Air-Conditioned Nation

Essays about Singapore / Cherian George

Category: Media



My talk at “Conversations: If Walls Could Talk”, a forum organised in conjunction with the exhibition, Art from the Streets“, at the ArtScience Museum, Singapore.

It is good to know that the street art scene in Singapore is growing. I think of the gritty graffiti of Sao Paulo, the whimsical pieces around Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the selfie-friendly art adorning Georgetown, Penang. Street art humanises our urban habitats and adds to a city’s capacity to surprise.

We’ve heard today how practitioners here like Zul “Zero” Othman have been fighting for more space for their art. But it occurred to me that someone visiting Singapore from another planet or another era may wonder what all the fuss is about. Isn’t there enough of this artform already?

If you arrive at Changi Airport’s T4 like I did yesterday, you’d be immediately confronted with bold graphic creations….

As you approach Immigration, instead of a big Welcome to Singapore sign, there’s another massive piece….

Pass through Immigration and there’s more of this artist’s work. He signs off with the tag “Watsons”. I understand he is a Hongkong-based artist, so famous that you’ll find many stores across Asia carrying his name.

I trust you’d have realised by now that I’m not seriously equating commercial advertising with art. I’m highlighting this example to challenge some the entrenched assumptions and blindspots that come into play when we discuss whether we should make more room for street art.

Street art is sometimes talked about as if it is a kind of pollution, adding to clutter, spoiling the visual purity of the city. This is based on the notion that the urban landscape must conform to some kind of civic and aesthetic orderliness; that people going about their lives shouldn’t have to be assaulted by messages and symbols against their will.

The thing is, if Singapore ever was such a city, it certainly isn’t now.

Our urban media landscape has long been punctuated with words and images placed by private parties to serve their own interests. The Terminal 4 experience is hardly unique. Our public transport operators in particular exploit the fact that they have a captive audience.

Indeed, the outdoor advertising industry likes to promote itself as the medium that people can’t turn off.

So the real policy question we need to ask ourselves is not whether to preserve a dignified and austere aesthetic style versus a livelier visual field – that bus left the station long ago. Rather, it is how do we as a society decide who gets to place words and images on urban surfaces and infrastructure for all to see.

What are the rules of the game — the aesthetic or ethical principles, and the legal and regulatory arrangements — that determine the  allocation of spaces for either artistic or commercial expression? When we ponder this question, we’ll quickly realise that the market has been given enormous power to make those decisions on our behalf.

If this doesn’t occur to us most of the time – if it seems normal, natural or even inevitable that money talks – it’s only because we’re so used to it, and because the same market logic dictates so much of the rest of our lives. Once we open our eyes and minds, we’d have to admit that our society’s generally negative reaction to street art is inconsistent and hypocritical. Most of the accusations levelled at street art could apply as much to commercial art, but aren’t.

For example, in terms of aesthetics, even if you don’t like particular styles of street art, it’s not as if you get to veto ugly advertisements placed around you by commercial firms or your town councils. And even if more space was opened up for artists, they would still account for a very small proportion of all the images and words being placed in public view, compared with other institutions that currently monopolise our urban media landscape.

Then there are people, including the authorities, who worry about the content of street art, fearing that it may be too “political” or “controversial”. Again, it’s not clear why such paternalism is confined to non-commercial art, and not applied to the many for-profit messages around us. If we are sincerely concerned about the potentially harmful effects of words and images placed in public, then surely the following commercial messages are far more problematic than whatever our street artists are willing and able to plaster on walls:

Sexist ads and displays that objectify women and girls…

Ads for alcohol, which are permitted on buses…

Ads that promote sugary drinks and fried food – like this misleading video commercial for coconut oil inside a taxi that implies that fried food will give you a longer life…

The cause-and-effect link between these persuasive messages and actual harms is far more strongly established than any wild claims about the dangers of today’s street art.

Yes, we do need to regulate what appears in the public eye, but regulations should be based on consistently applied principles, not cultural or ideological biases that result in too much latitude being given to commercial messages and not enough to not-for-profit art and self-expression.

Pro-Palestine messages have been removed from the approved graffiti walls at the youth spaces in Somerset. But if the principle being applied here is that the Singapore streetscape should not get entangled with the fraught Middle Eastern conflict, what about the fact that Marina Bay Sands is one of the top sources of profit for Sheldon Adelson, who was the biggest single donor to Donald Trump’s hate-filled election campaign and a major supporter of Israel’s illegal settlement building in the Occupied Territories? If we are fine with Marina Bay Sands’ prominence on the Singapore skyline despite its fairly direct and demonstrable connection to the subjugation of Palestinians, it seems only fair that we should allow artists to make pro-Palestinian art on a little wall that has been set aside specifically for graffiti.

Behind such inconsistency in treatment is perhaps the assumption that support for a cause expressed in words and images is more problematic than support expressed in cash, even though common sense tells us that money usually speaks louder than symbols.

Of course, market logic is a very powerful force that is difficult to resist. The commercialisation of our public spaces is partly driven by a very large and growing outdoor advertising industry. To give it its due, advertising does help to subsidise the provision of public services and infrastructure. To put it very simply, we’d probably have to pay more for our MRT and bus rides if we denied public transport operators the right to monetise their surfaces by selling advertising spaces instead of giving it away for not-for-profit purposes such as art.

Furthermore, the idea of property rights is probably too entrenched to dislodge, so let’s banish any dreams of allowing anyone to paint anything without permission. If street artists want to gain more than fringe acceptance, they would have to respect people’s expectation that what they own or manage shouldn’t be messed with in any way without their consent.

For some artists, law-breaking may be integral to the spirit of their performance (a bit like how civil disobedience deliberately seeks to break the law). I’m going to sidestep this issue, because I believe the vast majority of street artists are not in this category.

Certainly, they want to break convention, to challenge norms, to push boundaries. As Zul said earlier, he does not want to confine himself to “sanctioned” or “commissioned” art. But whether it’s legal or illegal is something others decide. The art does not set out to break law, it’s the law that breaks the art.

Take Samantha Lo’s efforts to humanise our streets.

As many others have already pointed out, it’s quite a stretch to claim that her humorous stickers were a danger to society. On the contrary, it was a wonderful way to add a layer of quirky Singaporean meaning to otherwise anonymous streets. It hardly deserved to be treated as a criminal act.

Last year, there was Priyageetha Dia’s golden staircase. Like Lo, Priya didn’t have permission to do this. But this was a hardly-used staircase. And after hearing from her today, you’d have to say that few Singaporeans could have as much moral justification as she had to turn this staircase into a canvas for self-expression. She has lived in the block all her life. It means something to her. Since the block has been upgraded with lift landings on every floor, residents don’t use those stairs anymore. Fortunately her town council was wise enough not to punish her. But, shockingly, she did receive violent online threats from members of the public, including threats of rape, showing how deeply ingrained is some Singaporeans’ view that anything in the public realm belongs to big government and big business, and that non-sanctioned citizen initiative is absolutely not welcome.

My gut feel tells me that there must be ways we can change the law, and with it social attitudes, to be more hospitable to street art. Not to remove regulation but to improve regulation.

The kind of interventions that Samantha and Priyageetha made in our public space should be positively welcomed. This is Nation Building 3.0, where citizens, without waiting for top-down guidance, find and express their personal connections to their country. Technically, they may be rebelling against bureaucratic rules, but at a deeper level they thicken the ties between citizen and nation. Our authorities need to understand this and adapt regulation accordingly.

If, for example, an artist agrees to restore a surface to its original condition if asked to; if there is no permanent damage to property; if there is no material loss to property owners while the art is on display – do we really need to criminalise such art as acts of vandalism? Policy and regulatory creativity needs to catch up with artistic creativity or, for that matter, or citizens’ desire to reclaim their city, a city that we too often feel alienated from, taken from us by faceless corporations and bureaucrats. Thus, I hope we can find ways to minimise the cost to the artist of engaging in street art.

In addition, I hope we can create more opportunities for such activity. The lowest-hanging fruit, the goal that is the easiest to accomplish, is of course to encourage more private and public sector property owners to commission street artists to adorn their walls.

I started with an airport example; let me return to airports, this time Jakarta’s new terminal, also opened last year. Someone had the bright idea to get an artist to doodle around the fire extinguishers.

The result is to make the long, tiresome walk from the gate to immigration a little more pleasurable. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find other such win-win opportunities.

In addition to commissioned street art, we should find ways to open up more spaces for freer expression. Most of our current sites are in “alternative” neighbourhoods.

To bring street art to the heartlands, I’d like to see town councils, six months before blocks are due for repainting, open up selected walls for street art. Let the artists run wild. Then allow residents vote on whether the art should be preserved or painted over at the appointed time. I think this would be an educational experience for all. And since the wall was due for repainting anyway, this exercise would be at no cost to residents or taxpayers.

Public transport operators are currently the most welcoming of commercial advertising, and I’d like to see them allocate some of that space for street art. Why can’t bus companies, as part of their licensing requirements or voluntarily as part of their corporate social responsibility, allocate 5 per cent of their buses for free to artists instead of commercial advertisers.

This would of course require artists to change medium, exchange their spray cans for digital printing on adhesive vinyl, but as this exhibition makes clear, many street artists around the world have welcomed the opportunity to work on new surfaces and with new materials.

The current system has decided that we we as residents of this city should be exposed to ads on wheels. If so, why not also art on wheels.

I hope this exhibition and the discussion we’ve had this afternoon will help shake up the rarely questioned logics behind the way we currently do things. We shouldn’t blindly surrender our urban media landscape to commercial interests. We can afford to allow artistic expression occasionally to take priority over the impulse to sell goods and services.

Notes on images
  • Main image: “State of Decline” by Singaporean artist Speak Cryptic, created on site at the ArtScience Museum.
  • The bus and MRT ad graphics are from Moove Media’s brochure.
  • The SAFRA gym ad caused a controversy in 2014.




Singapore Advocacy Awards Lecture, 4 July 2015.

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Racial riot? Really?

London’s Financial Times headlined its online story “Riot tarnishes Singapore’s image as place of ethnic harmony”. A Forbes Asia blog claimed that the incident “highlights ongoing tensions between the ethnic groups that call Singapore home”. Al Jazeera did not go that far, but hinted at it by presenting data on Singapore’s ethnic mix. And a reporter with a leading global news broadcaster prefaced her request for an interview with me by referring to “racial riots”.

The instinct of some foreign media to frame the Little India Riot as race-related may reveal more about their own prejudices than about the reality of what happened on Sunday evening. It is of course true that ethnic minorities here occasionally face subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, but it would be a stretch to assume that the riot had much to do with that. The existence of racism doesn’t mean that the racial lens is always the right one through which to view events. If the riot reveals any deeper divisions – and most reasonable Singaporeans know that it does – those divisions are probably ones of nationality and class, not race. Not that this would be a less serious social ill; but it is important to get the diagnosis right if we are to treat it effectively.

A racial explanation of the riot implies that if it had been a crowd of mainland Chinese construction workers who saw one of their countrymen killed by a bus driven by a Chinese Singaporean, and if Chinese Singaporean police and civil defence personnel had arrived at the scene, the absence of the race factor from the equation would have resulted in a peaceful resolution of the situation. One just needs to consider the daily incidence of uprisings among Chinese workers in China to be disabused of such a fiction.

But the misunderstanding is not surprising. After all, if an editor on the other side of the world receives news from majority-Chinese Singapore of a riot breaking out in “Little India” involving only South Asians – what else would he think?

It takes local knowledge to understand that Little India is not an ethnic ghetto in the mould of those in Europe and the United States where riots have broken out in recent decades. Most Indians don’t live there, but (along with other diversity-loving Singaporeans) love visiting it as a cultural haven. It is the place to go for the best Indian food, clothing, groceries and goldsmiths, and its higher than usual concentration of Hindu temples.

Urban geography, not race, explains why the riot was an all-South-Asian affair. On Sundays, Singapore’s hundreds of thousands of migrant workers gravitate to particular neighbourhoods that have evolved organically into gathering spots for the proletariat from different parts of Asia. If a similar incident had erupted in the Beach Road area, it would have been an all-Thai affair. Around Peninsula Plaza, it would have been all-Myanmar. And if a migrant worker riot ever broke out around Lucky Plaza on Orchard Road, you can bet that it would be a Filipina expression of People Power.

Fortunately, Financial Times and company were the exception. Most foreign media reports correctly framed the riot as a by-product of the country’s dependence on low-cost foreign labour and a possible symptom of their discontent. These included international news organisations (Reuters , AFP , AP, the BBC and CNBC) and – critically for Singapore’s relations with India – Indian media such as the Hindu and the Times of India.

A Wall Street Journal blog – written by two local staffers – stated:

“The riot has sparked concerns of festering unrest amid the large foreign workforce, numbering about 1.3 million as of June, in this island state of 5.3 million people. In recent years, some foreign laborers—particularly low-pay unskilled workers in construction—have resorted to protests against alleged exploitation by employers, including a rare and illegal strike last year by about 170 public-bus drivers hired from China.”

The writers understood that the size of the migrant worker population was more relevant to the story than Singapore’s ethnic composition. And, they recognised that the most closely related precedent was not the race riots of the 1960s but the Chinese bus drivers’ strike – which of course destroys the theory that such incidents have much to do with race.

If anything, Singaporeans’ determination to preserve the nation’s multi-ethnic identity is shining through. Ethnic Chinese Singaporean Adrianna Tan, for example, plans to organise a monthly walking tour of Little India to share her love for the neighbourhood. I know some journalists who might find the experience educational.




Text of a talk delivered at the Singapore Management University law school on 3 September. First published in

When I started writing about press freedom issues more than 25 years ago, most Singaporeans seemed to believe that independent media might actually cause more harm than good in a country that was already pretty well governed. It wasn’t that they believed that their press was free. They just didn’t care that it wasn’t.

Today, most Singaporeans seem equally unconvinced that press freedom is an important issue. However, the reasons have changed. Singaporeans no longer take good governance for granted and they are much more prepared to speak up on national issues. It’s just that they don’t feel they need the press to magnify their voices.

Today’s internet-enabled citizens feel empowered to say almost anything, whenever, however and to whomever they wish. Seized by this new sense of efficacy, many critical Singaporeans feel they have outgrown the national media. They opine that if the mainstream press is government-controlled, it can go to hell (netizens not being known for polite euphemisms).

This confidence is based on the assumption that if the main arteries feeding information and ideas to the country’s democratic heart are politically clogged, we can still rely on a free-flowing online bypass.

This confidence is misplaced. Yes, blogs and online forums add precious diversity to the media landscape in Singapore, just as alternative media do in every society. But alternative media, while necessary, are not sufficient. And mainstream media, while not sufficient, are still necessary.

Therefore, Singaporeans who care about our democratic development still need to be concerned about restrictions that handicap traditional news organisations in fulfilling their professional roles.


Before I explain why, let’s be clear about the extent of those restrictions. Media freedom is not absolute anywhere in the world, either in practice or in principle. So the problem is not that Singapore’s media are regulated as such, but that the manner of regulation is not in keeping with what is currently regarded as international best practice.

International human rights law has worked out certain principles for balancing rights and responsibilities. The proper balance will differ from country to country, but there are certain “out of bounds” markers that governments should not cross when they regulate freedom of speech. Courts elsewhere increasingly apply a so-called “three-part test” to judge whether a government is crossing the OB markers.

First, any restrictions should be done according to written laws – laws that are precise, clear and predictable. We are certainly not as bad as dictatorships where strongmen rule by edict and impose arbitrary, whimsical punishments. However, Singapore fails this first test by having a number of restrictions that are vaguely worded, and that are effected administratively at the discretion of officials and without judicial review. The executive can, for example, revoke or deny a publishing permit at any time and is under no legal obligation to give any reasons.

The second part of the three-part test is that any limitation on freedom of expression must be for a legitimate purpose. In international law, the only legitimate aims are to protect the rights or reputations of others, national security or public order, or public health or morals. What is absolutely rejected as a legitimate aim of censorship is to make the government’s job easier. Singapore crosses this OB marker as well – the government has been quite forthright in claiming the authority to set the national agenda and to govern decisively, even if it means restricting the press.

The third part of the test is that any restriction must be necessary and proportionate, and not engage in overkill. The proscription must match the supposed threat to society. Singapore again fails on this score. For example, the preservation of multi-racial, multi-religious peace is the most commonly cited reason why our press needs close supervision – but it has never been adequately explained why, in order to achieve this, it has been necessary for the chairmen of Singapore Press Holdings to be former Cabinet ministers, as if other able Singaporeans lack the instincts to protect national interests.

The net effect of the government’s press policy is that when covering controversial issues where there is a significant divergence between government positions and public opinion, newspapers are expected to educate the public at the expense of reflecting ground sentiment – even if journalists themselves are not persuaded. As government policy states unequivocally, press freedom must be “subordinate to the primacy of purpose of an elected government” in such instances.

The government wants the space to effect unpopular policies that are beneficial for the country in the long term – not a bad thing – but it may end up protecting itself from the kind of accountability that would keep it honest and responsive to the public. And without open debate, it is too easy to slip from the former to the latter.

The online option

Many bloggers and online commentators are motivated by the desire to use the relative freedom of the internet to make up for traditional media’s democratic deficiencies. And certainly, alternative online media are a vital complement to mainstream media. As I argued in my 2006 book, Contentious Journalism, they enable access for voices and interests that, for a mix of reasons, are marginalised by professional, commercial and licensed media sector.

The question is whether they can not only supplement but also substitute for mainstream journalism.

Doubts have been expressed for decades about the power of digital media, some less credible than others. One early question was whether electronic platforms could ever be as practical as ink on paper. Newspapers, it was said, passed the toilet test with flying colours: you can even carry them into the loo with you. IPads and 3G phones have closed that gap, and fewer people make the argument that newspapers are inherently more convenient.

What continues to be taken seriously, though, is the argument that newspapers, for all their faults, are still required for gathering the public in a collective dialogue about matters of public interest. This is the so-called “public sphere” function of the press. The internet as a whole may approximate a public sphere, but the problem is that we don’t engage with the internet as a whole. We visit specific websites and forums, most of which are self-selecting and narrower in their constituencies than national newspapers.

Democracy requires the right to speak, and this is where the internet has come to the fore. But democracy also expects of citizens that we listen, to hear views different from our own, to negotiate and, if necessary, compromise. We need spaces for such deliberation and social conciliation.

The evidence from internet research so far is mixed, with some studies pointing to an echo chamber effect, while others claim that the internet introduces people to a wider range of views than mainstream media do. While there is some evidence that the internet allows people to engage more meaningfully in public life, there are also studies that say that new media equally allow people to distract themselves from public affairs.

But, all said and done, it is probably the case that if newspapers were to die tomorrow, it would be fairly easy for one or more internet sites to fill the void as a space for a national conversation.

Professional journalism

There is, however, a third role that newspapers play that online media show no signs of taking on. As much as our blogs claim to be monitoring the powerful, the reality is that their capacity is extremely limited. One limitation is their lack of training and experience, in making ethical judgment calls and in separating reliable information from gossip. This gap may be overstated. Journalism is not rocket science and I think it is possible for bloggers to develop professional journalism skills.

However, there is a bigger – and so far unbridgeable – gap that we need to take far more seriously. This is the gap between what can be accomplished by large teams of professional, full-time journalists versus small collectives of part-time amateurs. No matter how intelligent, talented and sincere the latter are, there are simply practical limits to what they can accomplish without sufficient time and  organisational back-up.

Yes, they may occasionally cover certain issues comprehensively and thoroughly. When certain events are exciting enough, they may be able to crowd-source investigative reports from an army of committed volunteers. But providing sustained, daily, disciplined monitoring of trends and institutions is beyond them.

Singapore is not a kampong. We are a thriving metropolis of 5 million people with economic activities on a scale that surpasses most countries. Monitoring the opportunities and threats within our country (and beyond our shores) is a prerequisite for individual, household and corporate survival. We can’t do this ourselves (even in partnership with our Facebook friends). And it is also fanciful to imagine that we can delegate the job entirely to amateur, part-time, unpaid citizen reporters.

To reiterate, citizen reporting and alternative media are a vital supplement – but they cannot meet all our democratic needs.

Too much of society’s business takes place during office hours, when our bloggers are busy with their day jobs or in school. And a lot of what needs to be kept track of – meetings, press conferences, reports, community events, business deals – is, quite frankly, so boring that no volunteer would be willing to do it for us. We actually need to pay someone to do it – sit through meetings, read reports cover to cover and so on – to find those bits of information that are relevant and important for the public, and then to connect the dots.

Often, of course, you can find experts in a given field who know a subject better than the most seasoned beat correspondent in a newspaper. No doubt, there are educationists who know their subject better than the education correspondents of the Straits Times, and law professors who understand their subject better than any legal affairs or crime reporter. When such experts blog, they certainly contribute to our collective enlightenment. And they may make us wonder if we need professional journalists any more to analyse things for us.

Again, though, we need to be more circumspect about whether experts turned amateur journalists can actually replace professional journalists entirely. Like other bloggers, these experts tend to be sporadic in their contribution.

But, more importantly, they tend to be embedded in professions and organisations and may feel no responsibility to escape their vested interests. In contrast, journalism as a profession accepts as its core mission (even if it doesn’t always achieve this) circulating information that helps citizens make sense of change and take part in democratic life. No other group claims to want to fill this social role and can be held up to that standard.

No online business model yet

What I’ve been stressing so far is the unique and indispensable function of professional journalism. In theory of course, there is no reason why professional journalism can only take place in newspapers.

In practice, though, newspapers have always provided and continue to provide the most hospitable business model for sustaining professional newsrooms.

Investigation, fact-checking and sense-making for a large, diverse population in a complex, fast-moving society is a resource intensive enterprise. It just cannot be done solely by small teams of part-timers and volunteers. You need newsrooms of 30 to 300 full-time professional journalists.

Can online media sustain such newsrooms? The closest we have to that is Yahoo! News, but although it is the country’s number one online news source, it is obvious that its capacity to generate original content is extremely limited. Regardless of how the ongoing copyright suit filed by SPH against Yahoo! is decided, it is noteworthy that even Yahoo! isn’t claiming that its reporting was original – it is merely claiming that it had a right to crib.

As for our amateur socio-political blogs, some have explored possible revenue streams, but I know of no blog that any longer has pretentions of becoming Singapore’s Malaysiakini (which has daily output in four languages produced by a full-time team of 70).

If a business model can be found for independent online journalism in Singapore, it would be a huge step forward for democratic communication. It would combine the value of professional journalism with the relative freedom of the internet.

But there is no sign that this will arrive soon. Until then, those who believe that greater freedom of expression is necessary for Singapore’s democratic progress should understand that newspapers must be part of the solution. And if Singaporeans feel that the press system is underperforming, they need to reform it – not ignore it.

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