists want to come to Singapore to see a replica fashion show trying to imitate the runways of the West?

Do they also not realise that as an Asian city, a fashion event that is primarily Asian yet international event would be more representative of our country and would generate more international interest?

It is the same with our print media, especially our fashion and lifestyle magazines. Most of the models used on the covers and inside editorials are Caucasian; empirical observation would also reveal that Asians are used infrequently.

Even our own home‐grown fashion magazines, Her World and Female, use many Caucasian models on its covers and in its editorials. It is obvious that again, our media labours under the false impression that Western is International.

As we move on from the print industry to advertising, again we see the same syndrome. I have here three print advertisements, from 2 department stores, Robinson and O&G and from a bank OCBC. All were from yesterday’s Straits Times.

Here we see the two local department stores using Western faces to push their fashion retail and a local bank using a variety of Caucasian models to urge Singaporeans to get a card they ‘must have’.

Sir, forgive my frustration, and I find it hard to mince my words. This is just puerile. It is like being stuck in a time warp from our colonial days.

After speaking to some of my colleagues in the media and event industries, there is an assertion that the content‐providers are catering to the tastes and mindsets of consumers, who want to see Caucasian faces, given that they are seen to be more glamorous.

I refuse to believe this, as believing this would mean that Singaporeans are still stuck with this puerile, colonial hang‐up. Even if this were so, the vicious cycle needs to be broken, otherwise Singapore will never be a first rate Global City, but only a second rate wannabe Western City.

My experience in media, entertainment and fashion is regional and it is my observation that we remain the only country in Asia with such an overwhelming hang‐up with what is Western.

What is happening in our fashion and media is I think a manifestation of something deeper in the Singaporean psyche. Maybe we think as a young nation, we do not have our own culture and we need to ape others.

I think this is false. We may be a young nation but the constituent cultures of
our nation is old. The Malays, Indian culture, and Chinese cultures are hundreds if not thousands of years old. And for hundreds of years, since 1819, these cultures have interacted, together with European culture, to form a unique ‘rojak’ that one cannot find anywhere else in the world.

It may be a rojak culture we have, but it is ours, let’s embrace it, let’s be proud of it, because it is our own.

We do not always have to look outwards for inspiration in our media, our arts, our fashion as I truly believe there is enough richness, enough substance in what we have inside us.

As we work towards being a global city, I think it is imperative that we create a first class Asian and international city, and not a second‐rate Western city, a pale imitation of the original.

We can continue what I see as our current obsession with Western content, Western media, Western ideas and import more Western concepts, events and media properties, or we can have a healthy blend of East and West that creates a uniquely Singaporean cultural identity.

To do the former would be foolish and stunt our growth into a matured society. Only the latter route would offer Singapore and Singaporeans a chance to establish a permanent and unique role in the world.

And I believe that MICA has an important role to play in all of this. It may have lost its name as its Ministry of Culture, but it is in fact our de facto Ministry of Culture.

Sir, it is my opinion that MICA’s role nowadays is greater as a facilitator and a regulator. This is not enough. It needs to be an influencer.

Regulating the hardware, the technology is a necessary but insufficient condition for building up Singapore’s soft power. It needs to step up, step forward and start setting an agenda on how Singapore’s culture can be grown, how we can draw from the richness of our ‘rojak’ culture, embrace it, be proud of it, so we can truly grow as a nation, and create a Singapore we have an emotional connection to.

For at the end of the day, the ties that bind a nation is not material, but
emotional and spiritual, and what will make Singaporeans stand up and be counted, what will make Singaporeans pick up a rifle and sacrifice his life, is not to protect our bank accounts, but because we have created a way of life, a culture and a nation we want to preserve and protect.

And even if we are small, let us not forget the great city‐state of Venice of the 9th century which existed for 300 years a state not only at the nexus of trade and commerce, but also a cultural influencer in the region.

We have been well known to punch above our weight economically, I am convinced we can also punch above our weight culturally. MICA needs to influence, not just regulate, project not just protect and in order to do this more resources are needed.

I find it highly ironic to call for this in what is termed as a ‘cut’, but I call for more funds for MICA to take on, or rather re‐take its role as our Ministry of Culture.

Otherwise, to echo the words of Ms Denise Phua, we can be a prosperous
nation, but NEVER a great one.

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9 thoughts on “Singapore must learn to be itself

  1. IF and WHEN SIN matures and gain self-confidence, then the ITSELF happens naturally… and I will not live to see that day 🙂

  2. narrow mindsets are hard to influence and change.

    sorry to be pessimistic, but it’s 2010, and what he described in his speech hasn’t changed an iota, has it.

  3. Hi Areya, then pple like you and Calvin Cheng, with perhaps 90 years in life-expectancy ahead of you, who must work hard to change the mindsets. So, we’ve wasted 45 years by failing to erase the colonial cultural cringe. But with double that number of years, we should surely have confidence that something cld be done, n’est pas?

  4. That is what a lot of people are doing these days, but you know, there is a limit one can do to open the eyes and minds of those who choose to remain happily ignorant of the bigger picture outside the shores of home. Except maybe for the fashion that is korean tv and pop culture, most ppl think the west rules, even amongst a lot of the youth today.

  5. Hey Areya, wonder y system generated a different avatar for u? Hope yr pessimism is exaggerated! Otherwise we wld be so yesterday if our neighbours are several steps ahead of us in realising that the west is no longer best! Anyway, good for Calvin Cheng to voice such views in Parliament.

  6. Does size matters ? I think so. Does length of time for a icon matters ? Harvard is founded 1636, NUS 1905, 269 more years. Is Singlish unique ? Yes, but as a Business Language, standardized English can be a more understandable language. Are surrounding media schools and Hollywood necessary to produce an Avartar ? Maybe. Does it mean we don’t try ? Absolutely not.
    My point is, despite efforts for us to define our Singaporean Culture, we are not as Chinese as 5,000 years of historical China, not as Malay as our neighbouring brothers Malaysia or Indonesia, not as Indian as India. I think “uniquely Singapore” is not a PR motto, but one that perhaps can differentiate Singapore from China, India or Malaysia. Westererns may find Singapore an Interesting fad but we will forever have an identity crisis. Generations of Singaporeans will come by years after this and each will ask the same question, each being influenced by the western media of the world or by then by China/India. I remember when I was still naive, I was once asked, what’s defendable in Singapore and I said, a nuclear bomb will destroy the entire island. Technically, it is still true today. But what I did not know then was that our small defence force together with powerful friends provides a sting so deadly that it is a point of consideration to deter potential attack. Similarly, while Singapore is small, unlike defence where technology are definable, building a culture has no start and with no end. Engineered like most ideas in Singapore, I agree that we need to start somewhere and it needs to be started with our elected Government. Western models for advertisement ? I think it’s more likely my uneasy feeling of seeing a fellow chinese/malay/indian Singaporean model exposing the same amount of skin. Our asian cultural value makes us feel that seeing a westerner in bikini is perhaps more acceptable than an asian model showing skin. In life, we can aspire to be a Great nation, but not being Great is not embarrassing. I rather we rather be humble than aspire to be on par with Super power. Inspite our aspirations, we must dearly remember we don’t have the size and resources and as such, where Singapore is today is already great by any standards.

  7. Uncle Keng aka Mr Reach! How nice to read u again! I was going to write another post in response to your taking the time to write such a long comment to my post supporting NMP Calvin Cheng. But not to embarrass u again, I decided a reply here wld do.

    1) Of cos size matters, that’s why we used to have the poison shrimp metaphor, 😀

    2) But does age/time matter, where stuff like universities are concerned. If so, we should be measuring ourselves against Oxbridge which is any time older than Harvard.

    3) The reason y I support CC’s views is that I find our leaders nowadays too keen to be “me too” when we used to be “me different” and succeeded so well. We welcomed FI when others were slamming the doors shut n doing import substitution. Is this change due to everyone else now also doing the “me different” dance, that it’s no longer unqiue, so to be ahead of the curve, we try to imitate developed countries? But as CC says, with faster air travel, who wants an imitation Paris/NY/London when they can get the real thing for the price of a bottle of cheap wine?

    4) I think rather than go for buzz, cheaper or smarter etc, s’pore shld just go for what’s its real core strength: law and order, no riots, no demonstration, no nonsense where lawbreakers are concerned. Foreigners esp the super rich ones will want to come and sink roots here (or buy insurance against uncertainties elsewhere) — for safety of self, fortunes and future. And so will those fortunate to be born in this bright spot in a nasty/naughty world!

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