National campaigns are a big part of life in Singapore. Even before independence, the government had began using all sorts of campaigns to create model citizens and to shape the city to its vision.
In the 1960s, Singaporeans were exhorted to eat wheat when rice was in short supply. The 1970s a Speak Mandarin campaign was introduced to encourage the Chinese community to use Mandarin instead of dialects. This was then followed by the National Courtesy Campaign in the 1980s where Singaporeans were told to be courteous to one another. Campaigns died down a little from the 1990s, but a significant one in recent times was after the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) when Singaporeans were encouraged to ‘Step Out’ and resume their daily lives.
A Straits Times article in 2003 counted some 200 documented campaigns between 1958 and 1995, and anyone in Singapore since the 1980s would have been exposed to an average of more than 10 national campaigns a year! But such campaigns have largely been a one-way communication from the state. A new exhibition, Campaign City: Life in Posters, finally gives voice to the target audience. Ten local artists were asked to re-interpret a national campaign that they remembered in the form of a poster, an essential marketing collateral before the day of television and the Internet.
Ian Woo’s response (left) to the 1970s campaign against the hippies culture (right) that even saw musician Kitaro sent home when he came to perform in Singapore with long hair.
While artists like Michelle Fun, :phunk studio, eeshaun, and Ian Woo re-appropriated old campaign posters, others like Messy Msxi, Zhao Renhui and Clare Ryan created new work in response to the original campaign slogans. The 1970s ‘Two is Enough’ campaign, which encouraged Singaporean families to stop at two babies, was the most popular campaign as Justin Lee, ampulets, and Randy Chan each did a poster for it. This campaign is arguably one of the nation’s few successes, so much so, that low fertility has become a problem for Singapore today.
While the posters are personal responses, when read as a collection, there seems to be an underlying sense of ambivalence and pessimism about these campaigns. Randy’s poster (below) was especially memorable, visualising the many campaigns in the form of a condom — a critique on how a protective nanny state not only denied fertility but life in this city too.
Yet, one cannot deny the iconic value the old campaign posters have left in our visual culture. They may never have been very effective in moulding society and its people in the way it was meant to, but it has certainly helped shape how we see this city.
Campaign City: Life in Posters
9 Sep – 15 Oct
Evil Empire, 48 Niven Road