Man at His Best

Graven Images

After devoting your life to the orchestration of a country, how would you want to be remembered after you’ve passed on? What happens when your likeness falls into the hands of your people?

BY Wayne Cheong | Mar 23, 2016 | Culture

Photographs by Chng Dju-lian

The nation is on seat’s edge as news of Lee Kuan Yew’s condition, after being hospitalised for severe pneumonia, teeters back-and-forth. Then, through the wire: the founding Prime Minister of Singapore has passed on.

Soon after, as messages of condolence pour in, the ribbon comes into play. It is a black awareness ribbon with the profile of Lee in the loop. Created by MP Alex Yam and his team, the Chua Chu Kang GRC MP writes on his Facebook wall that the tribute came about as a “spur-of-the-moment decision”. What started out as a digital image is now seen as ubiquitous, having made its mark as decals on cars, stickers on chests, and even as nail art.

No one questions the provenance of Lee’s image in the #tributetoLKY ribbon, and why should it be an issue? The image is clearly an encomium to Lee and his contributions, and it isn’t used for profit.

In the twilight of his life, there had been an explosion of Lee-centric artworks and now, in the wake of his death—perhaps buoyed by the crest of nostalgia— even more art pieces in the form of tributes have been created by the masses.

No one talks about sentimentality in the free market system, but in the equation of supply and demand, the latter is fuelled by it, especially when it comes to the passing of a Lion.


“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
Exodus 20:4

“This is not The Greatest Song in the World, no/This is just a tribute.”
“Tribute” by Tenacious D



As the architect of the Cultural Revolution and leader of China’s Communist Party (CCP; 1943-1976), Mao Zedong was voted by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential icons of the 20th century. Today’s China owes a lot to Mao, but often his methods are seen as dubious.

His social programmes were flawed like the Great Leap Forward that aimed to collectivise farms, which coincided with a massive drought that left millions dead from starvation, and the Cultural Revolution that saw many intellectuals, the elderly and the middle class culled.

After Mao’s death in 1976, his successor, the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping, in a bid for reform, downplayed Mao’s policies and achievements with the removal of his statues from civic areas and purged the Gang of Four, a political faction that controlled the power organs of the CCP. The Cultural Revolution met its demise as the Beijing Spring was launched, allowing open criticism and political expression and organisation.

But the effort to erase Mao was futile. A new wave of Maoism permeated pop culture—Mao’s image was seen in New-York-based designer Vivienne Tam’s 1995 collection as Andy Warhol-esque prints; it appeared on mugs and Tshirts; and now, there are even Mao impersonators—and further aided by the second red generation of governance run by current China President and Party Chief, Xi Jinping, Mao’s scarlet shadow shows no signs of being eclipsed.

Kong Dongmei, Mao’s granddaughter, calls this the “Red Culture” phenomenon. In an interview with Maxim Duncan, Kong was quoted as saying, “It shows [Mao’s] influence, that he exists in people’s consciousness and has influenced several generations of Chinese people’s way of life.”

In 2013, on the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth, the CCP Central Committee held a symposium; a gala in Hunan featured performances of revolutionary songs and recitals from Mao’s classic works; Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan was awash in a sea of red as thousands rallied in the streets.

Historian and journalist Ross Terrill said the use of Mao’s image “is too good-humoured, too commercial, too bemused to remind anyone of the zealous days of the ’60s”.

Discussion: In the use of one’s image in merchandising, does it reduce the person, bringing him or her to the level of the public willing to trade coin for product, or does the cult of personality grow even more?


Like Archimedes, it was during bath time that Jeffrey Koh, the founder of FLABSLAB gallery, was struck with an idea.

In 2013, Koh conceptualised the PAPA series—a giant Pez dispenser with the head of Lee Kuan Yew and the word “PAPA” stencilled on one side of its pole—while in the shower. He was familiar with the Pop Artists series by Indonesian artist, Budi Adi Nugroho, and wanted to create one with Lee’s head.

“We used to eat Pez candy when we were young,” says Koh, “but we knew that too much of it was unhealthy. So, just like Pez, we have Lee Kuan Yew dispensing advice for most of his life, but one needs to take it in moderation. That was the idea. I didn’t want to sell it; I just wanted to do it.”

Near the end of 2012, the original sculpture was completed and sat in his office, lost among Koh’s collection of vinyl toys and other artwork. When his PAPA sculpture piqued the interest of some of his friends, who wanted a smaller, more affordable version, Koh manufactured 12 pieces—this time, each head flipped back to reveal a quote from Lee (“I never wanted to be in politics”; “We tell them they have got to work harder or they will become stupid.”)

A little over a year later, Koh released another series (limited to 50 pieces) called Whiter Than White. This time, Lee’s head didn’t flip back—an apt tweak, as “he’s not dispensing advice anymore” following his retirement from politics in 2011, Koh deadpans.

When Koh told people about his initial idea for PAPA, the feedback he got was along the lines of: “Good luck. Maybe I’ll visit you in jail.”

“I guess it was the innate fear that people had,” Koh offers. “Lee Kuan Yew is seen as this… untouchable figure. I’m not being disrespectful. People ask why don’t I do a smaller version of PAPA, like a conventional Pez-sized version of it; but that would make it look like a toy and that would be making fun of him.

“You’re turning him into a commodity.”



The magic of the image, a few points of note.

  • As the Judeo-Christian texts go, courtesy of the finger of God, the laws were written onto two stone tablets that Moses carted down from Mount Sinai. Among the 10 laws, the third states, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.” The subject of idolatry echoes in other parts of the Bible—Isaiah preached that those who worship inanimate idols will be like them: unable to hear the Word of God; the apostle Paul pinpoints the cause of sexual and social impropriety from the worship of created things.
  • Idolatry is one of the three sins (adultery and murder being the other two) the Mishnah (the first major work of Rabbinic literature) stated must be resisted to the point of death.
  • Certain schools of Islam (like the hadith says, “Whoever makes a picture will be punished by Allah till he puts life in it, and he will never be able to do that”) forbid visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and other key Islamic figures.
  • Sir James George Frazer’s theory of sympathetic magic talks about the imitation that affects the environment of people. A more popular practice is the inclusion of a personal artefact (i.e., a lock of hair, fingernail clippings, a drop of blood) in a Voodoo doll, which creates a link where one is able to control an individual via the fetish. Sympathetic magic contributed to the belief that photographing a subject steals a person’s soul.
  • Through a series of Machiavellian manoeuvres, Hatshepsut declared herself the fifth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt (unusual in those days as Egyptian culture restricted kingship to men). Her reign saw prosperity in the region and her ascension left Egypt in a much better place after 22 years of rule. After Hatshepsut’s death, her stepson Thutmose III usurp the throne. His resentment towards her for denying him power led to the erasing of her name and image. Her cartouches were chiselled off walls; statues were torn down and buried in a pit. She remained unknown until 1903 when archaeologist Howard Carter uncovered her tomb.

Discussion: Image is important, but controlling how your image is seen by other people is crucial. The keyword here is “branding”, but what does it mean for representation if the subject is known for spouting, “What the crowd thinks of me from time to time, I consider totally irrelevant…”



It’s the classic psychoanalytic concept when it comes to the parent figure, the love-hate relationship that is as old as human history.

“It’s a weird relationship with him that I share with many people,” artist Samantha Lo offers when asked about her opinion of Lee Kuan Yew. “That’s how the LIMPEH piece came about. Everyone speaks of him like he’s the father, and you know how you love your father but hate that he’s always making sure that you won’t get into trouble? LIMPEH was just a reflection of that attitude.”

Modelled after Shepard Fairey’s OBEY Giant, Lo’s LIMPEH take was “to obey your father”. She never expected the image to take off as it did. The colloquialism mixed with Fairey’s popular iconography resonated with the younger generation.

She’s not sure if it’s considered good or bad timing, but Lo plans to showcase her LIMPEH series at the Substation this August. Started in 2012, the project will be a collection of eight pieces, each one an exploration of how she feels about Lee at a specific juncture, as well as an examination of the local socio- political climate and the sentiments expressed by Singaporeans.

“One of the observations that came up is that if you were to mention his name in the open, and depending on whether it’s positive or negative, the reaction from the public will be the opposite,” Lo says. “To me, Lee is a giant. A giant that I’ve never seen.”

Lo doesn’t believe that putting Lee’s image on a T-shirt reduces the statesman to kitsch. “You know how Che Guevara is well-known in his country?” she adds. “It’s only when his image appeared on the T-shirt that everybody knew who the hell he was. The same with LKY. Ten years from now, when his face is everywhere, people will still be studying him.

“That’s how his voice grows. Through pop culture. That’s one way to immortality.”



March 5, 1960. Alberto Korda, Fidel Castro’s official photographer, is called to cover a funeral march in honour of those killed in the explosion of the freighter, La Coubre, at Havana Harbour. On 23rd Street, in the middle of Castro’s eulogy, the Minister of Industry, Ernesto “Che” Guevara comes into view. With his Leica M2, Korda snaps two frames of Guevara and, looking at the negatives later, realises that one of the photographs “had the attributes of a portrait”.

In it’s original form, the composition is lacking—Guevara is flanked by a palm tree and the profile of another man. Although it is rejected by his Editor at Revolución, Korda crops out the intruding objects so that all attention is drawn to Guevara’s stoicism, in a way that photographer and filmmaker, Allison Jackson, describes as making his gaze “look past the camera, out of his vision”. Korda never expects the Guerrillero Heroico photo to be the face that would launch a million T-shirts.

It’s widely agreed that Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick popularised the image that we now recognise today. Fitzpatrick’s variant has Guevara’s eyes raised a little higher and places the artist’s initial—a reverse “F”—on Guevara’s shoulder. Subsequently, the stylised image printed in red and black with the star on Guevara’s cap hand-painted in yellow has been appropriated by artists and designers all over.

The image wasn’t copyrighted because Cuba wasn’t part of the Berne Convention. In fact, under Cuban Law any image taken in the country falls into public domain within 25 years after its first use. The deep-seated irony of the commercialisation of the Marxist icon isn’t lost on those who knew Guevara, but Korda wasn’t against the image’s propagation.

He once said, “As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevara died, I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world, but I am categorically against the exploitation of Che’s image for the promotion of products such as alcohol, or for any purpose that denigrates the reputation of Che.”

In 2003, Korda’s descendants sued Reporters Without Borders for using Guevara’s image in a campaign decrying Cuba as “the world’s largest jail” after the imprisonment of 29 dissident journalists, citing the betrayal of moral rights, where it protects the integrity of the work from “defamation, distortion, slander or offensive mutilation, even if the originator no longer owns the copyright”.

In Copyrighting Che: Art and Authorship under Cuban Late Socialism, Ariana Hernández-Reguant is sceptical about whether Korda’s heirs will be able to establish ownership over the image. “Korda took the picture while working for a state-run newspaper. His actual property rights would be questionable under both Cuban and international law,” she writes.

Discussion: In the US, personality rights allow “every individual the exclusive property right in the use of his or her name, voice, signature, photograph or likeness. Such a right may be transferred or licensed and does not expire upon death. Unauthorised use of personality rights is an infringement and actionable”. Does the issue of personality rights exist in Singapore? If you’re deceased, do you control your image?


From Christopher Pereira's Facebook

Christopher “Treewizard” Pereira is seen as a visual oddity: ever attired in a white polo T-shirt with a stitched-on PAP logo, there’s a softness to him that disappears when you notice a miniaturised figure of a smiling Lee Kuan Yew strapped to his back (you’re forgiven for being reminded of Yoda perched on Luke Skywalker’s back). It is Pereira’s standard, an effigy among hundreds that he spent months making, from the mould designs to the airbrushing.

In an interview with Hannah Teoh, Pereira claims he’s the only one in the world who makes these figures and, while some take issue with the cherubic caricature of the de facto stoic statesman, Pereira says he’s shown them to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as well as Lee himself. As to whether father and son approved of the homage, Pereira replies, “If he wanted to stop me, he would have done so a long time ago.”

Pereira was already making Lee Kuan Yew figures in 2009, but it is only after Lee’s death that interest in his work has picked up. You can’t help but come to the conclusion that he benefits from Lee’s demise, but Pereira adamantly states that he’s not an opportunist. He stems from sincere loss. “I’m doing this for Love [sic],” Pereira writes on his Facebook wall. “If you think I am in [it] for the MONEY, you can have it all.”

Two such collectors of Pereira’s work are June and Alicia Chua, transgender sisters, who owe Lee a debt of gratitude.

“His policies greatly benefitted my community,” says June. She’s referring to the policy enacted in 1973, where Singapore legalised sex-reassignment surgery and allowed post-operative transsexuals to change the legal gender on their identity cards and other documents which stem from that (a person’s birth certificate, however, remains unaltered).

“At the time, Lee Kuan Yew was very big in the political scene, so every policy or bill had to go through him. Thanks to him, Singapore is one of the few Asian countries that lets us amend our gender marker on our IC (identity card).”

In the Sengkang flat that the Chua sisters share, artwork from mostly local artists adorns the walls and cabinets. Among the pieces is a modest collection of Lee-inspired figures (mostly by Pereira and a Whiter Than White PAPA by Jeffrey Koh); it reminds one of a shrine and to the sisters, it is well deserved.

“A lot of people choose to see us by our gender,” June adds, “but Lee Kuan Yew saw us as Singaporeans. That’s how you judge a country: by how the leaders treat its marginalised citizens.”


Dr Lee Suan Yew, Lee Kuan Yew’s younger brother, once spoke of his elder brother as someone who “prefers more concrete things rather than the arts”. The idea of being venerated (during his tenure as Prime Minister, Lee refused to have images bearing his likeness adorn public buildings), let alone immortalised in some form of artistic medium, meant little to him.

Prime Minister Lee said that his father made sure not to let “a personality cult grow around him”. This meant that no portraits, busts or institutions are named after Lee (except where it served the greater good). The public’s collective sentiment on preserving Lee’s Oxley Road home will go unheeded as his will (dated December 17, 2013) reiterated his firm wish for his house to be demolished after his death.

Lee’s stricture notwithstanding, he’s still a draw in the art scene. Non-Singaporean artists like Korean sculptor Park Seung Mo, who created a 3D image of Lee using stainless steel wires; China’s Ren Zhen Yu, who rendered Lee’s image in shocking hues; and Lebanese artist Laudi Abilama, who recently showcased her screen paintings of press photos of Lee, all hold the statesman in high esteem.

Notably, in 2010, Valentine Willie Fine Art commissioned 19 local artists to envision a world without Lee. Titled Singapore Survey: Beyond LKY, there were pieces that were reverential in nature but there were other works like Boo Sze Yang’s that were critical. Boo would later expand on his vision with an exhibition called The Father, where his portraits of Lee were shown through various facets of the founding father of modern Singapore.

In a Business Times interview, like Samantha Lo, Boo says he sees Lee as he does his own father: “a powerful and distant figure for whom I have mixed feelings—a lot of gratitude, but also doubt.”

The commonality of all these homages to Lee is that none of them shows him in a derogatory light. Heaven forfend if the work were to dabble in lèse-majesté but what happens when it crosses the line into the profane, the controversial? Will the Lee estate strive to take control of his image?

In an interview with Tom Plate, author of Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, Lee comments, “They think they know me, but they only know the public me.” And when pressed to say if there is anybody alive that most resembles him, he replies, “I do not know of any person who is most like me.”

We have only the testimonies and opinions of witnesses about what made up the man. An incomplete picture with empty spaces filled with suppositions, from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s eulogy to his father—“Mr Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore”, to those who seek a monument to his life’s work, Singaporeans can reply proudly: “Look around you”. Man was created in the image of God; conversely, Singapore was created in the ideals of Lee Kuan Yew. But at his passing, Lee has fallen into the hands of his people.

Against Lee’s entreaty, the people will honour their gods. A petition is asking for Changi Airport to be renamed to the Lee Kuan Yew International Airport; his image will grace a set of SG50 commemorative notes later in the year. Lee might fall victim to kitsch, his image becomes fodder on T-shirts and mugs.

And what happens if Lee’s image goes the way of criticism like Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective or Jon McNaughton’s One Nation Under Socialism? What if it goes the way of crass ridicule like Vladimir Putin as a butt plug after the Russian anti-gay bill was passed or Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s image on toilet paper?

Can Lee’s legacy withstand being lampooned and, for that matter, does Lee even care for such offense? Or like art or any other form of creative output, are all the answers left open-ended for further conversation? Discuss.

From: Esquire Singapore's May 2015 issue.