Go with a smile!

Friday, July 06, 2012

Belated Thoughts on Sticker Lady

Ever since the elections of 1 year ago, people have come out to debate social issues in greater numbers than ever before. Especially the one defining issue of that election: trading away one George Yeo for 5 opposition members. Since then, so many incidents have come out to provoke public debate: the Yaw Shin Leong sex scandal. Xiaxue publicly humiliating her detractors in public. Sun Xu neglecting to curse people under his breath and instead saying something out loud triggering a wave of anti-foreigner sentiment. Ma Chi getting a big dose of anti-foreigner flak for smashing up a taxi at a junction, until a Singaporean did exactly the same thing two weeks later. The sticker girl posed one of the greatest conundrums for law enforcement. She was famous before she got caught, because everybody was talking about her work. The positive feedback must have been very encouraging for her to carry on her spree. Well, I’ll cut to the chase and lay out the main issues, and my thoughts about them.

1. Is she a vandal?

Assuming that she’s the one who did the stickers and the spray painting, yes.

2. Does she deserve to be punished?

On balance, I would say a slap on the wrist would suffice. There wasn’t any malice involved. Even if you were to talk about damage to public property, don’t you think that all those sticky posters that advertisers put up also damage public property, and cost money to remove? And don’t you think that having a sticker that says “press once can already” would actually make those traffic light buttons last longer?

3. What would the law do to her?

I would look for an outcome that applies that above outcome to her, but which doesn’t break the letter of the law. If I were a judge, I would give her a light sentence. I would base that on outpouring of support for her – that would be a strong mitigating factor.

4. Is it art?

On the basis of the mass outpouring of support, it’s clear that she’s one of the most beloved artists Singapore has had for quite some time. You could even use it as a legal basis for defining art. Suppose there was no support for her, you couldn’t really tell if it were art. But if there were great support for her – no doubt! It doesn’t have to be universal – just present in large numbers.

5. Should we have more public spaces for people to “express themselves”?

First, I’m not a big fan of street art or whatever. I’ve always thought, you want to express yourself, do it on canvas. You want to see great art, visit a digital gallery. And frankly, the real obstacle to art in public spaces in Singapore is not the law. It is the fucking sky high price of land. That’s preventing people from setting up artist enclaves.

6. Whither the Vandalism act?

I didn’t want to have an opinion on this. But as people pointed out, it was originally written to deter commies putting up subversive posters. And now they’re angling for it to be less insanely tough. I’m not going to be an advocate for this for selfish reasons: I don’t support street art. But others do. I don’t think that if you ease up the law, more street art will appear than wanton defacement of public property. I don’t think that I want to pay higher taxes to maintain damaged goods.

A lot of people are saying, "why can't Singapore open up like the rest of the world". Well we're not "just another city". We're special, we're Singapore. If we didn't do silly things that make people laugh at us, if we didn't ban chewing gum, cane people (actually, young males) for vandalism, hang people for drug trafficking, we wouldn't be uniquely Singapore. And that is why I despair at people who, in the name of individuality cry out, "why can't we be like everybody else? Why can't we have a funky city like everybody else?"

Ultimately the question of street artist is a competition of ideas between the street artist and the city planner. The city planner designs the landscape on a bigger scale, while the street artist decorates smaller portions, on the scale of one wall at a time. They might get into each other's way. You could have a mural that is nice to look at up close, but when you look at a wall from afar, all those murals become undistinguished from each other, and look almost downright ugly.

7. Space for artists in Singapore

I had a long standing argument with a friend of mine. He is a guy who is pretty pro-government, and he first took the position that he never understood why artists are always angling for "more controversy". I started engaging with him on this point until I realised that you don't really have to support the idea that "art is about controversy" to believe that Singapore severely hampers the space that artists have to work with. It is ridiculously easy to withdraw performing and entertainment licenses. You can't swear into a mike. I think there was a time when Chris Ho got banned for inviting people up on stage. Laws are more strictly enforced for local acts than foreign acts.

But another strange thing happened: around the time then Singapore decided to liberalise its hold on artists, a totally different set of obstacles presented itself to the artist. This time, there wasn't a lack of entertainment venues, nor was there a lack of good facilities for performance. But they were expensive, and you had to fill in the seats. This means that everything became more corporatised. You couldn't stage a concert unless you filled in all the seats. All this pointed to an inherent bias in the system against more experimental acts - unless you were generously bankrolled by good backers. You had foreigners flooding into the system, who managed to hone their craft elsewhere and make their name in more favourable conditions. Then they come here, complain about how the restrictive atmosphere is stifling the artists, and proceed on to further stifle the local artists by providing competition.

Yes, you can call on the government to provide more support for our local arts scene, but these other conditions will have to be dealt with as well.

As for space for Street Art in Singapore, I think that you could issue a few more permits for Street Art. I remember that before they renovated the Singapore Museum for the umpteenth time, there was a quirky little sculpture with 4 wiry guys sitting on a bench. I kinda liked that and I think that was a nice piece of street art. I don't think that these pieces of street art would necessarily do much harm to Singapore.

Update: as of now, Samantha Lo hasn't been charged. They talk about the enormous amount of leeway there exists to either charge or not charge Woffles Wu. Now, people don't like this flexibility because it makes the law seem arbitrary. But apparently this flexibility was used to not charge Samantha Lo, which does raise questions: why? Why, when after risking the wrath of the public to charge a popular figure, do you not stick to your guns? Do our leaders lack balls? Or is this the wise and pragmatic approach, that after demonstrating that nobody is exempt from the long arm of the law you just decide to do the most sensible thing in the end? This debate may long continue, but it is interesting in its own right, and also in what it tells you about the societal changes in Singapore.


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