Tag: media

SG Design: Consumption or Culture Cultivation?

When I first began writing about design, an editor of an Asian design magazine categorised my essays as only interesting to designers. Instead, I needed to re-tune my writing for “design consumers” if I was to write for their magazine.

The remark gave me much clarity in what I sought to write about. I’ve never wanted to sell or promote the coolest or latest designs , but I’ve always seen design as a part of our everyday life, as well as a product of our culture and times . But such a view is rare amongst how many in Singapore view design. One of the most telling indicators for me is how design is often represented in the local mainstream media. When design gets coverage in newspapers like The Straits Times and Business Times, design is usually portrayed as a consumer product: designer furniture, stylish interiors, and dream homes. The same goes for many magazines about design that I find in Singapore.

Such a dominant view of design’s role in society probably explains why there was hardly a reaction from designers and architects over the fact that Singapore sat out of the Venice Architecture Biennale this year. As compared to local artists currently going brouhaha over the government’s decision to pull out of the contemporary art version of the Venice Biennale next year, the response has been rather muted except for some comments elicited for an article on The Straits Times over the weekend (Singapore skips architecture biennale. 1 September, 2012). After participating in every edition since 2004, building national pavilions around themes such as Second Nature (2004), Singapore Built and Unbuilt (2006), Singapore Supergarden (2008), and 1000 Singapores (2010), Singapore designers and architects will not be able to showcase their ideas, culture and work on an international platform this year.

While DesignSingapore Council has chosen to remain “tight-lipped about this year’s non-participation”, its executive director Jeffery Ho told the newspaper that the council was focusing on other events such as the Milan Furniture Fair, Maison et Objet in Paris and International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. As Colin Seah from Ministry of Design pointed out in the report, this indicates the council’s direction to concentrate on “more commercial and trade events” — which supports my view that the council has become more interested simply promoting design for economic consumption. From what I understand, the Venice Architecture Biennale has always been an exhibition about ideas in design and its role in arts and culture as opposed to the business of selling design.

This latest pullout follows in the wake of the postponement of what was supposed to be the fourth Singapore Design Festival last year. There is still no news if the council will hold the festival this year, traditionally happening between October and November. What we can say for sure is that policymakers are reviewing their strategy of promoting and supporting design, perhaps aptly so since next year will be a decade since the council was set up.

A cue for the future of how the Singapore government will support and promote design can be found in the council’s plans for the upcoming National Design Centre due in 2013. It seems that government policies are shifting back to the view that design is for commerce and trade alone. This marks a shift in the original agenda set by the council’s late founding director, Dr. Milton Tan.

As one of his staff recalled in a eulogy for him that was published in The Design Society Journal No. 02, “Milton’s eventual vision for Singapore design was formed with the Ministry’s support… His research in design creativity also informed him that a healthy design strategy had to be integrated with culture, craft, and inspiration. This is why Dsg is in the ministry leading the creative industries, and not trade and industry. Though frequently challenged by MICA to deliver the economic numbers when formulating the design strategy for the next five years, Milton continued to push the cultural agenda.”

Could the time be up for the council and it finally needs to justify continued support for design with indicators of how it has benefitted Singapore economically? How will national design policies that ignore culture and affect the industry and community in Singapore?

This is a similar concern raised almost 15 years ago in a 1998 news report in the Business Times reviewing what was then the decade-old International Design Forum held in Singapore, another government initiative for design. The question was asked if the now defunct forum had become “too commercially oriented at the expense of highlighting design in its pure form”.

An optimistic view would be to say the council has laid a foundation and the growing community of designers and architects can continue cultivating the seeds of cultural evolution. But has the scene arrived at this point? It’ll be sad to see the council’s decade-long work of pushing design beyond the realm of business go to waste, but what is even more painful is to realise this is something that has happened before. And likely to happen all over again.

The return of political cartoons

“You cannot mock a great leader in an Asian Confucian society.
If he allows himself to be mocked, he is finished.”
Lee Kuan Yew commenting on how the media portrayed the Tiananmen demonstrations using cartoons and caricatures

Election fever and the lack of state regulation online saw a resurgence in a graphic form that has almost become extinct in Singapore: political cartoons.

Throughout the 2011 General Election, several blogs published cartoons on how they saw the hustings, often poking fun at politicians and the remarks they made. Below is a list of some of them, click to check out their cartoons!

Except for Cartoon Press, the other five blogs have been around for  a while. Both My Sketchbook and Blinking Brink are the oldest, having been around since 2006.

While the cartoons may look amateurish, their content is much more hard-hitting that what you’ll find on the newspapers, where editorial cartoons like these have traditionally been found. The government’s tight control of the mass media over the last few decades had forced out similar work from pioneers like Kwan Sai Kheong, Tan Huay Peng and Morgan Chua.

The late Kwan freelanced for the Singapore Free Press and The Straits Timesbetween 1946 and 1951, before he eventually became a Permanent Secretary. He also designed the Merlion statue. Peng joined ST in 1955, and when he left in 1962 he was the paper’s Chief Artist. Even after his departure, the late Peng continued to contribute work to the paper till the ’80s. Finally, Morgan started out at the Singapore Herald, and after the newspaper got banned in the 1970s, he left for Hong Kong to draw for the Far Eastern Economic Review for the next 25 years.

The generation of editorial cartoonists that followed, like ST’s Dengcoy MielLee Chee ChewThe New Paper’s Lee Hup Kheng and Lianhe Zaobao’s Heng Kim Song did not draw their inspiration from politics, or at least local politics. The only exception, although his work was not published in newspapers, was George Nonis who published two cartoon books documenting the generational change in Singapore’s politics with his Hello Chok Tong, Goodbye Kuan Yew (1991) book, and a decade later, From Kuan Yew to Chok Tong And Beyond (2001).

If you’re interested to find out more about editorial cartoons and Singapore’s history, check out Lim Cheng Tju’s Singapore Comix. He has also been written well-researched pieces, including Lest We Forget: The importance of history in Singapore and Malaysia Comic Studies.

The reality of The Straits Times


Straits Times put on trial its latest “feature” today — seeing the world through tinted lenses (aka 3D glasses).

The paper says this is one way it is trying to improve itself, by allowing its readers to get the news from a different perspective. So I decided to do a simple quantitative analysis to find out if it was so. It turned out that only 10 out of the 65 news photo and graphics (excluding small profile pictures) could be seen in 3D perspective. On the other hand, some 20 advertisements were 3D ready. Plus, that pair of 3D spectacles was “Brought to You by Samsung”. And, if you didn’t know, TODAY newspaper was actually the first to bring 3D to newspapers. They worked with Panasonic Singapore and were upfront about it.

Most importantly, they kept it out of editorial content.

This aggressive campaign by Samsung and Panasonic to reinvent advertising on our local newspapers to push the 3D agenda is one thing. But, 3D editorial content? I’m not sure if it works, at all.

Besides the fact that it takes 1.5 hours for the photo desk to process a 3D photo, and photographers having to shoot such that it is suitable for 3D, the effect is simply not very nice at all. Through those glasses, the photos lose their colour. Without them, the photo looks blur. Moreover, none of the photos I saw today convinced me that seeing something pop out was nothing more than gimmicky. And, let’s not even start on how those spectacles hinders the reading experience!

If ST is really keen on improving their readers’ needs for images in the newspaper, then put it in multimedia journalism like this, and give more space to infographics and photojournalism in the newspaper and online. No need for anything fanciful, just let the talented photographers and artists do good old visual storytelling.

The only reason why I think ST hopped on to 3D was because it is ‘cool’ now to have it, and I won’t be surprised if it was heavily subsidised by the advertisers in some way or another.