I’ve just returned from the Central Library, which was holding quite the interesting exhibition on past campaigns in Singapore. As I strode in from the lockers, the first poster that caught my eye contained the capitalised phrase: LONG-HAIRED MALES WILL BE SERVED LAST. I thought it might have been a satire at first, but the subsequent posters were all catchphrases we were used to: Courtesy is the best policy, Speak Mandarin instead of dialect, etc etc, so that didn’t seem to be the case. Sure enough, that poster was the appetiser to an actual campaign in Singapore — a campaign that self-righteously discriminated against people based on their fashion style.
It was eye-opening. It was incredible. It was a fashion law that claimed its legitimacy from the tenuous link of drug addicts to a hairstyle. It was so self-righteous, it tried to impose it on visiting singers for whom the hairstyle was their brand (point 5 below).
Can you imagine what a headline would be like if they had complied? “Bee Gees apologises for promoting drug culture; cuts hair” Or maybe, “Led Zeppelin comes to Singapore”, sub-headline: “Granted permission after promising to wear wigs”.
This harks back to the days of schooling, when prefects would march around with their notebooks and spot checks on appearance will be held every once in a while. Fringe not past the eyebrows, hair above the collar, belts at waist-level, all in the name of tidiness and preserving the good name of the school. Such a campaign would have aroused an immediate outcry if it was held at this age, but back in the fearful era of 1970s, it was quietly complied with, perhaps with a private grumble here or there.
It’s very thought-provoking when a mindset that seems blatantly ridiculous actually made it all the way through to become a government-endorsed campaign. First: what other campaigns or laws are there right now that we are living with, but will look to be utterly inconceivable in a couple of decades’ time? There are the few easy to spot, because people are already protesting against them — the most obvious being penal code 377a. Then there are the less clear-cut ones– Population White Paper’s motivations, for example. Is it right to place jobs on a hierarchical scale (management jobs obviously better than service, so let me carve these policies to move Singaporeans up the supposed job pyramid on this assumption)? Is meritocracy which we take for granted as the ideal really the best system?
Second: preposterous as a law, is it just as questionable as a school rule — the breaking of which has life-long consequences, at least in threats by teachers of a “black mark” on some mysterious “record” hidden somewhere which you will never be privy to?
Another thing that struck me in the course of this exhibition was the negotiation of personal freedom with what the government feels will facilitate societal progress. The “Stop at two” campaign is one that’s more well-known, and population control campaigns are always sensitive given their nature. The exhibition explained that it complemented the productivity campaign — less workers, more productive, lower costs, higher employment rates. It all makes sense, albeit darkly because it considers this from too much of a numbers perspective. I am also reminded of a satiric comic made in response to the Population White Paper which I can’t locate now but which had a sentiment along the lines of “economic figures will be more perfect if there are no Singaporeans” — we have foreigners to work for the GDP, without the hassle of factoring in incomes and unemployment rates etc.
A third thing that struck me was the ease at which legislation can be passed, if packaged in a practical manner in Singapore. In America, the debate still rages on about abortion, the issue being sanctity of life versus a female’s right to her body; in Singapore, abortion was actually a recommended course of action, and this was passed on without a fight because it was a practical means of birth control:
A parallel issue: the issue of legalising homosexuality. All along the government has insisted on keeping 377a on the grounds of civil unrest and religious uproar if it is lifted, but one would think that the issue of abortion is as controversial an issue — and yet it is actually encouraged with no sign of unrest whatsoever. It’s not just legal, it’s endorsed. Yet having a neutral stance on homosexuality by removing the code is argued to be endorsing it in the case of 377a and all fire and brimstone will rain upon us if we just remove the code. I can’t help but wonder if the code would have been removed long ago if there was a practical way of framing it. Like maybe, more foreign talent attracted to Singapore because of perceived tolerance. Sounds legit to me.