Designing Singapore Neutrality

The fragility of Singapore’s multi-racial society is a very big part of the national ideology. Having to pay the utmost sensitivity to the four official languages here — English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil — how has that affected design?

Public signage is one very good indicator of this because it’s meant to be read by all so how it is designed is a good gauge of how we handle this issue.

A common way of handling this issue in design is to reference a ‘foreign’ element instead. In 1969, Minister of Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam explained to The Straits Times why Singapore was celebrating the 150th anniversary of modern Singapore with Raffles as the founding father.:

“In a multi-racial society at this stage of evolution, we could be inviting trouble were the founder to be selected from either the Chinese, Malay or Indians… by choosing Raffles, an Englishman, we have chosen a neutral person least likely to excite racial passions.”

In a similar vein, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew explained in his 2000 memoirs, From Third World to First, why he recruited Gurkha policeman as sentries for his home:

“To have either Chinese policemen shooting Malays or Malay policemen shooting Chinese would have caused widespread repercussions. The Gurkhas on the other hand were neutral, besides having a reputation for total discipline and loyalty.”

This goes some way in explaining why our public signage is dominated by the English language.

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It is one of the four official languages. It is the most neutral because none of the dominant races are tied to it. And, as an English-educated society, almost every Singaporean is suppose to know it.

Another way of handling the issue is to be fair to all the races: use all four official languages.

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That seems to be the way older signs have been designed to handle this problem of communicating to the public. Based on my observations, newer signs often just use English and sometimes Chinese because it helps them reach out to the most people today. Besides having more languages in a sign is often costly because of the increased printing space. One of the few agencies that still consciously make use of all four languages is the MRT train system.

Another more recent phenomenon in the design of signs indicates how important tourists have become in our landscape.

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Go figure where most of our tourists are coming from! Strange how we’re willing to spend money on making a place inviting to our tourists but not our older generation who may not understand English…

The two approaches to design public signages to solve the problem of public communication seem inadequate to me. The former favours an exclusive, even ‘foreign’, language while the latter is built on a legacy that can be costly and inefficient. This is where I think a pictorial language such as Isotype can be developed locally to be used with existing English signs.

Symbols could be designed to assist in public communication. In a way, they exist extensively for drivers here already, so why not built upon that and use it more extensively for public communication? It could prove to be a more neutral and effective than choosing the language of English alone, at least people who don’t know the language can recognise shapes.

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