Singaporean Girls Gone Wild...

Singapore is so known for its work ethic and sense of decorum that I have joked off and on about marketing a series of videos of Singaporean Girls Gone Wild which consisted of school girls in uniforms throwing peanut shells on the floor of the Raffles Hotel bar with wild abandon before returning to studying for their exams. After all, one of the first things that I ever learned about this country was that the law specified that one could be thrashed with a bamboo cane for chewing gum in public. My first impression then was something like that planet in Star Trek: The Next Generation where one could be put to death for stepping on the grass. That said, spending time here has given me a much more nuanced picture of what lies behind those stereotypes and of the ways that such a society is confronting the potential anarchy being brought about by the new kinds of participatory culture being fostered on the web. When I was speaking at the Singaporean National Library, Dr. Tony Tan, my host, the former Deputy Prime Minister and current head of the Singapore Press Holdings Foundation, drew a comparison between the invention of movable type in the 15th century (and the print revolution that followed) and the invention of Movable Type (the bloging software) a few years ago and the profound impact it was having world wide. Dr. Tan argued that it would be impossible to hold onto old constraints on expression or to close off possible access to these new technologies, even if governments wanted to do so. Instead, they needed to find ways to help new bloggers develop a deeper understanding of their civic responsibilities.

Frankly, the government officials I have met in Singapore are better educated than anyone I can imagine in the Bush administration. Well, that's damning with faint praise, isn't it? Many of them have advanced degrees from elite institutions -- many of them have doctoriates -- and then approach problems with a calm and humane rationalism. They are both knowledgible and thoughtful about the issues they confront as they transition from an era where there is tight control over the press to one where there is broad democratic participation in the blogosphere.

What's Wrong with Singaporean Teen Bloggers?

What is clear from my many conversations here is that parents in Singapore as in other parts of the world worry about what young people are doing online. Their children are going places and doing things that were not part of their own childhood experiences and they are concerned about ways that these decisions may come back and hurt them later. As I have spoken to people here, three very distinct stories of youth "misbehavior" online have cropped up again and again as reference points for this conversation. I thought I would share them with you here because of the insights they offer into Singaporean culture and the ways that these technological changes are being understood in this country. Since two of them involve young female bloggers, these may be a truer picture of Singaporean Girls Gone Wild.

The first story involves Wee Shu Min, the teenaged daughter of a member of the Singaporean Parliament, who become the center of a national controversy about economic privilege and almost ended her father's political career because of something she had posted on her blog. Here's how the story began according to a news report on the CNN website:

When Wee Shu Min, the teenage daughter of a Singapore member of parliament stumbled across the blog of a Singaporean who wrote that he was worried about losing his job, she thought she'd give him a piece of her mind.

She called him "one of many wretched, undermotivated, overassuming leeches in our country" on her own blog and signed off with "please, get out of my elite uncaring face".

Wee was flamed by hundreds of fellow bloggers, but when her father Wee Siew Kim -- an MP in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's constituency -- told a Singapore newspaper that "her basic point is reasonable", the row moved well beyond the blogosphere.

The episode highlighted a deep rift in Singapore society and was an embarrassment for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) and prime minister Lee, who has made the reduction of the income gap one of the priorities of his new government.

The CNN story goes on to contextualize this controversy in terms of a growing public concern about income disparities in a country which generates the second largest per capita income in the world (after Japan). There is great suspicion here that moves towards a welfare state might undermine the country's work ethic so there are no government pensions or minimum wage laws though there are widespread educational benefits. The flame war that erupted around this teenage girl's blogs brought to the surface deeply buried class antagonisms with the youth, who was attending one of the country's elite schools, being compared with Marie Antoinette for what many saw as insensitive comments about the nation's underclass.

Part of what gave this story its sensationalistic qualities though was the idea that what this teenage girl wrote might be reflective of the views expressed in private by one of the nation's political leaders, an impression re-enforced by the father's attempts to defend his daughter's actions. A story on AsiaMedia quoted the father as saying: "As a parent, I may not have inculcated the appropriate level of sensitivity, but she has learnt a lesson."

The second story centers around a 19 year old female blogger who posts under the name Sarong Party Girl. Her posting of nude photographs of herself placed her at the center of a national controversy about exhibitionistic uses of digital technology and about sexual propriety among young women. Her user-name already seemed calculated to spark controversy.

According to the Wikipedia, Sarong Party Girl (or SPG) is a derogatory slang term used in Singapore and parts of Malaysia to refer to a young woman who "dresses and behaves in a provocative manner; and exclusively dates and prefers Caucasian men." The entry continues, "The stereotypical Sarong party girl has extremely tanned skin, a false foreign accent, and is provocatively dressed. Originally, the outfit of choice was thought to be a bikini/tank-top paired with a sarong, though that now exists only in the name. Many of them frequent clubs or nightspots that are popular with expatriate Caucasians in order to meet and form relationships with these men. Sarong party girls are known to prowl specific nightspots in Singapore along Boat Quay, Clarke Quay, Emerald Hill and City Hall, the classic place being the now defunct Carnegies at Far East Square."

So in choosing to call her blog, Sarong Party Girl, the youth was trying to reclaim a negative term which embodies an explosive mixture of sexual and racial transgression, while no doubt thumbing her nose at traditional sexual morality in her country. Interestingly, though, as much controversy centered around the decision of the Singapore Straits Times to report on the incident (and thus drive potentially much more traffic to her site) as on her decision to post the nude images and frank commentary. This suggests uncertainty about the public/private status of blogs and about the interface between centralized and participatory media.

The third incident involves blogger Gan Huai Shi, a 17-year old student, who was charged with seven counts of "promoting ill will" under Singapore's Sedition Act, for posting negative remarks about the country's largely Islamic Malay population. Each offense carries a potential punishment of up to three years in prison. Here's part of an editorial in the Straits Times referring to this and two other cases of young bloggers sparking race antagonism:

The Internet is not a personal space.

Yet those who air their diatribe do so in the belief that they are not only anonymous, but also that there are no rules and constraints. This perception is reinforced if site hosts and moderators fail in their duty to act, and if fellow netizens don't come down hard and fast on them.

There are thought to be more than one million active Internet users in Singapore, and the maths would suggest there are more people with the ability to do good and police the system than there are those who preach intolerance, ridicule and call others' beliefs into question.

So rather than question why it is that the authorities had to act, or the merits of which is the more appropriate law to use, or whether this is a prelude to a political clampdown, the Internet's cause will be better served if active users weigh in and do their own clamping down...

What these guys have done, as some have already suggested, is to give bloggers and chatrooms a bad name.

And if the community does not want to have Big Brother watching, then it's best that it does the watching itself.

In a society composed primarily of three major racial groups (The Chinese, the Indians, and the Malay) who have had some history of antagonisms, the Singaporean government officially promotes multiracial harmony. And thus the image of Singaporean young people freely posting anti-Islamic comments on their blogs provoked a very stern response from both the mainstream media and the national government.

As each of these examples suggest, the concern with transgression by youth bloggers (male and female) points to potential fault lines within the culture. The forms these fears take are culturally specific (as no doubt are the concerns that American parents have about what constitutes misconduct by youth on line -- whether read through the lens of the Post-Columbine controversies about violent video games or the more recent hysteria about sexual risks faced by young women on MySpace). Yet, in each case, these concerns translate into a more generalized anxiety about the risks young people face as they enter into the digital world. The young blogger becomes a figure of freedom and license, an embodiment of the breakdown of the old order as average citizens gain the ability to express their thoughts and fantasies through these powerful new communication platforms. We can't begin to address those generalized fears about youth and digital media until we understand the ways they get linked to deeper and often implicit cultural and political anxieties.

For a sense of what a good Singapore blogger looks like, one need look no further than the Jan. 8 edition of The Straits Times, which is running a series called "Piecing Together the Digital Native." (Marc Prensky, are your ears burning?) There's a full color graphic of the digital native, depicted as a tribal chieftan, complete with body and face paints and a quiver of arrows, but also depicted with a mouse hanging as a talisman on his shark tooth necklace, and with an ear and mouthpiece from a cellphone wrapped around his face. The headline on the story tells it all: "Business-Saavy Kids Turn Blogs Into E-Shopping Outlets. They Find Ready Customers Among Fellow Youngsters."

To Hell and Back...

If the notions of what constitute being "bad" are culturally specific, then so are the fantasies about what happens to people who are bad. All of this was brought home to me Sunday when I paid a visit to Haw Par Villa, a distinctly Singapore attraction owned by the Tiger Balm Company. For a small fee, you can enter the 10 Courts of Hell: a series of garishly colored plaster statues from the 1930s, represent the harsh punishments awaiting men and women alike for their transgressions (as understood within classical Chinese mythology). So, by way of illustration, here are some offenses and the punishments they bear:

Disrespect for Elders -- heart cut out.

Tomb Robbers - tied to red hot copper piller

Stealing -- frozen into blocks of ice

Misuse of books, possession of pornographic materials, wasting food -- body sawed into two

rumors -- tongue pulled out.

driving someone to their death -- thrown into wok of boiling oil

cheating during examinations -- intestines and organs pulled out

And so on. All of these punishments are depicted with blood-gushing everywhere and piles of dismembered limbs and decapitated heads. Trust me, I haven't encountered much in American popular culture which is as vivid in its depictions of mutilation and impailment.

Here are some images taken by my colleague William Uricchio when he was there last year.


This image depicts prostitutes drowning in a pool of "unclean" blood.


This man refused to pay his taxes and is being pounded by a stone mallet.


It is hard to imagine a more grisly form of public amusement, yet many Singaporeans tell me that they went to this park regularly as young people and that it played a central role in their moral instruction. American discourse about media violence assumes that young people identify with those who commit violence; this attraction, on the other hand, assumes that young people identify with those who are being punished for their transgresions and may change their ways if they see enough blood and guts, decapitated limbs, and impailed bodies. Well, it's a theory...

Elsewhere, there are a series of scenes which represent various virtues and vices: the images here are fascinating because of their surreal fusion of the human and animal, folk tradition and images of the modern world as a debauched utopia.


This debased and lustful pig represents a character from the Chinese classic, Journey to the West.


And this is one of the many images which depict the sinful nature of western dress and modern life -- jazz clubs in particular take a drubbing in these exhibits.


And consider this image of the lustful Spider demons who have taken human female form in order to deceive the unsuspecting man. What William's picture doesn't show is a cloak drapped over in the corner which is red and white checked. All I could see was Spider-Man's costume! You get some feel for at least the coloring of the cloak from the halter tops these Singaporean Girls Gone Wild are wearing.

Again, one gets a sense that one could transgress a lot of social taboos by cloaking these sensationalistic depictions of modern life with an aura of moral instruction and spiritual uplift. In the name of redemption, we can look at men and women groping each other or naked breasts. The same of course was true in the western world during the Silent era where nudity was not uncommon in the films of D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMile as long as the goal of the film was to bring the viewer closer to that old time religion.

The Price of Transgression

Of course, these same anxieties about transgression and punishment crop up elsewhere in popular culture. For example, I picked up a DVD of what has been billed as the first Singapore produced horror film, The Maid. I have not yet had a chance to watch but I found the description of the film illuminating:

Filipino Maid, Rosa, arrives to work in Singapore during the Lunar Seventh Month, or the Hungry Ghost Festival -- believed to be a time when the Hell gates open. Life turns into a nightmare where Rosa unwittingly breaks the rules of the Month, tumbling into the world of the dead and glimpsing strange apparitions at night. To keep her job, she has to stifle her screams and fears.

I can't begin to unpack the mixture of anxieties which are bound up in this story, even understood in its broad outlines on the DVD box description: concerns about immigration, the breaking of traditional taboos, the relations of servants to their employers, and so forth. I am told that there have been a series of disturbing news reports in the Singapore press about servent girls being sexually and physically abused by their masters, which could account for the themes of this work.

Let me close with another symptom of the ways Singapore is adjusting to the consequences of media change. The elevators at my hotel in the Raffles complex advertises that one can go to the in-house spa for special treatments designed to help those who have overused Blackberries, cell phones, and other mobile technologies. The image of people wracking in pain because they have spent too much time text messaging and being nursed back to health at the spa represents a particularly adult anxiety about the dangers of embracing new media technologies.

Oh, by the way, when I wandered by an ice cream parlor at the local mall, I couldn't help but notice that they were selling Seaweed Washabi flavored soft serve ice cream, a dish which to my western taste buds sounds as close to a combination of the freezing and burning hells depicted at Har Paw Villa.. :-)

An Aside:

It seems appropriate in a post about horror and the internet to end with some good news. Those of you who have been following this blog regularly know of my strong opposition to the Deleting Online Predators Act. The new year has brought good news: the Act seems to have lost steam as some of its key supporters were defeated in the midterm elections. In any case, the bill will have to be reintroduced in the House since it failed to pass the Senate. There's a better report than I can offer right now of what happened over at PBS Teacher Source. The reporter is a bit more optomistic than I am that the bill is really and truly dead. I don't think Republicans have a monopoly on moral panic and censorship. Indeed, many Democrats in the House supported this bill the first time through and might rally around it again if it looked like it would give Hillary Clinton cover with the Security Moms and Cultural Conservatives. But let's celebrate our minor victories where we can!