Introduction: Pop Culture in Singapore by Chua Beng Huat

Chua Beng Huat

Conventionally seen by all and sundry as ‘leisure’ activity to fill up downtime or worse as essentially a ‘waste of time’ activity of especially youth, pop culture has not been a concern for the local academics who are busy with ‘serious’, ‘adult’ issues. Even those who are engaged in researching the so-called ‘creative industries’ are not inclined to delve into pop culture as creative products nor the polymorphous pleasures that audience/consumers derived from the reception and use of pop culture. They stay safely on the side of examining the government policies, the industrial strategies and economic considerations. Beyond academics, in a society that is overwhelmed with concerns of ‘making a living’, culture is seen as acquiring ‘skills’ in the arts that might serve as social capital that is advantages in self-advancement. Thus, the busy mother/maid ferries the child from piano lessons to ballet classes to Chinese painting and calligraphy, without any expectation that any of these practices would become the way of making a living for their charges. This s/pore posting issue redresses this attitude of indifference to pop culture.

In academic and journalistic writings, pop culture is usually referred to ‘popular culture’.  Nevertheless, conceptual distinctions should be made. Pop culture strictly speaking refers to mass produced, profit-minded cultural commodities for mass entertainment. They are by commercial necessity of short shelf-life, the better to increase profit; the ebbing popularity of a product or an artiste is followed quickly by the rise of another. Popular culture, on the other hand, refers to the organic culture of the masses in contestation and mutual appropriation with the culture of the dominant class and, occasionally succeeds in destroying the latter, as in political ‘popular uprising’.

However, the collapsing of ‘pop’ and ‘popular’ is of course not accidental. Indeed, it can be said that pop culture is a subset of popular culture, as practitioners of both draw from the same social body.  The spirit of contestation inherent in popular culture also has its counterpart in pop culture, in what is called ‘alternative’ or ‘underground’ in pop culture. Here, the practitioners of entertainment also assume the role of the critique of the mainstream society, culture and politics. The same applies to their audience/consumers.  Not surprisingly, the ‘alternatives’ rather than the mainstream are generally more attractive to critical writing. This collection of interviews, clips and commentaries reflect this tendency.

Of the pop culture genre, the most ubiquitous is mainstream pop music. Pop music takes up the greatest portion of broadcast time on radio, largest volume of sales, through increasingly different modes, to consumers and most visible through life concerts. However, such mainstream success has never been the career of English-language-Singaporean-musicians; none has achieved the superstar status of Mandarin-pop singer Stephanie Sun Yanzi.  However, this has not deterred local pop musicians to produce their own music. Ironically, by the absence of large followings and in the airwaves, the English-language, Western pop musicians almost always appear ‘alternative’, bands who sing covers in places like Timbre excepted. The two reviews of Leslie Low’s musical journey through the different pop musical genres with different bands exemplify this. The reviewers, Chris Ho and Joseph Tham obviously appreciate Low’s music but equally obviously love the language they deploy in displaying their knowledge of alternative pop music; Metal even as its most ‘bearable’ is never mainstream.

To all who knows him, Cheng Tju is a comic fan, ranging from politically charged to woodcut prints of the 1950s and earlier to contemporary ‘graphic’ novels. His introduction to Eric Khoo’s short-lived early career as a comic artist before moving to become auteur filmmaker offers a useful reminder. The comic strips of mundane lives of ordinary Singaporeans might be precursors to the ‘pathetic’ characters in his subsequent films – the anemic, voiceless Mee Pok Man; the fat daughter who is the butt of her mother’s relentless rant in vulgar Cantonese in 12 Storeys and the greasy, gluttonous night watchman in Be With Me. All of which are rolled out as the ‘losers’, hence as criticism, of Singapore’s triumphal story of capitalist economic success.

His interview with Sonny Liew showcases one of the success stories in Singapore English-language pop culture. Sonny Liew is by all conventional measures of Singaporean definition, a ‘successful’ Malaysian-born-in-Singapore. He went to Cambridge to read philosophy, then to Rhode Island School of Design to study painting, winner of the National Arts Council Singapore Young Artist Award in 2010 and a published comic artist for American Marvel Comics and the creator of Malinky Robot, which won him an international Best Science Fiction Comic Album of the year. The language-divide in Singapore pop culture is made apparent in Cheng Tju’s question, “Malinky has been translated into French and Italian. When [are] the Malay and Chinese versions coming out?” Answer: “Haha no idea. Saya Tak Tau”.

Liew is also a painter and makes distinction between ‘painting’ and ‘comic’. He has two versions of the distinction – previously, “comic tend to be more commercially driven and the paintings are more personal”, now ‘all art [including comic] has to communicate, paintings communicate differently”. I might wish for a more expansive clarification but none is given. This lead readers to the interview with concept artist, Cheo Chai-Hiang and the exhibition of his ‘project’, Don’t Sit on Me, held at the Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre, which is owned and operated by the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore.  The project got its title from a graffiti of a penis, with the phrase ‘don’t sit on me’, ‘scrawled’ on a MRT seat. Among the multitude of possible readings of the whole image, Cheo decided to take up this: ‘a sign of young Singaporeans no longer wanted to be ‘sat on’. Cheo, who is thoroughly bilingual, then link this to the bilingual play of the late Kuo Pao Kun, Descendants of the Eunuch. Why not? Penis is involved in both texts. And, of course, again in his installation.

Cheo invited his friends to take the title of the project and produce a makeshift chair for the installation work. Most of the contributions come from Singapore and Malaysia. One detects a tone of disappointment in Cheo’s voice in this comment, “I would speculate the many chair makers (not all, of course) in this project are more concerned about ‘how would the chair stand’, ‘how would the chair look’, rather than what possible ‘meanings’ the chair might be capable of generating”. [Sigh?]

In response to Cheo’s wishes for generated meanings, let me offer this. Significantly, Cheo noticed that no passenger in the train was willing sit near the graffiti, let alone on it. Imagine the illicit polymorphous perverse pleasures of sitting right on top it!!