A sticky situation: Singapore, Samantha Lo and street art

SINGAPOREAN artist Samantha Lo has  caused uproar after being charged with vandalism for her controversial street art. But Joyce Naomi Ho sees promise in the debate the Sticker Lady has generated.

Graphic: Wan Shing Lang

Singaporean street artist Samantha Lo – or SKLo – has caused public uproar in Singapore after she was arrested for pasting stickers and painting roads with words like “My Grandfather Road” across the city. For those who don’t know, “My Grandfather Road” is a term commonly used in Singapore to criticise someone who has complete disregard of authority, particularly if one excercises complete autonomy in a public area (i.e. a place you don’t technically own).

Most of Lo’s street art were plays on local jokes such as this, often with a hint of sarcasm. For example, one sticker on a traffic light button read,”Press Until Shiok” – a playful dig at people who impatiently press the pedestrian crossing button multiple times so they can cross the road.

Low’s arrest over her art work has been seen by some as a restriction on creative freedom, particularly by aspiring artists, with Facebook posts and online petitions about the incident going viral on the Internet.

A ban on public art or a controversial political statement?

Although I don’t regard Lo’s work as art in a traditional sense, if you believe that art is subjective – then by all means, it’s art. But for me, I think Low’s work is more of a brilliant political statement. I mean, reclaiming our land, by playing on the local slang that we should be able to do whatever we want in our own land? Brilliant.

Regardless of the way you’ve interpreted it or the view you hold,  the fact that she was arrested seems a bit much – whether it was regarded as a political statement or otherwise. Okay, fine, the sticker pasted on a road sign might have been dangerous but, seriously? A few miserable labels and you’re thrown in jail?!

Maybe my exposure to Melbourne has made me appreciate good graffiti and public art. But even if not everyone finds Lo’s work  pretty, surely we all can have a good laugh every once in a while?

Also, why the double standards between the way we treat our people and the way we treat foreigners? There’s always some new international architect trying to change the face of Singapore’s skyline, and even though it always ends up looking so cut and dry, and uninspiring, don’t you dare lay a finger on them or else you’ll be arrested too.

Go figure that one out, Sherlock.

Does pasting stickers constitute vandalism?

The Vandalism Act of 1966 in Singapore, states that unless you have gotten proper written permission from the authorities/owners in question, the following are forbidden:

  • writing, drawing, painting, marking or inscribing on any public property or private property any word, slogan, caricature, drawing, mark, symbol or other thing;
  • affixing, posting up or displaying on any public property or private property any poster, placard, advertisement, bill, notice, paper or other document; or
  • hanging, suspending, hoisting, affixing or displaying on or from any public property or private property any flag, bunting, standard, banner or the like with any word, slogan, caricature, drawing, mark, symbol or other thing; or
  • stealing, destroying or damaging any public property.

Let’s put aside the fact that Singapore is notorious for being a “FINE” City, where every mistake meets a hefty consequence. The vandalism act means that not even a “Missing Dog” poster can be pasted up anywhere unless permission is sought. I’ve seen many tuition posters plastered in various HDB (public housing) flats and street lamposts, but I have yet to hear of a case where a tuition teacher was convicted for vandalism even though their posters contain “words”. Curious huh?

This is why I honestly think this case was more about an average person pressing the proverbial panic button of our dear government, than a penalty for vandalism.

The Online Citizen’s Ng Yi Sheng best describes why the government may have reacted the way it did:

“Lo’s work (on the other hand) was immediately understandable as an act of reclamation. She was a Singaporean citizen transforming sterile public spaces by making them more idiosyncratically Singaporean, via the use of Singlish. It was as if the traffic lights and roads she marked were being taken back from the Singapore government and returned to the Singaporean people. They were now ‘our grandfather objects’, as the artist might have said – landmarks we had every right to inherit and call our own.”

Even if you feel the government is the legitimate primary owner of roads and signs, I highly doubt the Land Transport Authority would ever let the sticker lady’s political sentiments be plastered all over their streets, even if she had filed for an artistic permit, and waited dutifully for approval for three working days.

A culture of indifference

Most Singaporeans grew up adopting the notion of indifference, and you can hardly blame them, really. I grew up with that culture too, often being told “not to look at that odd man prostrating in front of the temple” or to “ignore the couple fighting on the street”. I’m not saying it is a bad thing, necessarily, (okay fine I am, a little bit) but this all-encompassing trust we have that the system we created will always work for the best makes us just a stickler for rules. And in the process, we forget about assessing things on an individual, case-by-case basis.

To quote Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at’s Facebook status:

“I don’t understand the Singaporeans who, when responding to the Sticker Girl case, say, ‘let the law run its course’ or ‘break the law and be prepared for the consequences’…The law doesn’t ‘run its course’ on autopilot, it needs to be interpreted, debated in court. Sometimes I wonder whether this kind of inadequate understanding of the ‘rule of law’ is what results in indifference to perversions of the rule of law–such as the mandatory death penalty and the Internal Security Act.”

Ok, so maybe I’m not as radical as my homeboy Sa’at, but if we do not have conversations like this, we will always stick to the status quo and that, to me, isn’t ideal. Not when you have travelled and seen that there’s more than one way to administer justice.

Whether you feel sympethetic to the Sticker Lady or not, I want to clarify that the good people who’ve been posting up links on Facebook, encouraging people to sign a petition, are not pleading for her release. They’re simply asking that she be charged under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, rather than for vandalism.

This is because a person who is convicted for vandalism can be punished with a fine of up to $2,000, or imprisoned for a term of up to three years. They can also be caned, subject to the Criminal Procedure Code 2010. This is unlike the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, which states that a person will only be liable to a fine of up to $1,000.

And maybe the Miscellaneous Offences Act fits the crime too, as the definition of “nuisance” in the Act is someone who “without authority in the case of public property, affixes or causes to be affixed any paper against or upon any building, wall or fence, or writes upon, defaces or marks any such building, wall or fence with chalk or paint, or in any other way.”

Verdict

We, in Singapore, are not perfect. But so long as we’re debating issues like these and unravelling the rationale behind our laws then, at the very least, the Sticker Lady fiasco would have served its purpose (however small) to challenge the status quo – and hopefully make us a more compassionate nation in the long run.

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