NDP pole-dancing S’pore style

August 15, 2009

3664323225_ce8b696113Ordinary people only resist in the ways they know how. If you’re an office clerk who hates his boss, you don’t tell him he’s an asshole to his face or you’ll be fired faster than you can say ‘one month’s notice’. Instead you badmouth him behind his back and steal office stationery. If you’re a waiter who hates his job you may be tempted to spit into the roast beef or pleasure yourself with the raw carrots before serving them up to customers. The point is people register their unhappiness in the limited ways that are open to them. Or if you want to get all academic about it, modes of resistance are determined by class and cultural capital.

All of which recalls the pole-dancing segment in the National Day Parade, naturally. Public reaction to the vertical gyration of scantily clad thunder thigh women so far has fallen into two categories. The first is the ‘how could they do such a thing on National Day?’ category. It had a tinge of moralizing to it, with the sanctity of NDP taking on religious proportions for many nationalist conservatives. For them, the introduction of pole-dancing to NDP is like having a bunch of strippers conduct Holy Communion on Sunday to the soundtrack of Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy.

The second category of reactions is generally more sanguine but no less enlightened. Well, it’s not done in a cheap sleazy way (unlike the giant creepy Sang Nila Utama puppet) and it’s now an accepted form of exercise, just like 55 year old aunties are now belly-dancing their way to broken hips in community centres all over the island. It’s all about sanitizing sex, making it wholesome, and then pretending we’re cutting edge because we’re now doing it. It’s so Singaporean. Whether it’s pole-dancing, Speakers Corner, or increasing the number of NMPs and NCMPs to up the level of “opposition” in Parliament, we’re all too obsessed with the form, and less with the substance.

But both reactions miss the larger point of including the pole-dance segment. For me, it was an ironic jab at how the economic imperatives of the PAP government have always been more sacred than its moral conservatism. In the early 1960s, right after the PAP took power in 1959, it embarked on its “anti-yellow culture” campaign to rid the island of pornography, jukeboxes, peepshows, decadent music and movies. It was a moral campaign to out-moral the communists then who were known for their austere and clean living. Later in 1979 the Report on Moral Education recommended the teaching of moral values in schools because Singaporeans were becoming too “Westernised”. It was in this spirit of moral conservatism that proposals to set up casinos in the 1980s and F1 races in the 1990s were roundly rejected by the PAP government.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we’re doing our damndest to look glam to the rest of the world. Crazy Horse, bar-top dancing, pole-dancing, everything and anything that would raise a brow we will gladly do. The great lengths people will go to look cool… even looking fashionably sleazy. Whatever we tried to purge in our yesteryear – topless dancing, jukeboxes, casinos – we try to promote today. Yesterday’s “anti-yellow culture” is today’s global city advertisement. The superficiality of our moral conservatism would normally be a boon to liberals here but the way the government attaches it to political imperatives must always be a matter of concern to citizens. Every moral or culturalist campaign embarked upon by the government has come with a political agenda attached. The “anti-yellow culture” campaign was to outflank the communists, 1979 Report was aimed at stemming the perceived tide of “Westernisation” sweeping across an emerging middle class, the Confucian ethics and Asian values discourse in the 1980s and 1990s was to consolidate and justify authoritarian rule.

But in Singapore, even politics is subservient to economics. And today economics demand that that we be seen as freer, more fun, more funky, more…well, fashionably sleazy. What we saw at NDP was not pole-dancing. It was not even a mimicry of sleaze or sex. It was simple straightforward reminder that Papa doesn’t always know best. And in Singapore, with parades as with politics, dissent is best express with irony. The NDP creative director, Ivan Heng, may or may not have planned the pole-dancing segment to be read in this manner but as a polity that only has at its disposal kitsch, civil petitions, and polite letters to the Straits Times forum page as avenues of political expression, the pole-dancing segment is as loud a protest as it is dared… for the moment.  

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5 Responses to “NDP pole-dancing S’pore style”

  1. zztop Says:

    “Whether it’s pole-dancing, Speakers Corner, or increasing the number of NMPs and NCMPs to up the level of “opposition” in Parliament, we’re all too obsessed with the form, and less with the substance.”

    Oh! What I would give for a catalog with images and essays of all the many “forms which aim to ape known forms without actually becoming said forms” in Singapore. Rather than being forms of hypocrisy, they are crimes against the sincerity of form. Perhaps we could starting with hell money and end at Speakers Corner? The ready acceptance of symbolic value is a slippery slope.

  2. sushibar Says:

    没话说,还是很尖锐的分析,把问题说得很透。

  3. Tecky Says:

    If it’s any consolation, the Malaysian National Day Parades are probably a lot more tedious … and I expect the coming one on Aug 31 to surpass the depths of the past in terms of posturing and self-glorification, ugh.

  4. blurblob Says:

    I didn’t know that in sports, they wear stiletto heels.

  5. D Says:

    Hey groundnotes, keep up the excellent pieces!! You are my fav local blogger.. but please go back to using non-bold fonts. Bold black is hard to read.


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